A Complete Guide of Consular Processing

Updated on 09/25/2022

One of the main immigration benefits in the U.S. is a green card.  A green card enables an immigrant to permanently live and work in the U.S.

A major path to the final destination of obtaining a green card is consular processing.  For immigrants who are eligible for consular processing, qualification under consular processing can be a critical step to obtain a green card.

This article discusses the subject of consular processing. 

Consular Processing (Immigrant Visa Processing)

Meaning of Consular Processing

Consular processing is the term given to the pathway of applying at a U.S. Department of State consulate abroad to obtain a green card.

The process of obtaining a green card generally begins with filing and then having approved an immigrant petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”).

After USCIS approves an immigrant petition, there are two different pathways for the green card applicant to follow.

If the green card applicant is then already in the U.S., the green card applicant will follow the pathway that is known as adjustment of status.

If the green card applicant is then outside of the U.S., the green card applicant will follow the consular processing pathway.

Immigrant Petition Before Consular Processing

The green card applicant can file different types of immigrant petitions based on the factual circumstances that are specifically applicable to the green card applicant.

I-130

USCIS Form I-130, “Petition for Alien Relative”, is the immigrant petition that is filed with USCIS based on certain qualifying family relationships.

These qualifying family relationships (when a family member files Form I-130 for another family member) include:

  • A U.S. citizen and the spouse of the U.S. citizen;
  • A U.S. citizen and an unmarried child (under 21 years of age) of the U.S. citizen;
  • A U.S. citizen(if the U.S. citizen is 21 years of age or older) and a parent of the U.S. citizen;
  • A U.S. citizen and an unmarried son or daughter (21 years of age or older) of the U.S. citizen;
  • A U.S. citizen and a married son or daughter of the U.S. citizen;
  • A U.S. citizen (if the U.S. citizen is 21 years of age or older) and a brother or sister of the U.S. citizen;
  • A U.S. green card holder and the spouse of the U.S. green card holder;
  • A U.S. green card holder and an unmarried child (under 21 years of age) of the U.S. green card holder; and
  • A U.S. green card holder and an unmarried son or daughter (21 years of age or older) of the U.S. green card holder.

The first three of these listed qualifying family relationships –(i) a U.S. citizen and the spouse of the U.S. citizen, (ii) a U.S. citizen and an unmarried child (under 21 years of age) of the U.S. citizen, and (iii) a U.S. citizen (if the U.S. citizen is 21 years of age or older) and a parent of the U.S. citizen–merit special attention as “immediate relative” immigrant petitions (as described in more detail below).

I-140

USCIS Form I-140, “Petition for Alien Workers”, is the immigrant petition that is filed with USCIS based on certain qualifying employment-based situations.

These qualifying employment-based situations (in most cases, when a U.S. employer files Form I-140 for an employee) include the following persons:

  • An outstanding professor or researcher with at least three years of experience in teaching or research in the academic area, who is recognized internationally as outstanding (a) in a tenured or tenure-track position at a university or institution of higher educationto teach in the academic area, (b) in a comparable position at a university or institution of higher education to conduct research in the area, or (c) in a comparable position to conduct research for a private employer that employs at least three persons in full-time research activities and which achieved documented accomplishments in an academic field;
  • An immigrant who, in the three years before filing the Form I-140, has been employed in a primarily managerial or executive capacity for at least one year by a firm or corporation or other legal entity and who seeks to enter the U.S. to continue working for the same employer, or a subsidiary or affiliate, in a managerial or executive capacity;
  • A member of the professions holding an advanced degree or an immigrant with exceptional ability in the sciences, arts, or business who will substantially benefit the national economy, cultural or educational interests, or welfare of the U.S.;
  • A skilled worker (requiring at least two years of specialized training or experience in the skill) to perform labor for which qualified workers are not available in the U.S.;
  • A member of the professions with a baccalaureate degree;
  • An unskilled worker (requiring less than two years of specialized training or experience) to perform labor for which qualified workers are not available in the U.S.;
  • An immigrant of extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics demonstrated by sustained national or international acclaim and whose achievements are recognized in the field; and
  • A member of the professions holding an advanced degree or who is claiming exceptional ability in the sciences, arts, or business, and is seeking an exemption of the requirement of a job offer in the national interest (generally known as a “National Interest Waiver”).

Other

While Forms 1-130 and I-140 are the most common immigrant petitions, there are other possible immigrant petitions that can be filed with USCIS, including:

  • USCIS Form I-360, “Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant”. Form I-360 can be used by an immigrant 18 years of age or older, who was born in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Kampuchea, or Thailand after December 31, 1950 and before October 22, 1982 and was fathered by a U.S. citizen, a widow or widower of a U.S. citizen, a special immigrant juvenile, a special immigrant religious worker, a special immigrant based on certain Panama Canal-related employment, a special immigrant physician, a special immigrant G-4 international organization employeeor family member or NATO-6 employee or family member, certain members of the U.S. armed forces, certain Violence Against Women Act self-petitioning spouses or children of a U.S. citizen or green card holder or Violence Against Women Act self-petitioning parents of a U.S. citizen son or daughter, an Afghanistan or Iraq national supporting the U.S. armed forces as a translator, an Iraq national who was employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government in Iraq, an Afghan national who was employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government or the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and certain international-related broadcasters; and
  • USCIS Form I-526, “Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur”. Form I-526 can be used by investors who invest a required investment amount (a minimum of $800,000, if in a targeted employment area, or $1,050,000, otherwise) in a new commercial enterprise, which is used to create 10 qualified full-time jobs.

Steps in Consular Processing

If the immigrant petition for a green card applicant outside of the U.S. is approved by USCIS, certain specific steps then must be followed for consular processing to result in the issuance of a green card.

Visa Availability

USCIS will send the approved immigrant petition to the U.S. Department of State National Visa Center (“NVC”).  The approved immigrant petition will remain in the NVC until an immigrant visa number is available for the green card applicant.

Most categories of green cards are subject to numerical limitations in any year.  When the demand for a category of green cards is greater than the supply of green cards in such category of green cards in any year, a green card “backlog” results, and an immigrant visa number may not be immediately available in such category of green cards.

Most immigrant petitions under Form I-130, Form I-140, Form I-360, and Form I-526 are subject to numerical limitations and may not enable their green card applicants to immediately obtain an immigrant visa number.  In some cases, green card applicants under these immigrant petitions can wait for a significant period of time to obtain an immigrant visa number. You may check visa availability through the visa bulletin monthly published by the Department of State.

A critical exception here applies to the “immediate relative” immigrant petitions described above.  Because “immediate relative” immigrant petitions are unlimited and not subject to numerical limitations in any year, an immigrant visa number is always immediately available for “immediate relative” immigrant petitions.  There is no green card “backlog” with an “immediate relative” immigrant petition; as a result, “immediate relative” green cards generally can be obtained more quickly than green cards based on other immigrant petitions.

DS-260 and Civil Documents

Once an immigrant visa number is available, the green card applicant will need to pay certain processing fees to the NVC – Immigrant Visa Application Processing Fee, and Affidavit of Support Fee if applicable.  After NVC processes these payments, the green card applicant will need to file Form DS-260, “Online Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration Application”, with NVC.

Form DS-260 requests information about the green card applicant’s name, date and place of birth, travel documentation, nationality, present address, previous addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses, social media, mailing address, permanent address, father, mother, current spouse, previous spouses, children, previous U.S. travel, present work/education/training,previous work/education/training, additional work/education/training, petitioner (the individual or entity that filed the immigrant petition for the green card applicant), medical and health issues, criminal issues, involvement with respect to certain “security” issues, involvement with respect to certain immigration law violations, involvement with respect to other miscellaneous issues, and request to obtain a U.S. social security number as necessary.

In addition to Form DS-260, the green card applicant will need to submit certain civil documents issued by the official issuing authority in the green card applicant’s country.  Based on the specific facts applicable to the green card applicant, these civil documents can include passport or travel document, photo, birth certificate, death certificate, marriage and divorce certificate, adoption certificate, police certificate, court, and prison records, military records.

Affidavit of Support (if Applicable)

All family-based green card applicants are subject to an “Affidavit of Support” requirement as part of consular processing. Under the “Affidavit of Support” requirement, an individual (known as a “sponsor”) accepts financial responsibility for the green card applicant.

The “Affidavit of Support” requirement generally is met by filing USCIS Form I-864, “Affidavit of Support under Section 213A of the INA”.  Form I-864 is filed by the sponsor, who must be at 18 years of age and domiciled in the U.S. or its territories or possessions.  In addition, the sponsor must demonstrate that the sponsor’s income is at least 125 percent of the current Federal Poverty Guidelines for the sponsor’s household size.

Form I-864 is a contract between the sponsor and the U.S. government.  By signing Form I-864, the sponsor is agreeing to use the sponsor’s resources to support the green card applicant named in the Form I-864, if it becomes necessary.

The following types of green card applicants are exempt from the “Affidavit of Support” requirement (and must submit USCIS Form I-864W, “Request for Exemption for Intending Immigrant’s Affidavit of Support”):

  • Any green card applicant who has earned credit for 40 qualifying quarters (credits) of work in the U.S.;
  • Any green card applicant who will, upon admission, acquire U.S. citizenship under section 320 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, as amended by the Child Citizenship Act of 2000;
  • Self-petitioning widows or widowers who have an approved Form I-360; and
  • Self-petitioning battered spouses and children who have an approved Form I-360.

You can learn more about affidavit of support in our article “Affidavit of Support in Green Card Application“.

Interview

Once the green card applicant has paid all required fees and submitted all required documents (as described above), it will take about 1-3 months for NVC to review it. If anything missing or incomplete in the documents, NVC will send notification to ask the green card applicant to submit additional documents and NVC review them again. If all the documents are complete, NVC will schedule an interview for the green card applicant at an applicable U.S. Department of State consulate in the country where the green card applicant has permanent residence.

In most cases, the green card applicant must bring to the interview the following documents:

  • The NVC interview appointment letter for the green card applicant;
  • An unexpired passport for the green card applicant valid for six months (eight months for certain countries) beyond the intended date of entry into the U.S.;
  • Two identical color photographs of the green card applicant;
  • The printed confirmation page of the green card applicant’s DS -260;
  • The medical exam report issued by a designated doctor in the country where the green card applicant will be interviewed; and
  • Originals or certified copies of all civil documents previously sent to NVC.

Some of U.S. consulates may have specific document requirements to bring to the interview. It is always advisable to check the U.S. consulate’s interview requirements  before the interview.

The green card applicant will be interviewed by a consular officer.

Issuance of Green Card

If the interview proceeds favorably, the green card applicant will receive an immigrant visa (see sample below) to travel to the U.S.  Technically, this immigrant visa is not the same as a green card.  To be issued a green card, the green card applicant must:

  • Pay the USCIS Immigrant Fee;
  • Travel to the U.S. before the visa expiration date printed on the immigrant visa (generally for up to six or three months from the date of issuance); and
  • Be admitted to the U.S. at the port of entry by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer.

The green card applicant should receive the actual green card and SSN (if requested in the DS-260) within 120 days after arriving in the U.S.

Immigrant visa
Immigrant Visa

Change of U.S. Address Before Receiving Green Card

If there is a change of U.S. address for the green card applicant before receiving the green card, the green card applicant must notify USCIS of the address change after paying USCIS Immigrant Fee. This notification can be done through the green card applicant’s existing USCIS online account or by filing USCIS Form AR-11, “Alien’s Change of Address Card”, at USCIS’s website.

Consular Processing Fees

The following fees apply to consular processing:

  • Form DS-260 – $445 (consisting of a Visa Application Processing fee of $325 or $345 per applicant, and an Affidavit of Support fee of $120 if applicable); and
  • USCIS Immigrant Fee – $220.

In addition, in evaluating the total costs of consular processing, it is also relevant to consider the costs for a medical appointment, and an attorney (as it is recommended that a green card applicant hire an attorney to assist with consular processing issues).

Consular Processing Time

Each immigrant’s specific factual circumstances are different. As a result, based on these different factual circumstances, the time that it takes for each green card applicant to complete consular processing will vary. 

As a general statement, consular processing will take from 6 to 18 months after an immigrant petition is approved and an immigrant visa number is available.  It is important to remember that overall timing to obtain a green card can be delayed until the green card applicant has first obtained an approved immigrant petition, and an immigrant visa number is available (again, an important distinction between “immediate relative” and other immigrant petitions). 

Conclusion

If you are outside of the U.S. and want to obtain a green card, consular processing will be a critical pathway for you.  Having an approved immigrant petition can put gas in your car, but you still need to drive your car to reach your final destination of green card issuance. Consular processing is the roadway to get you to your final destination of green card success.  

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