What is Consular Processing?
There are two paths for obtaining a green card (the immigrant visa granting lawful permanent residency status in the U.S.) One is adjustment of status, where applicants already located the U.S. (with a valid entry) can apply for a green card. The other is consular processing, where applicants outside the U.S. can apply for an immigrant visa through a U.S. Embassy or consulate in their country (or the nearest consulate or embassy that handles visa applications for their geographic region.) After entering the U.S. on an immigrant visa, the immigrant automatically obtains lawful permanent residence and is granted a green card. For applicants located outside the U.S., consular processing is the only path to immigrating to the U.S.
Who is Eligible for Consular Processing?
The first step in applying for immigration through consular processing is to check if you are eligible for a green card. Most applicants will either apply through a petition filed by their U.S.-based family member or employer. There are also other paths to obtaining a green card for refugees, asylum seekers, and other special provisions.
In the case of family-based immigration, a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident will have to file Form I-130, or Petition for Alien Relative, on behalf of the applicant who wishes to immigrate. For more information on this process, please read out article on Filing a Petition to Bring Family Members to the U.S.
U.S. citizens who want to bring their fiancé (and any eligible family members of the fiancé) to the U.S. for marriage will have to file Form I-129F, Petition for Alien Fiancé(e). Please note only fiancés of U.S. Citizens can be sponsored this way; lawful permanent residents cannot apply for Petition for Alien Fiancé(e).
What Happens After a Petition is Filed?
If the I-130 petition is approved, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will notify both the petitioner and applicant and forward the petition to the Department of State’s National Visa Center (NVC), which will process the applicant’s file and transfer it to the appropriate consulate. Bear in mind, there are wait times for family preference visa categories, since there is a limit to how many family preference visas are issued each year. For immediate relative categories, the wait times are considerably shorter. Please refer to our Filing a Petition to Bring Family Members to the U.S. article for more information on the wait times for family-based immigration categories.
After collecting all the necessary visa application fees, additional documentation, and supporting paperwork, the NVC will notify the petitioner and applicant when an immigrant visa number is about to become available, after which the local consular office will take over the process and schedule an interview.
The Consular Interview
The interview is the final step in the process of obtaining a green card through consular processing. The applicant will receive a written notification of their interview date with a U.S. consular official. These interviews are usually a means of verifying that the contents of the application are true. The applicant will be made to swear an oath to tell the truth during the interview, and their financial, medical and criminal histories will also be checked to ensure admissibility to the United States.
Assuming the interview goes well and the applicant is approved, he or she will be asked to return to the consulate to pick up their immigrant visa. The visa can only be used to enter the United States for a limited time, so applicants are advised to make their arrangements and leave for the U.S. while the visa is still valid.
Caution – Leaving the U.S. for Consular Processing If You’ve Stayed Unlawfully
Immigrants who have lived unlawfully in the U.S. for 180 days or more and then leave to apply for a immigrant visa via consular processing in their home countries should be aware that they will be subject to penalties. Even if the applicant qualifies for a green card, by law the consulate must bar them from reentering the U.S. for a period of three years (if they stayed unlawfully for 180 days to 1 year) or ten years (if their unlawful stay was more than a year). If you’re caught in such a predicament, please consult with an immigration attorney to see if you qualify for a waiver before leaving the country to apply via consular processing.