When you apply for a temporary nonimmigrant visa outside the United States, you must go through consular processing. Part of that process is submitting a DS-160, Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application, with the U.S. State Department.
This article explores the DS-160 and its role in the nonimmigrant visa application process. We cover what happens before the DS-160, when you submit it and what happens after the DS-160.
What do you do before you submit Form DS-160?
The road to the DS-160 varies based on the underlying visa.
Temporary work visas with labor certification
Many temporary work visas require an employer sponsor to obtain labor certification from the Department of Labor (DOL). This includes:
- CW-1 visas: Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) transitional workers
- E-3 visas: Australian specialty workers
- H-1B visas: Specialty occupations, Department of Defense researchers and fashion models
- H-2A visas: Temporary, seasonal agricultural workers
- H-2B visas: Temporary, seasonal nonagricultural workers
After obtaining labor certification, the employer files Form I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker, with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Temporary work visas without labor certification
Other temporary work visas begin with the employer sponsor submitting Form I-129, bypassing labor certification. These include:
- H-3 visas: Trainees and special education exchange visitors
- L-1 visas: Intracompany transferees
- O-1 visas: Extraordinary ability or achievement
- O-2 visas: Supporters of workers with extraordinary ability or achievement
- P-1 visas: Athletes and entertainers
- P-2 visas: Performers
- P-3 visas: Artists or entertainers coming for a culturally unique program
- Q-1 visas: Cultural exchange
- R-1 visas: Religious workers
Students and exchange visitor applicants, including M and F visas, must apply and be accepted to a program approved by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP).
When do you use Form DS-160?
When you can file Form DS-160 also depends on your original visa.
Temporary work visas
Upon USCIS approval, temporary work applicants receive an I-797A, Notice of Action. Then they can submit Form DS-160.
Upon approval, student or exchange visitor applicants receive a Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status. After you pay the I-901 Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) fee and receive a receipt, you can file your DS-160.
Several other visa types begin by submitting the DS-160. This includes:
- A visas: Diplomat or foreign government officials
- B-1/B-2 visas: Visitors
- BCC visas: Border Crossing Card
- D visas: Crewmembers
- G1 to G5 and NATO visas: International organization workers
- I visas: Media workers
- TN/TD visas: NAFTA workers
- C visas: People transiting the U.S.
- E visas: Treaty traders and investors
How to file Form DS-160
You must complete and file Form DS-160 online. The general steps are as follows.
1. Collect support documents
When filling out the DS-160, it may help to have several documents available to reference. This includes your:
- Previous visas
- Resume or curriculum vitae (CV)
- Approval notice or I-20
- Previous I-94s
If you’re unsure about your previous trips to the U.S., you may look up your previous entry and exit dates. You’ll likely need your old passport number if you renewed your passport since your last trip. Note that, while it’s a good resource, the I-94 travel history tool may miss some entries and exits.
2. Create an account
As soon as you begin the DS-160 online application process, write down or store your application ID. The website times out after 20 minutes of inactivity and is prone to crashing. If your webpage times out or crashes, you’ll need your ID number or you’ll have to start over.
Storing the number is also helpful if you plan to apply for nonimmigrant visas multiple times. You may import some of the answers from your previous DS-160 if you have the number.
3. Complete and submit the form
The DS-160 requests several pages of information, which you should respond to in English. Be prepared to provide information about your:
- Spouse’s identity
- Parents’ identities
- Country of birth
- Passport number and nationality
- Current and previous employers
- Previous entries to the U.S. and U.S. visas
- International travel outside the U.S. in the last five years
- U.S. employer’s address and business information, if applicable
- Secondary and post-secondary education
- Relatives living in the U.S., if any, and their immigration status
- Criminal history, if any
- Approval Notice or SEVIS number, if applicable
- Preferred U.S. consulate or embassy
At the end of the DS-160, you must answer several questions to ensure you’re not a threat to U.S. security or inadmissible under U.S. immigration law. If you have a history that could raise concerns, like immigration violations or criminal history, you may explain the circumstances on the application.
Except for L and H-1B applicants, you also have to prove you have “nonimmigrant intent” to receive a nonimmigrant visa. Having nonimmigrant intent means you don’t intend to stay in the U.S. after your temporary stay expires. You show this by demonstrating you have strong ties to your home country.
Providing information about where you live and work in your home country may help. You may also want to submit documentation of a lease, property ownership or statements about family and friends who live in your home country.
When completed, many applicants save a PDF copy of the entire DS-160 and the DS-160 confirmation page. This may help if there are any website glitches. Also print your confirmation page to bring to your consular interview.
Attending an interview
After you submit your DS-160, you generally have to pay a visa application processing fee. This fee currently ranges from about $185 to $315 depending on the visa.
Then you typically need to attend an interview at the U.S. consulate or embassy. Some visas have been exempted from the interview requirement based on the COVID-19 pandemic, and some returning visa applicants may also be exempt. Otherwise, you must usually attend an interview unless you’re younger than 14 or older than 79.
You can schedule your interview through the consulate’s preferred website. Typically, consulates use US Travel Docs or the Official U.S. Visa Information and Appointment Services website.
On interview day, bring your printed DS-160 confirmation page, your passport, two passport-style photos and any other documents required for the specific visa you applied for.
While the exact questions your officer asks will be specific to you and your application, be prepared to answer questions about the visa you’re requesting and how and why you’re qualified to receive it. Interviewers also usually ask questions about:
- How you’ll support yourself in the U.S.
- Whether you have specific travel plans
- Whether you intend to depart the U.S. after your visa expires
- What ties you have to your home country
After the interview
Often, the consulate keeps your passport until they officially issue or deny a visa. This may take hours or a few days, depending on the visa and the consulate. If they issue the visa, they’ll print it in the booklet and return your passport. If they deny the visa, they’ll return your passport with an explanation.
Once you receive your visa, you may generally travel to the U.S. Some visa categories, like student and seasonal work visas, limit how soon you may enter the U.S. based on your program or labor certification start date. Your visa may include this information, or you may need to consult your Approval Notice or SEVIS information.
If your visa is denied, the consulate should provide a reason. If the denial was based on incomplete information, you often have a chance to provide the information without reapplying. Otherwise, you may attempt to remedy whatever problem the consulate identified and reapply, submitting a new DS-160, paying a new filing fee and attending a new interview.
If you don’t hear from the consulate promptly, you may check your DS-160 status online through the Consular Electronic Application Center (CEAC). To use the CEAC visa status check tool, select “nonimmigrant visa (NIV)” from the pull-down menu. Then choose the consulate you applied through and enter your DS-160 Application ID, passport number and the first five letters of your surname.
The CEAC status check tool is often updated before you’re notified of action on your visa. If the checker says “administrative processing” for more than a handful of days, though, you may want to contact the consulate to see if they need more information.
How an attorney may help
You may choose to complete Form DS-160 on your own, or you may hire an immigration attorney. An immigration attorney could offer advice to help tailor your application to maximize your potential for approval. They may also help you fill out the form, ensure you have all the documents you need to complete it and review it for errors or incompleteness. Having an attorney is especially helpful if you have any history that might raise red flags, like criminal convictions or previous U.S. immigration violations.