The Immigrant Visa Process: An Overview
If you would like to live permanently in the U.S. you, you must obtain an immigrant visa (IV) - permission to seek entry into the U.S. as a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR). The U.S. Embassy in Freetown now processes IV applications.
There are four key stages that almost all prospective immigrants must go through to obtain an immigrant visa. While the length of time and procedures may change depending on the visa category, all prospective applicants pass through some version of each of the following stages to obtain an immigrant visa.
- Petition approval
- Preparation for the IV Interview
- The IV Interview
- Returning the Passport and IV Packet
These stages are described in general terms below.
Stage 1: Petitions
In most cases, the immigration process starts with someone filing a petition on your behalf with the Department of Homeland Security U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The purpose of the petition is to establish that you fit into one of the classes of individuals permitted to legally immigrate to the U.S.
Diversity Visa (DV) applicants do not have to file a petition. Instead, your entry into the Diversity Visa Lottery will serve as your petition.
The person or business that files the petition is called the petitioner, and the person on whose behalf it is filed is called the principal beneficiary. Spouses or children who might be permitted to travel based on the beneficiary's petition are called derivatives.
Petitions must be filed with the USCIS Service Center having jurisdiction over the petitioner's place of residence. To obtain more information about how to file a petition and the required documentation, please visit USCIS.
Effective August 15, 2011, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services(USCIS) regulations significantly change the procedures for petitioners overseas to file Forms I-130. Changes to Filing I-130 Petitions Overseas
Stage 2: Preparation for the Immigrant Visa Interview
Once USCIS approves your petition, you will be notified that the petition is being sent to the State Department's National Visa Center (NVC) or Kentucky Consular Center (KCC). NVC and KCC will assign the beneficiary a case number starting with FTN, followed by the year (FTN2009123456). KCC will assign case numbers for Diversity Visa applicants that begin with the year with AF in the middle (2009AF12345). For Diversity Visa case numbers, you may omit the 0s after AF (2009AF12345 instead of 2009AF000012345). There are no spaces in case numbers.
If your petition is current, meaning that the State Department can process your visa application, NVC or KCC will send you instructions on how to prepare for your interview. If NVC or KCC has notified you that your case file has been sent to the U.S. Embassy in Freetown and you have not yet received instructions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and include your case number in the subject line of your email. Once we receive your case file, we will email you instructions on how to prepare for and schedule your immigrant visa interview.
Not all beneficiaries move immediately from petition filing and approval stage to the preparation stage. Some classifications of immigrants are subject to annual numerical limits. If your classification is numerically limited, you will be giving a priority date based on when your petition was filed and may have to wait anywhere from two to twelve years before the State Department can process immigrant visas with your priority date. The State Department issues a Visa Bulletin every month listing the priority dates being processed. See the current Visa Bulletin.
Stage 3: The Immigrant Visa Interview
In some cases, NVC and KCC will schedule your interview in Dakar once your case file is complete and, for numerically limited classifications, as soon as your priority date is reached. In other cases, the U.S. Embassy in Freetown will send you instructions on how to schedule your interview by e-mailing us. If you missed your interview or would like to reschedule your interview to a later date, click here.
The purpose of your interview with a consular officer is to evaluate your and any of your derivatives' eligibility for the IV. At this time, the consular officer will confirm you have presented all required documents and that you have a legal basis for immigration. A legal basis can be the required family relationship with the petitioner, the required professional skills, or the educational or work requirements for a diversity visa. You may bring an attorney or family member to your interview, but the consular officer may request that the individual remain seated.
The consular officer must also review your file for any legal ineligibility you may have that would prevent you from receiving a visa. This could include, but is not limited to, misrepresenting a material fact either in your current or a previous visa application, criminal convictions, overstaying a previously issued visa, or a medical ineligibility.
At the end of the interview, the consular officer will tell you whether you have established your eligibility for the IV. If you have not brought a required document such as a police clearance or your medical examination, you will be given a 221g letter with instructions on how to bring your required documents. If you have not established your eligibility for an IV, your case will undergo further administrative processing.
Stage 4: Return of Passport and Documents
If you establish your eligibility at the time of your interview, the consular officer will retain your passport and documents. If you would like your original documents returned, you must provide a clear copy of your documents at the time of the interview. The passport then has the visa placed inside it and the documents are placed in a sealed packet. The consular section will call you to let you know when the packet is ready for pick-up.
When you receive the sealed document packet it must not be opened by anybody. It must remain sealed. If the document packet is opened, you must schedule an appointment to have the packet resealed. You can use the visa and accompanying document packet to travel to a U.S. port of entry and seek admission as a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR).
On February 1, 2013, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) implemented a fee to recover the cost of services provided to persons issued immigrant visas overseas.
Except as specifically identified, all immigrant visa recipients – including IR-2 cases – must pay the $165 USCIS Immigrant fee before traveling to the United States. Only children who enter the United States under the Orphan or Hague adoption programs, Iraqi and Afghan special immigrants, returning residents (SB-1s), and those issued K visas are exempt from this fee. The fee is paid online after visa issuance, but before the visa recipient travels to the United States. Instructions on how to pay the fee can be found on the USCIS website at www.USCIS.gov/immigrantfee. Please click here for more information.