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Understanding The U.S. Visa System

Knowledge that can help scientists go a long way

by David T. Donahue, U.S. Department of State
January 3, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 1

Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Foreign scientists interested in attending meetings in the U.S. should consider applying for their visas at least three months prior to their anticipated travel.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Foreign scientists interested in attending meetings in the U.S. should consider applying for their visas at least three months prior to their anticipated travel.

Last June, I had the privilege of meeting with then-ACS president Joseph S. Francisco. We discussed his concerns regarding scientists from overseas who were unable to attend American Chemical Society meetings because of visa hurdles. As the deputy assistant secretary for visa services at the U.S. State Department, I was most interested to hear his stories and to make it clear that it is not the intent of the visa process to negatively impact scientific exchanges.

In our discussion, I assured Francisco that the State Department understands that American scientific conferences, our universities, and our private and governmental research facilities benefit from the ability to attract the best scientific minds from around the world. No one wants to miss a single new opportunity to advance the U.S. leadership role in science.

Francisco and I agreed that information making the visa application process more widely understood would be useful both for scientists wishing to visit the U.S. and for conference organizers who extend invitations.

A few months after that meeting, ACS brought to my attention the case of a high-profile scientist from abroad whose visa application processing precluded his attendance at the society’s national meeting. This absence resulted in disruption to the technical program. To help avoid such a situation in the future, Chemical & Engineering News offered me this opportunity to communicate directly with ACS members about the State Department’s visa services and how foreign scientists and business travelers can best use these services.

Who sets and controls visa policy? U.S. law governs our visa policy. Within the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, the Office of Visa Services in Washington, D.C., sets the standards for visa processing and provides guidance on legal questions. This office is committed to facilitating legitimate travel to the U.S. for business, tourism, study, and legal immigration.

We are proudly issuing record numbers of student and exchange visitor visas, surpassing even record numbers achieved before 9/11. We issue all the temporary worker visas (H-1B) that are allowed by law. At the same time, we are committed to the security of our borders and preventing travel to the U.S. by those who would seek to do us harm or violate our laws.

Who decides who gets a visa? U.S. consular officers at more than 220 embassies and consulates around the globe issue and refuse visas. Each consular officer has undergone a rigorous training program at our Foreign Service Institute, where they may also have studied one of 50 foreign languages before heading to their posts overseas. Upon arrival at their posts, the consular officers undergo country-specific training in economic trends, societal expectations, and cultural norms that influence visa applicants in the host country.

With this background, and a wealth of knowledge from earlier studies and careers, each new consular officer begins the challenging business of interviewing visa applicants. Some will conduct 100 or more interviews per day.

Why are visas granted or denied? During the course of the brief interview, the consular officer will inquire about the visa applicant’s reason for travel. The officer is required to assess the applicant’s true intentions and determine whether these intentions are consistent with the law. The applicant’s biometric and biographic information is checked against criminal and terrorist databases. Consular officers issue visas to qualified travelers, and, in fact, well over three-fourths of all visa interviews conclude with visa issuance. Nonetheless, officers must refuse visa applicants if they determine that the applicant will overstay or not use the visa appropriately.

When nonimmigrant visa applicants apply for a visa in a country other than their country of birth or nationality, the applicants may have a harder time securing a visa. The difficulty comes in proving that they have strong ties to a home outside the U.S.—an important requirement to show they will return after their visa expires. Factors involved in demonstrating ties to a third country include the length of time they have been in that country, their status in that country, and their previous travel record. That said, we issue many thousands of visas to scientists temporarily in a third country who plan to attend meetings or conferences in the U.S.

Some travelers for business and scientific purposes are denied visas pending further information or administrative processing. This allows the consular officer to verify more closely the applicant’s qualifications or eligibility. In some cases, the additional administrative processing is related to the enforcement of laws prohibiting the illegal transfer of sensitive technology and/or information. We worked diligently to shorten waits for most travelers being reviewed for possible technology transfer concerns and now process the vast majority of these cases in two to three weeks. We ask that travelers build in extra time between their application date and travel date in order to plan for the possibility that extra processing will be required.

Are visas the only way? The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows travelers from designated countries to enter the U.S. without a visa for up to 90 days for the purpose of temporary business or tourism. In the past two years alone, we have added nine new countries to VWP, bringing the total number of participating nations to 36. Last year, 16 million travelers entered the U.S. under VWP, representing just over half of the worldwide total number of travelers for business and pleasure.

How long does the process take? We realize that, for most travelers, “time is money,” and we are dedicated to providing good customer service. We have focused our attention on making the visa process faster and less burdensome to travelers.

We are streamlining the visa process, using technical and managerial innovations to speed up our visa adjudication process and to minimize the amount of time applicants must wait for an appointment. We have moved much of the paperwork and fee collection away from our overseas embassies and consulates—for example, centralizing our immigrant and nonimmigrant petition preprocessing in facilities in the U.S.—so that consular officers can focus on interviewing applicants.

In the past year, we have phased in mandatory use of online visa application forms, reducing duplicative data entry and permitting our officers to interview more applicants each day without sacrificing border security. Our long-term goal is to reduce or even eliminate all use of paper documents in visa applications.

In countries willing to reciprocate in granting longer visa validity for U.S. citizens, we generally issue long-term visas. Many applicants need apply for a visa only once every five to 10 years; for some applicants, reapplication is possible without coming to a consular section.

Some of our overseas posts have seen explosive growth in demand for visas. For example, in the past five years, U.S. nonimmigrant visa issuances have doubled in China and have more than tripled in Brazil. India, the Philippines, Russia, and Egypt have likewise seen dramatic growth in visa issuances over the same time period. At U.S. embassies and consulates in these countries, we have scrambled to put more officers and resources in place, working weekends and double shifts to address the burgeoning demand. We list appointment wait times on our website at, so that travelers can plan accordingly.

In Washington, D.C., 25 visa specialists research and respond to visa inquiries of all kinds. They can be reached by calling (202) 663-1225 or by e-mailing The Business Visa Center,, helps conference organizers in the U.S. notify our overseas embassies about upcoming functions, providing the consular officers with the names of participating foreign nationals.

How can foreign business travelers, scientists, and technical experts best prepare for a nonimmigrant visa interview? First, they can go to the website of the U.S. embassy or consulate in their country for instructions on how to set up an appointment. The nonrefundable visa interview fee for most nonimmigrant visa categories is $140, with a small additional fee for booking the appointment. Second, applicants should consider applying for their visas at least three months prior to the anticipated travel. This extra lead time will help accommodate appointment backlogs that develop at some posts, especially during the summer months, and any additional administrative processing that may be required.

On the day of their interviews, applicants should be prepared to speak knowledgeably about the purpose of their travel. Consular officers are much more likely to be persuaded by a credible verbal explanation from the would-be traveler than by any volume of documents provided by the U.S. sponsor.

After the interview, assuming that it has resulted in visa issuance, the applicant can expect to receive or pick up his or her passport containing the visa within several business days. If the visa application is denied, the consular officer will inform the applicant of the section(s) of law on which the denial was based. If the denial was made on the need for additional information or administrative processing, the officer will provide additional instructions to the applicant.

The U.S. visa facilitates a wide range of business activity, scientific research, and cultural exchange. Our visa program helps our economy and helps us to better understand and get along with our global neighbors. At the State Department, we are proud of the contribution we make every year by issuing thousands of visas to scientists and welcoming many more through the Visa Waiver Program; we continue to look for ways to improve so we can continue to strengthen America’s leadership in global scientific exchanges.


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