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How to Get a U.S. Visa

Most travelers to the U.S. first must get a visa, which is an authorization for travel to a port-of-entry in the U.S. (usually an airport). Despite the addition of extra security measures since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the visa application process has remained relatively unchanged. Foreign nationals who want to get a U.S. visa must send in forms, conduct interviews and submit to a process of cross-checking data in an inter-agency database. Most visas take a few weeks to process but can take longer, depending on a number of factors (volume, complexity of the application, etc.).

The following basic steps should guide you through the process of how to get a U.S. visa. See the U.S. Dept. of State's section on visas for more information.

1. Make an appointment with your local U.S. Embassy or Consulate

This should be done as soon as you know you will be traveling to the U.S. Check with your local Embassy or Consulate first, but you should be able to make an appointment by telephone, over the Internet, by mail or in person. Be prepared for long wait times even if you have an appointment. Check the U.S. Dept. of State's global directory of U.S. Embassies, Consulates and Diplomatic Missions for a location near you.

2. Ask about any required fees and payment options

Visa application fees generally must be paid before the initial appointment. Also keep in mind that they are non-refundable. See Fees for Visa Services for a current fee schedule.

3. Prepare your documentation

You will need the following materials:

  • Valid passport
  • Appropriate applications (see specific visa type)
  • Documents detailing employment, financial status and reason for travel
  • Proof that you have paid fees (see #2, above)
  • Any additional information or forms as indicated by the consular officer

4. Submit your application

In addition to the visa application itself, you will need to submit your passport and supporting documents. These materials will be reviewed by the consular officer and sometimes by officials in Washington, D.C.

5. Additional reviews may be required

For security purposes, your information will be checked against an international security database. Even if just a close variation of your name raises red flags of a security concern, the visa application process will be delayed by at least four to six weeks. Additional reviews may include more interviews, requests for more information and even fingerprinting.

6. Additional steps upon arrival at port-of-entry

The port-of-entry typically will be the airport in the U.S. where you land. Before landing, or before departing the plane, you will complete an arrival/departure form. Once you deplane, follow the directions for non-citizen entry, which includes a brief interview and verification of paperwork by a U.S. official. Luggage is subject to inspection by U.S. Customs officials.

7. Extending Your Stay

Visitors to the United States may extend the life of their visa under certain circumstances, as long as they file Form I-539 ("Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status") in a timely manner. Customs officials recommend applying for an extension within 45 days of the nonimmigrant visa expiration date. See "Extend Your Stay" for a list of qualifications for visa extensions.

Next Steps
Contact a qualified immigration attorney to help
you with visa procedures.
(e.g., Chicago, IL or 60611)