This legal guide will describe the process of applying for an immigrant visa through a US Consular Office. This process is used by foreign nationals to obtain the issuance of a visa (usually through sponsorship either by a family member or employer) to reside in the US as a permanent resident.
For purposes of this discussion, I will use the example of a foreign national who is married to a US citizen and is seeking an immigrant visa to join her spouse in the US. The process begins by submitting a visa petition with Citizenship and Immigration Services (“CIS"). In our example, this visa petition would be filed on a Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. Once CIS receives the application, a filing receipt will be issued and the case will be forwarded for processing. Normally, applications like our example take anywhere from 3-6 months to process.
Assuming that the visa petition is approved, notice will be sent to the petitioner and this notice will advise the petitioner that the approved immigrant visa petition has been forwarded to the National Visa Center (“NVC"). The NVC processes approved immigrant visa petitions sent to it by CIS and will then send a filing package to the US Consular Office. Once the National Visa Center is satisfied that it has what the consulate needs to receive the application package (visa applications, birth certificates, marriage certificates, passport copies, etc.), the filings are sent to the consulate.
What happens exactly form there depends on the consulate to which the paperwork is sent, but most of the consulates process cases with more or less the same procedures. Some type of notification is sent to the visa beneficiary that their application package has been received and that the consulate will be in communication to see that the rest of what needs to be done gets done. This usually means the scheduling of an appointment to have a medical exam taken and the scheduling of an appointment for the actual interview. Along with this, the consulate may request additional documents relating to the police clearances which may be required to establish that the visa beneficiary does not have any prior criminal history which would prevent her immigration to the US.
Eventually, an appointment is scheduled and held. There, the consular officer will interview the applicant and make sure that there are no loose ends to tie up. Sometimes this could be missing paperwork and sometimes this can mean an interview where the officer tries to figure out if the relationship which is the basis of the visa is bona fide. Remember that the job of the consular officer is to make sure (as much as possible) that the applicant for a visa is qualified for the classification which is sought and that there are no problems with either their qualification or some other issues in their past (i.e. criminal, medical, prior immigration violations, etc.) which may disqualify the beneficiary to receive a visa.
Once notification has been sent that the filing package has been forwarded to the US Consulate, the process should take no longer than six months. Of course, there is no absolute guarantee as to how long any particular case will take, but moving the process through the NVC and overseas is generally a good sign that the process is getting close to the end. Some consular offices are necessarily busier than others. Please understand that nothing moves as quickly as you would want it when it comes to the slow wheels of the government. While generally a case which is sent overseas by the NVC means that the case is within a few months of completion, I would never make a promise to any client that there will be definite answer in any specific period of time. But at this point the case is nearing its end.
Assuming that all goes as planned, a visa is issued and the foreign national is provided with the necessary paperwork to make final arrangements to come to the US. Functionally, this means that a visa is placed in her passport which she can use to board a plane to come to the US and which will permit her to be admitted as a permanent resident. This visa (once endorsed by a Customs and Border Protection ) is then temporary evidence of her status as a resident until her actual alien registration card (“green card") is sent in the mail. Upon lawful inspection to the US, the foreign national is now considered to have been admitted to the US as a resident.