As the 2008-2009 holiday season rapidly approaches, many foreign nationals are making travel arrangements to visit family and friends abroad. This alert provides an overview regarding visa issuance and U.S. entry requirements. For a memorandum discussing these issues in detail, please visit (www.seyfarth.com/immigration) and click on “NIV Memoranda” to view the document titled “Tips for Foreign Nationals Traveling During the Holiday Season.”
General Travel Guidelines
Foreign nationals should anticipate long and complex visa application procedures at U.S. consulates and embassies, including mandatory personal interviews for most visa applicants. In addition, foreign nationals should anticipate comprehensive questioning by immigration officials when seeking to re-enter the United States.
Passport and Visa Validity
Before traveling internationally, foreign nationals should verify that their passports and visas remain valid for re-entry into the U.S. Foreign nationals who are exempt from the visa requirement who intend to enter the U.S. pursuant to the Visa Waiver Program should determine whether they must obtain advance permission to re-enter (as discussed below).
- Passport Validity – As a rule, a foreign passport must be valid for at least 6 months beyond the anticipated departure from the U.S.
- Visa Validity – A foreign national who must possess a visa in order to re-enter the U.S. should be aware that the visa stamp must reflect the nonimmigrant visa status the foreign national seeks and must be valid (i.e., unexpired).
- Notice of Approval – A foreign national who is the beneficiary of any petition-based visa, such as an H-1B or L-1A/L-1B, must travel with the original Form I-797, Notice of Approval issued by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).
- Automatic Visa Revalidation – Most (but not all) individuals traveling only to Canada or Mexico who will stay fewer than 30 days and who hold a valid I-94 card may be able to re-enter the U.S. using an expired visa stamp.
Visa Issuance Procedures: Interviews, Security Checks, and Delays
New procedures at all consular posts worldwide have extended the visa application process. Foreign nationals who must apply for a new visa must therefore plan their international travel with these delays in mind.
- Personal Interview – Most visa applicants must apply in-person for their visa stamps. At most consular posts, this requires scheduling a nonimmigrant visa appointment well in advance of the desired appointment date. The “lead time” for interviews is typically 4 to 6 weeks. For more information on scheduling nonimmigrant visa appointments at all consular posts worldwide, please visit (www.travel.state.gov).
- Visa Issuance Delays – Once an applicant appears for an interview, it typically takes the consular post 3 to 6 business days to process the visa application and return the applicant’s passport. However, in certain instances, the process may take as many as 2 to 3 months.
- Security and Background Checks – When applying for a visa, an applicant may be subjected to additional security and background checks based on the following factors:
- Occupations in targeted fields (the Technology Alert List);
- Appearance (i.e., “hits”) in national security and law enforcement databases, such as the Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS); and,
- Information found on Form DS-157, Supplemental Visa Application.
Visa Waiver Program (VWP)
Citizens of certain countries are permitted to enter the U.S. for general business or tourist purposes for a maximum of 90 days without presenting an actual B-1/B-2 visa upon entry. Beginning January 12, 2009 (and immediately for travelers from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and South Korea), all nationals and citizens of VWP countries must obtain travel authorization prior to seeking entry to the U.S. under the VWP. This authorization is obtained online through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), an Internet application administered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The website address is (https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov). The on-line system is free and requests information similar to the Form I-94W, Arrival Departure Record that VWP travelers complete on-board their flight before entering the U.S.
Proper planning prior to undertaking international travel is always important. During the holiday season, such planning is even more critical given the additional volume of travelers who will visit U.S. consular posts and ports of entry.