As the holiday season is approaching, foreign national employees with international travel plans should ensure that they have all necessary immigration documents for reentry to the United States. As this may require attending a visa appointment at a U.S. embassy or consulate prior to returning to the United States, clients and employees are encouraged to plan ahead.

Required Travel Documents

Generally, foreign national employees must present a valid passport and unexpired U.S. visa when entering the United States. Canadian nationals may present a valid I-797 approval notice in lieu of a visa, and, in some instances, may apply for nonimmigrant status directly at the port of entry. For those employees who will require visa stamping during their international travels, U.S. consulates will require passports to have at least six months of validity remaining in order to issue a new visa. In addition, in order to be admitted to the United States for the full duration of the petition, an employee’s passport generally must be valid for the duration of his or her petition validity when entering the United States. If the employee’s passport will expire before the petition end date, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) may shorten the initial period of admission to reflect the employee’s passport validity, rather than the full petition validity.

Under certain circumstances, employees may need to obtain additional documentation or take further steps to ensure proper admission to the United States. Individuals who are in the process of applying for adjustment of status to permanent residence may need to apply for advance parole if they have not done so already. This allows certain individuals to depart and reenter the United States while their adjustment of status application remains pending. Individuals with valid H or L visas are not required to apply for advance parole. Additionally, as of November 29, 2016, travelers holding a People’s Republic of China (PRC) passport with B-1, B-2, or a 10-year B-1/B-2 visas will be required to enroll in the new Electronic Visa Update System (EVUS) in order to be admitted to the United States. This applies to anyone traveling with a Chinese passport regardless of country of residence, including residents of Canada and Mexico.

Individuals employed in a nonimmigrant status who will attend a visa appointment abroad must carry all required immigration documents, including a copy of their most recent I-797 approval notices, if applicable. Employees may also want to travel with an employment verification letter and two or three recent pay statements as proof of employment. In lieu of an I-797 approval notice, a blanket L-1 visa holder must travel with a copy of his or her stamped Form I-129S.

Employers can expect to receive an increased number of requests for employment verification letters during the holiday travel season. Additionally, employers should encourage foreign national employees to start preparing any necessary documents prior to their travels so as to avoid potential delays or issues when returning to the United States.

Booking Visa Appointments

Individuals who will need to attend a visa stamping appointment at a U.S. Consulate are encouraged to book appointments well in advance of their travels. Appointment wait times at U.S. consulates can vary depending on location, and available time slots tend to fill up quickly during the busy holiday months. Travelers who need to renew their visas can check the average wait times and processing times for any U.S. embassy or consulate on the Department of State’s website.

When booking an appointment, the employee and each accompanying family member must first complete a separate DS-160 application. The DS-160 application can be accessed through the Department of State’s Consular Electronic Application Center. In addition, the Department of State generally advises applicants to schedule and attend visa appointments in their home countries, as consulates may require third country nationals to demonstrate ties to the countries in which they are applying for a visa. Those who plan to travel to a different country should also note that some consulates do not accept visa applications from third country nationals. Each U.S. embassy and consulate is unique, with differing procedures and requirements for appointments. Employees may want to review instructions for the applicable consulate prior to their visa interviews in order to prepare all required documentation and information.

Certain individuals applying for renewal of their visas within the same nonimmigrant classification may be eligible for a waiver of the in-person consular interview. Additionally, if an employee with a valid I-94 arrival record is planning to travel to Canada or Mexico for a period of 30 days or less, he or she may be able to reenter the United States with an expired visa rather than attend a visa appointment abroad. However, citizens or nationals of Sudan, Iran, or Syria are not eligible for this process.

Possible Delays or Security Checks

Employers and foreign nationals should be prepared for the possibility of delays when applying for a new visa at a U.S. consulate. Most delays occur as a result of the visa application being placed in an additional security clearance process. The U.S. consulate will refer to this additional security check as “administrative processing” or “221g processing.” These security checks most commonly occur when the visa applicant possesses an engineering or technology-related background. However, any person who applies for a visa at a U.S. consulate may be potentially subject to this delay.

If security checks are initiated, the consulate will not issue a visa until it has received clearance from various U.S. government agencies. The wait time for additional security checks is typically between 4 and 8 weeks, but the checks could take longer to clear. Given that there is no process for expediting this process at a U.S. consulate, employers may want to have contingency plans in place that would allow foreign national employees to continue working outside the United States while awaiting issuance of their U.S. visas. In addition, foreign national employees are encouraged to secure consulate appointments as close to their arrival abroad as possible to allow for processing time.

Returning to the United States

When reentering at a United States port of entry, foreign national employees should present all required immigration documents to the CBP officer. Individuals employed pursuant to Optional Practical Training (OPT) or Curricular Practical Training (CPT) who will be reentering as F-1 students should ensure that their program information has been registered with Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Foreign national travelers may be subject to thorough questioning, including inquiries regarding their recent travels, purpose for seeking admission, and place of employment in the United States.

Once admitted, employees can retrieve their I-94 arrival records in CBP’s online system. This record, along with the CBP officer’s passport stamp, will indicate the employee’s authorized period of stay. Employees should immediately check for errors, as the I-94 record controls the foreign national’s duration of legal stay in the United States even if a valid visa or petition indicates a later date.

As the holiday season brings the busiest travel months, foreign national employees with international travel plans will need to begin preparing all required documentation now, including booking a visa appointment if required.