Deciphering the Visa Code
AP/WWP Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez
This article provides a guide to the basics of the visa
process, as well as a glossary of specialized terms, and
sidebars which provide information about biometrics, recent
rules affecting travelers, and some statistics about travel to
the United States.
Like any host country, the United States needs basic information
about its guests: who they are, when they are arriving and when they
will depart. This information is obtained by issuing visas. Most
citizens of foreign countries need visas to enter the United States,
but the vast majority of the people who wish to visit the United
States are able to do so.
- In 2004, nearly three-fourths of all applicants for a U.S.
visa were successful. An even greater majority of those seeking
student visas—about 80 percent—received approval.
- In addition, the United States had a 12-percent increase in
the number of business and tourism travelers and a four-percent
increase in the number of students who came as nonimmigrant
visitors last year.
A visa is a permit allowing you to apply for entry into a
country's borders. Under U.S. law, the Department of State has
responsibility for issuing visas. One of its consular officers,
after looking at your documents and conducting a short interview,
decides whether you qualify for a visa—a process called
"adjudication." Consular officers have the final say on all visa
Just as an application does not guarantee you will get a visa, a
visa does not guarantee entry to the United States. It simply
indicates that a consular officer has reviewed your application and
determined that you are eligible to travel from your country to a
U.S. port-of-entry for a specific purpose.
At the port-of-entry, an immigration officer decides whether to
grant you admission to the United States. Only a U.S. Department of
Homeland Security immigration officer has the authority to permit
you to enter. It is highly unusual, however, for a traveler holding
a valid visa to be denied entry.
To obtain a visa and enter the United States, you must begin by
completing an application form, DS-156 [http://evisaforms.state.gov].
Contact the U.S. Embassy in your country [http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/embassies/embassies_1214.html]
to make an appointment. Take your application, passport, a
photograph, and supporting documents to the embassy or consulate,
where you will be interviewed about the purpose of your visit. You
must also pay an application fee, currently $100. The visa allows
you to travel to a U.S. port-of-entry where an official will again
look at your travel documents before granting you permission to
enter the country.
There has been little change in that straightforward process
since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, although there have
been changes in various procedures in order to address increased
- All males between the ages of 16 and 45 are required to
complete an additional form, DS-157, to provide a detailed
history of their previous travel and their affiliation with
various institutions. Consular officers can request that this
form be filled out by other applicants as well.
- All student and exchange visitors, regardless of
nationality, must complete a supplemental application form and
be enrolled in
SEVIS by their sponsoring institution.
- Almost all persons requiring visas must have a face-to-face
interview with a consular officer. Previously, consular officers
could waive the requirement for an applicant's personal
appearance, and some travel agents could submit applications for
their clients. Because this is no longer the case, over the past
three years the State Department has greatly increased the
number of its consular officers and worked to improve
appointment scheduling systems.
- Technological systems have been put in place to
electronically share visa files and law enforcement and
watch-list information, as well as to track student enrollments.
Since 2004, the technology, the consolidation of databases, and
the correction of problems within these systems have been
dramatically improved and backlogs reduced.
- Since 2004, embassies have been instructed to expedite the
processing of visas for students and business travelers. As a
result, consular posts have set up special appointment times and
now give priority to scheduling and processing these visas.
- The United States and many other countries are moving toward
tamper-resistant machine-readable visas, passports, and other
entry-exit documents that contain digital photographs and
biometric indicators, such as fingerprints. For instance, finger
scans are taken during the visa application process and again on
arrival in the United States.
- Information on the identity of all passengers is provided to
U.S. immigration officials by all commercial ships and airplanes
en route to the United States.
- Passengers who would normally require a visa to enter the
United States must now have one even if they are just in
transit, traveling on a carrier that stops in the United States
on its way to another destination.
The requirements and costs for a U.S. visa are similar to those
of other democracies; and the need for a visa, additional fees
charged, and any restrictions imposed are based on reciprocity with
other nations—that is, they match the requirements that other
countries place on U.S. citizens wishing to travel there.
Plan Ahead: Waiting Times
Although the average amount of time it takes to get a visa has
been noticeably reduced recently, it is still very important to plan
ahead and start the visa application process as soon as you begin
your travel planning. It takes time to fill out the forms, assemble
the documents you will need to show the consular officer, and get an
Because your and every applicant's circumstances are unique, the
process—and the time involved—varies. Individuals wishing to study
or work in the United States, for example, need to fill out
additional forms and provide more documentation than tourists.
Similarly, the average waiting time to get an interview
appointment varies by country. U.S. embassies post their estimated
wait times at
If you are a student or business traveler, check for expedited
The State Department is committed to making the visa application
process easier to understand, and a list of important resources can
be found at the end of this journal.
It is extremely important that you be well prepared for your visa
Not only must you bring a completed application form, the paid
application fee receipt, your valid passport, and a
photograph that meets certain criteria, you must provide
documentation showing that you intend to return to your home country
at the end of your stay.
If you are applying for a student visa, you must also have a
receipt showing that your SEVIS I-901 fee [http://www.ice.gov/graphics/sevis/i901/faq2.htm]
has been paid.
The consular officer will conduct a short interview, during which
you will be asked to explain your reason for wanting to visit the
United States, and review your documents. In addition, your two
index fingers will be recorded by a special, inkless digital scanner
as part of the
US-VISIT program's security precautions, and your identity will
be checked against databases containing the names and records of
people who are ineligible for visas or whose applications require
You will be told whether your application has been approved or
denied at the end of the interview. Most approved visas are
delivered within one week. If there are security concerns, however,
it may take a few weeks to resolve the issue through additional
Should you be denied a visa, you can always re-apply with
additional documentation, but each time you do so, you will have to
pay the non-refundable $100 visa application fee.
The consular officer is required to look at each applicant's
individual circumstances and apply U.S. immigration laws
The most common reason for being denied a visa is the inability
to show that your ties to your home country are so strong that it is
highly unlikely you would try to illegally stay in the United
States. This refusal is commonly known as 214(b). "Ties" are the
various aspects of your life that bind you to your country of
residence. This requirement to prove that you have a residence
abroad and which you have no intention of abandoning is part of U.S.
law, the Immigration and Nationality Act [http://www.ufafis.org/visa/visadenials.asp].
You can demonstrate your intent to return home by showing things
that would compel you to leave the United States at the end of a
temporary stay: a job or enrollment in an academic program in your
home country; family members still living there; substantial
property holdings such as a house or money in a local bank account,
etc. There is no distinct group of documents that you must present
to the consular officer or set of circumstances that will guarantee
visa issuances, but the facts of your case must be convincing. The
law places the burden of proof for meeting this residence abroad
requirement on you.
If you are refused a visa for failure to prove you will return
home, and your circumstances later change, or you have gathered
further evidence of your ties, you may reapply, but you will be
charged another application fee.
Consular officers are aware of the cultural and social
differences that can define ties in different countries and
understand that younger applicants may not have had an opportunity
to form many significant financial attachments. They consider all
these circumstances when adjudicating visas.
Other reasons for visa denials include having a contagious
disease, a criminal history, or association with terrorist
Following are some terms you may find helpful in deciphering the
visa code. Links to more comprehensive explanations are provided at
the end of each definition.
Glossary of Visa-Related Terms
AP/WWP Photo by Sergey Ponomarev
Biometrics: Biometrics are the means of identifying a
person by biological features that are unique to each individual,
such as fingerprints or eye scans of the complex patterns in one's
Biometric identifiers protect you by making it extremely
difficult for anyone else to assume your identity, even if your
travel documents are stolen or duplicated. They guarantee that the
person carrying a passport or visa is the person to whom it was
AP/WWP Photo by Bobbie Hernandez
Border Crossing Card (BCC): The Mexican-U.S.
border-crossing card, allowing card-holders to move easily through
border immigration controls, is available to qualified travelers to
use as a B1/B2 (business/tourist) visa. It contains many security
features, is valid for 10 years, and is often called a "laser visa."
Even before the 2001 terrorist attacks occurred, U.S. law
stipulated that all BCCs must contain a biometric identifier, such
as fingerprint, and be machine-readable. The BCC program then became
the model for subsequent U.S. secure entry/exit procedures.
AP/WWP Photo by Jan Bauer
E-Passport: An e-passport is a high-tech,
machine-readable passport containing an integrated circuit (chip)
that can store biographic and
biometric information about you, as specified by the United
Nations International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The U.S.
electronic passport will contain only a digital image of the facial
portrait of the bearer on the chip. That image, when compared to the
actual bearer using facial recognition technology, will provide a
formidable deterrent to passport fraud.
The chip, embedded in the back cover, will also contain
biographical data that can be compared with the information found on
the biographic data page of the machine-readable passport as a
precaution against any attempt to alter it. A digital signature will
protect the data stored on the chip from alteration.
The intelligent chip uses technology designed to be read from a
distance of four inches (10 cm) or closer. To mitigate concerns
relating to the possibility of secret skimming of data from the
chip, the United States will include an anti-skimming feature in the
passport that will reduce the threat of skimming when the passport
is closed. The United States is also seriously considering the use
of Basic Access Control (BAC) to reduce the possibility of skimming
or eavesdropping when the passport is read at ports-of-entry. BAC is
similar to a PIN system in that it will require that characters from
the machine-readable zone on the data page of the passport be read
first in order to be able to access data from the chip.
The United States intends to issue e-passports at all its
domestic passport agencies by October 26, 2006 and will require all
countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) to also
begin issuing e-passports by that date.
If you already have a VWP machine-readable passport issued before
October 26, 2006, you need not replace it with an e-passport until
its regular expiration date.
Free and Secure Trade (FAST): To expedite secure
commercial traffic across borders, the United States, Mexico, and
Canada participate in the electronic FAST program, coordinating
common risk-management principles, supply-chain security, industry
partnerships, and advanced technology to screen and clear business
This voluntary government-business program allows known, low-risk
participants to receive faster land border processing of their
shipments through dedicated travel lanes and reduced examinations,
even during periods of high risk alerts. To qualify, trucks must be
from an approved carrier, the goods must be from an approved
importer, and the driver must hold a valid FAST commercial driver
In Mexico, there are two additional requirements: the goods must
be made by an approved manufacturer and must adhere to high-security
seal requirements as they move through warehouses, brokers and other
Machine Readable Passports (MRPs): A machine-readable
passport (MRP) is required to enter the United States without a visa
if you are a citizen of one of the countries participating in the
Visa Waiver Program (VWP). These passports carry biographical data
in two lines of encoded type that allow customs and border patrol
officers to quickly identify you by using an electronic reader. The
data is the same information printed inside a regular passport: your
name, gender, date and place of birth, passport number, and dates of
issue and expiration. In addition, MRPs follow the standards
established by the United Nations International Civil Aviation
Organization for passport size, photo requirements, and data field
organization. MRPs allow legitimate visitors to be processed
swiftly, while alerting immigration officers to those individuals
who may pose a potential threat by rapidly comparing the encoded
information to law enforcement databases.
If you are a VWP traveler who arrives in the United States
without a machine-readable passport or a visa, do not expect to be
granted entry. In fact, you will probably not be allowed to board a
carrier to get to the United States without an MRP.
Check with your nation's passport agency if you are not sure if
your passport is machine-readable.
NEXUS: Frequent travelers between Canada and the United
States should consider applying for the existing NEXUS program
designed to simplify land, air, and sea border crossings for
pre-approved, low-risk travelers between the two nations.
Applicants are interviewed, provide a biometric scan, and undergo
a background check. Both countries must agree to a person's
inclusion in the program. Once approved, NEXUS travelers are issued
a photo-identification card that allows them to move quickly through
border inspections via dedicated travel lanes.
This voluntary program has been in place since 2002. A single
application is sufficient to meet both the U.S. and Canadian
requirements for enrollment. Group travelers should be aware,
however, that everyone traveling together must be a member of the
program in order to use a NEXUS line.
Non-immigrant Visa (NIV): When you wish to travel to the
United States for a temporary period—as a tourist, for business, or
to take part in an academic program—you are classified as a
National Security Entry/Exit Registration System (NSEERS):
NSEERS is a special registry for non-immigrant visitors who, based
on intelligence criteria, are identified as posing an elevated
security concern for a variety of reasons.
The program requires these visitors to check in periodically to
verify their location, and to show that they are complying with the
terms under which they were granted admission to the United States,
such as attending classes if on a student visa, not engaging in
illegal activities, and/or not staying beyond their visa expiration
Following the September 2001 terrorist attacks, NSEERS was put in
place as a first step toward developing a full entry and exit record
of non-immigrant visitors. With the SEVIS and US-VISIT databases now
in operation, there is no longer a re-registration requirement for
whole groups of visitors -- such as those from certain countries.
The Department of Homeland Security can, however, still require
individuals to appear for additional registration interviews during
Reciprocity: Certain aspects of visas—such as visa
issuance fees or the length of time a visa remains valid—are based
on reciprocity: that is, the United States matches the fees and
restrictions that another country places on U.S. citizens for its
Countries often work together to eliminate citizen exchange
barriers. For example, in 2005, China and the United States reached
agreements allowing qualified students, business travelers, and
tourists to obtain 12-month visas that allow multiple entries.
Previously, the standard had been six-month visas with a two-entry
AP/WWP Photo by David Maun
Secure Electronic Network for Travelers' Rapid Inspection
(SENTRI): The international land border between Mexico and
the United States is the busiest in the world. In 1995, as a way to
ease the traffic wait time for frequent travelers, dedicated
commuter lanes were created under the SENTRI program.
The number of SENTRI participants has grown dramatically in the
wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks and, in response, the U.S.
government recently took steps to process enrollments faster by
adding personnel, employing new technologies, and extending the
enrollment period from one to two years. Persons applying must
provide electronic fingerprints for pre-screening, and pay a fee for
themselves, their family members, and their vehicles. The vehicle
and everyone in it must be enrolled in the program to use a SENTRI
Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS):
All incoming international students must be registered by their
host institutions in SEVIS, a database maintaining information on
students and exchange visitors in the United States, before they can
obtain a visa. The Web-based system, which replaced a paper-based
system in 2002, enables U.S. academic institutions to maintain
accurate and timely data on foreign students, exchange visitors and
their dependents, and to communicate this information in real time
to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of
State. SEVIS is administered by U.S. Immigration and Customs
Enforcement (ICE), part of DHS.
AP/WWP Photo by Gregory Smith
United States Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator
Technology (US-VISIT): This automated entry/exit system
collects biometric data on visitors to reduce the opportunity for
fraud and prevent criminals from entering the country.
All non-immigrant visitors between the ages of 14 and 79 holding
visas—regardless of race, national origin, or religion—participate
in the US-VISIT program, as do visitors traveling under the Visa
For most travelers, the process begins during the visa interview
at a U.S. consulate, where applicants must provide a photo that
meets certain guidelines and have an electronic scan taken of their
two index fingers. When they arrive at a U.S. port-of-entry, another
digital photograph and another two-finger scan will be taken for a
In addition, the identity information is run through shared law
enforcement databases to check for criminal records, aliases, or
terrorist-related watch-list warnings. Information on stolen or lost
passports is also being incorporated into these databases.
Nearly 30 million travelers have taken part in US-VISIT since it
began operation at 115 airports, 13 seaports, and the 50 busiest
land ports in 2004. The Department of Homeland Security, which
operates the program, plans to have the entry procedures in place at
all remaining land ports by the end of 2005, and is currently
testing similar exit procedures at 12 airports and two seaports.
US-VISIT not only enhances security for everyone, it allows
immigration officials quickly to identify and welcome legitimate
travelers to the United States.
Most Mexicans and Canadians participate in other entry-exit
programs and are exempt from US-VISIT enrollment.
(Multilingual Videos and Brochures)]
[US-VISIT Step-by-Step Entry Guide (PDF, 1 page, 609 KB)]
[US-VISIT Step-by-Step Exit Guide (PDF, 1 page, 768 KB)]
Visa Waiver Program (VWP): The Visa Waiver Program was
instituted in 1986 to promote tourism and facilitate travel among
U.S. allies by allowing business travelers and tourists visiting the
United States for less than 90 days to enter without visas. Not all
U.S. allies take part in the program and, depending on the purpose
of their travel and legal bars to their admission to the United
States, not all citizens from VWP countries are qualified to
participate in this program.
The 27 countries participating in the VWP are Andorra, Australia,
Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany,
Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco,
the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino,
Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United
Some travelers from Mexico, Canada, and Bermuda enter the United
States visa-free, but on a different legal basis than VWP travelers.
Passport requirements for VWP travelers do not apply to travelers
from Mexico, Canada, and Bermuda.
To be included in the VWP, a country must meet legislative
requirements that include, among other things, provision of
reciprocal visa-free travel for U.S. citizens, production of
machine-readable passports, prompt reporting of the theft of
passports, a refusal rate of less than three-percent for U.S. visas,
and a low overstay and immigration violation rate by visitors from
that country. In addition, countries must have a biometric passport
program and be able to demonstrate strong document and border
security, immigration controls, and law enforcement cooperation, so
that their participation in the program would not be a threat to
U.S. security or law enforcement interests.
VWP travelers must have machine readable passports and, depending
on when their passport is issued, may also be required to have
biometric passports with digitized photos or e-passports. VWP
travelers are screened prior to admission to the United States, and
take part in the US-VISIT program.
Western Hemisphere Traveler Initiative: By far, the
largest number of nonimmigrant travelers to the United States come
from our neighbors to the north and south, Canada and Mexico. In the
past, our relationships with these countries, and with Bermuda,
allowed for special passport-free, visa-free, or other border
In the new security environment, however, valid passports or
other specified, secure documents will eventually be needed for all
these citizens, including our own, to enter or re-enter the United
States from any country in the Western Hemisphere. Travel between
the United States and its territories is not affected by the new
Since the volume of travel between these nations is so high, new
requirements will be phased in according to the following proposed
- December 31, 2006—A passport or another accepted document
will be required for all air and sea travel to or from Mexico,
Canada, and Bermuda, as well as Central and South America and
- December 31, 2007—A passport or another accepted document
will be required for all air, sea, and land border crossings
into the United States from countries in the Western Hemisphere.
What are other acceptable documents? The United States currently
offers secure travel cards under the SENTRI, NEXUS, FAST, and BCC
programs (see above), and is using new technologies to create other
Persons traveling between countries in the Western Hemisphere
should understand that Social Security cards and drivers licenses
are no longer acceptable substitute documents for entry into the
Another issue to note: single parents, grandparents, or guardians
traveling with children may be asked for either proof of custody or
a notarized letter from the absent parent authorizing the
transportation of children across Western Hemisphere borders. This
requirement evolved from international concern about child
abduction. In addition, if you are under the age of 18 and traveling
alone, you should carry a letter from a parent or guardian
authorizing your trip across borders. Without such documentation,
travelers could experience delays at their U.S. port-of-entry.
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