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Guide to US Visas – Types, How to Apply, Process, Cost

What is US Visa ?

US Visa is an authorization document that a citizen of foreign country ( other than US) needs to have to enter US.  It is ‘passport page size document’ glued to a full page inside the passport of the person seeking entry to United States. It is issued by US Consulate or US Embassy. The US visa foil placed in the passport has details of the individual seeking entry to US such as full name, date of birth, photo, visa control number, type of visa given, validity of visa, and any annotations as needed. The visa also has a machine readable strip of letters in the bottom to help US Port of Entry officers and other immigration officers read the visa information.

Do I need US Visa to enter United States of America ?

It all depends on the purpose of travel and your country of citizenship/ passport. If you fall under below categories, you do not need visa for short term travel to US for general visits.

  • Visa Waiver Program(VWP) allows citizens/ nationals of countries from 38 countries to travel for short term up to 90 days for purposes such as tourism, business meetings, medical treatment, etc. Each traveller from VWP countries need to have authorization through ESTA ( Electronic System for Travel Authorization) to travel to US.
  • Citizens of Bermuda can travel to US without visa for up to 180 days.
  • Citizens of Canada do not need visa to travel to US. Canadians, who spend winters in US can stay up to 6 months from the time of entry. The length of stay is decided at port of entry by CBP officer.

If the above categories of citizens plan to stay in US for long term or other purposes, they need to get respective US Visa.

What are the various Types of US Visas ?

US Visas are broadly classified into two categories.

  • Non-immigrant Visas : These categories of visas are primarily used for temporary travel to US like business, work, tourism, etc.
  • Immigrant Visas : These US visas are for travel to US to live permanently in US with family, high skilled workers, religious workers, etc.

Each of the above visa categories are further divided in various visa types based on the purpose of the visit of the individual and indicated by a letter or combination of letter and a number like B-1, H-1B, F-1, IR1, E1, etc. There are over 30+ visa categories. Check full list of US Visa Categories on State.gov official website.

How do I apply for US Visa – Process ?

Below are the high level steps to apply US Visa at a US Consulate.

  1. Determine US Visa type you need to apply
  2. Gather Required Documents for US Visa application
  3. Complete and submit online US Visa application (DS-160 form)
  4. Pay US Visa fee
  5. Schedule Biometrics, Visa Interview appointments
  6. Prepare your documents for visa interview
  7. Attend Biometrics, Visa Interview
  8. Check US Visa status online
  9. Collect Passport with US Visa.

Read article Step by Step Guide to apply for US Visa that talks about all the above steps in detail.

Documents Required for US Visa and Interview at US Consulate

The required documents for US visa vary depending on the type of visa you plan to apply. Irrespective of the type of US visa you plan to apply, you will need some standard documents like Passport, Photographs, Residence proofs, etc.  Depending on the type of visa, for instance work visa like H1B, you need to carry documents filed by your US employer like I-797 Approval Notice, LCA, etc.  Overall, you need to plan to secure all of these documents ahead of time before you plan to schedule visa interview at US consulate or embassy.

What is the Cost of US Visa Application ?

The cost of visa application totally varies by the type of US Visa you are planning to apply. There are usually two kinds of fee, one is the actual US visa application fee that is paid during time of visa interview appointment and second is the fee that is paid before applying for visa interview with SEVIS, USCIS, or other US agencies.  For example : if you plan to apply for F1 visa to study in US, you need to pay Visa Application Fee of $160 USD for visa interview and also $200 USD towards I-901 SEVIS Fee after you get I-20 form. Also, the fee may vary by country sometimes, that’s why you need to check on the fee details by visa type and check with embassy.

How long does it take to Process my US Visa ?

The processing times of the US visa totally depends on the type of visa you are applying and the US consulate work loads, and your case details. Sometimes, it can be a week or so, sometimes your visa application can go through administrative processing and can take months. So, it all depends on your case and country of processing.

How does US Visa Look ?

A US Visa looks like below. Each of the fields indicate certain aspects. Check out US Visa Sample – Description of Fields, Info

US Visa Sample
Sample US Visa foil that is stamped in Passport

 Does getting US Visa automatically allow me to enter America ?

No, US visa does not give automatic entry into America. US visa will only allows foreign citizens to travel to Port of Entry at US border or Sea Port.  At the port of entry Customs and Border Protection(CBP) Officer checks your visa, and authorizes or denies your entry to US. In general, most of the times, you would be allowed to enter, but if the CBP officer finds any info that is contradictory, false or any national security threats, they can deny your entry and send you back to your home country.

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