US Visa Application: Everything You Need to Know
A U.S. visa application is a process that allows you to enter the U.S. for a set amount of time, which any foreign person visiting the U.S. needs to complete.9 min read
Updated November 27, 2020:
What is a US Visa Application?
A U.S. visa application is a process that allows you to enter the United States for a set amount of time. Any foreign person who wishes to visit the United States needs to complete a U.S. visa application. If your application is confirmed, you can legally enter the country. Your stay in the U.S. depends on the length of your visa. There are many different types of visas. However, the application process is generally the same across all types. Learning about the type of visa you need is the most important part of the application process.
Benefits of a US Visa Application
The benefit of a U.S. visa application is that it allows you to legally enter the United States. This can be for a vacation, a temporary job, or relocation from another country. If you want to enter the U.S. for any reason, you need to complete a U.S. visa application.
Drawbacks of a US Visa Application
The drawback to a U.S. visa application is that they are often denied. Even if you do everything right, your application may not succeed. This means you have to wait before applying again. Denials can cause big problems for travelers and workers. Learning about the visa process is the best way to avoid a denial.
Types of Visas
There are several visa types. To find out which one you need, you must decide whether you are an immigrant or a non-immigrant. Immigrants are trying to enter the US permanently. Non-immigrants only need a temporary entry for work or a vacation. Both immigrants and non-immigrants apply the same way. Individuals who need visas include:
- Child visitors
- Family visitors
- Those intending to work in the U.S.
There are two visitor visas, B-1 and B-2. B-1 is for business travelers. B-2 visas are for people entering the U.S. for tourism, medical treatment, or pleasure. Other visitor types need a different visa. Visa types include:
- K-1 Fiancé Visa
- B-1 Business or Competing Athlete Visa
- B-2 Tourism or Medical Treatment Visa
- F-1/M-1 Student Visa
- H-1B Free Trade Agreement Professional Visa
- K-3 and V1/V2 Spouse or Child Entry Visa
- H-2B Temporary or Seasonal Worker Visa
- E-1/E-2 Treaty Trader or Investor Visa
- L-1 Intracompany Transfer Visa
- J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa
- R-1 Religious Worker Visa
- H-2A Temporary Agricultural Worker Visa
- O-1 Extraordinary Ability Work Visa
- H-3 Trainee or Special Education Visa
Visa Waiver Program
Some countries take part in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The VWP lets you stay in the US for 90 days without a visa. You must be approved to enter the United States by the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which gives you an electronic visa. Every person traveling to the U.S. under the VWP needs an electronic visa. If you are denied by the ESTA, you need a non-immigrant visa.
If you are traveling as a family, every person in your family needs a machine-readable passport.
Established in 1986, the purpose of the VWP is to make traveling easier between participating countries. It is also meant to bolster the tourist industry and allow the Department of State to focus resources in areas where it's needed. Even if you are eligible for the VWP, you can still apply for a visa. Some countries do not take part in this program. Some people who live in participating countries are not eligible for the program.
Before entering the U.S., VWP travelers are screened. They are also automatically enrolled in the US-VISIT program maintained by the Department of Homeland Security.
If you are a Greek citizen, you can travel to the U.S. without a visa as of April 5, 2010.
There are 36 countries that take part in the VWP. They include:
- Czech Republic
- Denmark, including Greenland and Faroe Islands
- The Netherlands
- Aruba and Netherlands Antilles
- San Marino
- United Kingdom (only full citizens)
- South Korea
- New Zealand
Visa Waiver Program Restrictions
Even if your country participates in the Visa Waiver Program, you might not be eligible to travel under this program. If you are not eligible, you need a non-immigrant visa. You should apply three months before your travel.
It is possible to ask for an expedited visa appointment if your travel plans are imminent. To do this, you must schedule a regular visa appointment. On the 'Applicant Summary Page', you need to select 'Request Expedite'. Be sure to include the date and purpose of your travel. You must provide a copy of any messages you have received from U.S. Customs and Border Protection about your ESTA status.
Read the full restrictions of the VWP to see if you are eligible.
Completing the DS-160 Form
Completing the proper visa application form is the first step in applying for a visa. The DS-160 Form must be completed for all non-immigrant visa applications. This form must be completed online using the following information:
- Identifying details, including your name and contact information
- A printed photograph of your face, measuring 2x2 inches
- Details about past trips to the US
- Security and background information
- Your destination
You can add family members traveling with you at the end of the application. You will get a confirmation code once your application is complete. Write down or print this code, as you will need it later in the process. A fee of $160 is required after your application is finished.
Your employer needs to complete form 156E if you are an E-1 Treaty Trader or an Executive/Manager/Essential Employee.
DS-160 Form Tips
Handwritten/typed applications are not accepted by your Embassy or Consulate. Form DS-160 must be completed online and you will need to bring your DS-160 confirmation page with you to your interview.
Here are some tips for completing your DS-160 Form:
- When you select an Embassy/Consulate at the beginning of your form, it must match the one where you scheduled your interview.
- You must answer all questions on the form in English and can only use English characters. The one exception is where you write your name in your native alphabet.
- Your application session expires if you stop working for twenty minutes. Unless you save your application to your computer or wrote down your Application ID Number, you have to start over. Your Application ID Number is at the top-right of the page. Write your ID Number down if you have to close your browser before you finish your application.
- When it is complete and submitted, a confirmation page with an alpha-numeric barcode is generated. Print this page. You need to take this page to your Visa Center and Embassy/Consulate appointment.
- After you print your confirmation page, hit the 'Back' button on your browser. Email yourself a backup DS-160 form, which is in PDF format. You need Adobe Acrobat to print or view your form.
- If you use a public computer, delete your file when you're done to protect your personal information.
- Always review the information you have provided for accuracy before submitting your form.
DS-160 Form Questions
Many people filling out the DS-160 form have questions about the process. Some of the most common DS-160 form questions include:
- How Long Does the Form Take? Generally, you need between 15 and 40 minutes to complete the DS-160 online form.
- Do I Have to Complete the Entire Form? Almost everything on the DS-160 form is mandatory. However, some fields may be marked optional. You can leave these blank. Other fields may give you a 'Does Not Apply' option. You can select this if a field does not apply to your circumstances. All other fields must be completed. You receive an error message if a mandatory field is blank. Missing information can lead to a denial.
- What if I Need a Break? As mentioned, the DS-160 expires if left inactive for 20 minutes. This protects your personal information. To avoid losing information, regularly save your form by clicking the 'Save' button. If you need to save a form to complete later, click the 'Save Application to File' button and then click 'Save' on the File Download window. Make sure to choose a place on your computer you will remember. Click 'Close' after your form downloads. The next time you log-on, click 'Import Application Date on the 'Getting Started' page to restore your information.
- What About my Photo? Your photo will only upload if it is 2" x 2". If you see an 'X' where your photo should be, it means your upload was not successful. In this case, you need to bring a printed photograph with you when you attend your Visa Application and Embassy/Consulate meeting. If you see your picture, the upload succeeded.
- Why Didn't My Edits from the Review Page Save? Edits on the review page will not save if you use your browser's 'Back' and 'Forward' buttons. You need to use the button's on the bottom of the application page instead.
- Do I Need to Save a Copy of My Application? Yes. This is extremely important. Save your application locally on your computer. If your application is rejected due to incompletion, having a copy allows you to fill in the missing information without having to complete the entire application again. Additionally, you can use your saved application for future visas.
- What Do I Bring to My Interview? You only need to bring your confirmation page, not the full application.
- Are Group Applications Possible? Yes. You can easily file a group application. This is particularly useful for families. When you reach the 'Thank You Page' you get the option to create a group application. Some information, like your destination, is carried over from your application. Personal details must be filled in for each person traveling. Automatically imported information can be changed as needed.
- Do I Need Additional Forms? Not usually. The only exception is when you are using an Embassy that has not converted to this system. In these circumstances, you may need to fill out either a DS-156, DS-157, DS-158, or DS-3032. The DS-160 replaced these forms. Fiancee (K-1/2) visa applicants still need to complete forms DS-156 and DS-156K.
- What if I'm Applying For a Treaty Trader/Treaty Investor, E Visa? This depends on several factors. E and Visa Principal Investor (E-2) applicants only need to complete the DS-160 form. Treaty Trader (E-1) and Executive/Manager/Essential Employee applicants need to complete the DS-160 form themselves and have the employer complete the DS-156E form. You get a 10-digit barcode after completing your application. Print this, as you need it to schedule your interviews.
The next step is to schedule appointments. Two appointments are required for a U.S. visa application. First, you need an appointment at a Visa Application Center (VAC). Second, you need an Embassy or Consulate appointment. To schedule these, you need:
- Confirmation code from your DS-160 online application
- A receipt for your visa fee
- Your passport number
Your VAC appointment should be one day before your Embassy appointment.
At your VAC appointment, you need the same items used during registration. You also need an appointment confirmation page. Your passport must be valid for at least six months after your trip. You can either bring a photo or have one taken at the appointment. VAC appointments are about verifying documents. This should not take long.
Your Embassy appointment takes place a day after the VAC appointment. Bring the same items from your VAC appointment. You also need all current and old passports. The appointment includes an interview. Your interviewer verifies the information in your application. Hopefully, this won't take more than a few minutes. If your application is accepted, you receive your visa.
Children under fourteen don't need to come to either appointment. Parents can submit their applications and documents.
There are certain circumstances where you may be exempt from a consulate interview. For example, child applicants applying before the 14th birthday or those applying on or after their 80th birthday may receive their visa without an interview. Also, if your visa has expired in the last year and you are returning to America for the same purpose, you may be able to get your visa without a consulate interview.
Visa applications are routinely denied. This is usually due to incorrect information on the application form. You receive a refusal level if your application is denied. A 214(b) letter means you are not eligible for a visa. You can re-apply, but you must complete the entire process again. A 221(g) tells you further steps needed for approval. No more fees are needed if you receive this letter.
US Visa Application FAQ
- Does the DS-160 Form Need to be Filed Online?
Yes. The system is now entirely electronic. Online application is quicker and more secure.
- How Long Will My Visa Last?
It depends on your visa type. Some visas last for 10 years. Visitor visas may only be valid for a few months. H-1B visas are limited to a total of six years.
- Will I Ever Need an Additional Form?
Possibly. Certain employees need the D-156-E form. Those seeking a fiancé visa need the I-129F form from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
- How Do I Know if My Country Participates in the Visa Waiver Program?
Check with your Embassy or Consulate. They can tell you if you are eligible for the VWP and help with your ESTA application.
- Can I Travel to Other Countries and Return to the US?
In some cases, yes. Travelers from Canada and Mexico can visit these countries and certain islands and gain re-entry into the U.S. Travelers from other countries should stay in the U.S. for the duration of their visas.
Get Help With Your US Visa Application
The US visa application process is tough, which is why you need advice from an UpCounsel attorney. The UpCounsel marketplace includes attorneys familiar with immigration law. They can explain the process in more detail and help you get the visa that you need. Find an attorney with UpCounsel today.