Applying for a Visa

Two US federal government agencies are involved in the international travel process. The Department of State issues visas at consulates, while Customs and Border Protection (CBP, part of the Department of Homeland Security) grants admission into the US at ports of entry such as border crossings and airports.

First Visa Application to Enter the US

ISSS will notify you when your petition has been filed. You will need the hard copy approval notice (USCIS Form I-797) to present in person at your visa interview. ISSS will mail the approval notice to the address you provide via UPS. In the meantime:

  • Review the visa appointment wait times at various consulates.
  • Make a visa appointment. Use the DOS website for appointment scheduling and visa processing information for the US embassy or consulate where you plan to apply for your visa.
  • Visit the Department of State’s website to learn about visa fees. You will be required to pay this fee along with the reciprocity fee for your country.
  • Complete and submit Form DS-160.
  • Review the consulate’s website thoroughly and bring any necessary original documents (like degrees), photographs, and/or money orders for visa fees.

Document Checklist:

  • Original Form I-797, Approval Notice, from USCIS (ISSS will send to you via UPS)
  • Copies of Form I-129 and LCA (ISSS will send to you via UPS if you are applying for an H-1B or E-3 visa)
  • Valid passport
  • Original Form I-797, Approval Notice, from USCIS for your J-1 waiver (only if you previously held J-1 status and received a waiver of the two-year home residency requirement)

Your visa does not control your immigration status, and a visa does not allow you to work in the US. A visa is simply a “ticket” to apply for admission to the US. Your USCIS approval notice controls your immigration status and allows you to work in the US.

What to Expect at a US Airport or Border Crossing?

International travel is dehumanizing for everyone, but it can be especially frustrating and intimidating for non-US citizens. Please be honest, patient, and courteous with all US government officials, even if they are not so with you. You may experience:

  • Delays in domestic and international flights due to heightened security measures.
  • Fingerprinting and/or digital photography taken upon entering the US.
  • Inquiries and increased review of documents.
  • Multiple inspections by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and/or Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials.
  • Photocopying of documents by immigration officials and possible videotaping of interviews with CBP and/or ICE officers.
  • Inspection of personal belongings, luggage, pockets, or other items. CBP issued a new directive on the Border Search of Electronic Devices in January 2018. Please be aware that your phone, laptop, tablet, etc. may be seized and examined upon entry to the US.

Second/Renewal Visa Application

It is fine if your visa expires while you are in the US. Your visa does not control your immigration status, and a visa does not allow you to work in the US. A visa is simply a “ticket” to apply for admission to the US.

However, if you need to travel internationally and the visa in your current passport has expired, or if you have changed immigration status within the US since obtaining your last visa (e.g., F-1 to H-1B, J-1 to H-1B, H-1B to O-1, etc.), you must apply for a new visa at a US consulate abroad if you travel outside the US and plan to re-enter the US.

Before Leaving the US:

  • Notify your department administrator and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. at least two weeks before you leave the US.
  • Review the visa appointment wait times at various consulates.
  • Make a visa appointment. Use the DOS website for appointment scheduling and visa processing information for the US embassy or consulate where you plan to apply for your visa.
  • Visit the Department of State’s website to learn about visa fees. You will be required to pay this fee along with the reciprocity fee for your country.
  • Complete and submit Form DS-160.
  • Make sure to review the consulate’s website thoroughly and bring any necessary original documents, photographs, and/or money orders for visa fees.

We STRONGLY advise that you apply for the visa in your country of citizenship. If you intend to apply for the visa in a country other than your country of citizenship (known as "third country processing"), please be aware that there is no guarantee that a visa will be issued, nor is there a guarantee of processing time. If your application is refused, your application fee will not be refunded. Some US embassies and consulates do not process third-country requests. Check before you go!

Document Checklist:

  • Original Form I-797, H-1B Approval Notice from USCIS
  • Copy of Form I-129 and LCA provided by ISSS when you picked up the approval notice
  • Valid passport
  • Employment letter (please have your current supervisor or department chair sign)
  • Your three most recent UAB pay statements printed from your Oracle Self-Service page (if concurrently employed with HSF, please also bring your three most recent HSF pay statements)
  • Original Form I-797, Approval Notice, from USCIS for your J-1 waiver (only if you previously held J-1 status and received a waiver of the two-year home residency requirement)
  • Chart of past and current research projects at UAB
  • Current CV

Administrative Processing

Everyone who applies for a visa undergoes screening before the visa is issued. A consular officer will conduct an initial review of the application and interview you about your planned activity in the US. Please provide clear and concise information about your field of teaching, research, and/or employment. In most cases, US embassies and consulates issue the visa and return your passport within a few days or a couple of weeks. However, we have noticed a significant uptick in individuals being subject to additional review or screening via a deeper background check prior to receiving their visa. This is known as “administrative processing,” and if you are selected for it, the consular officer should provide you with an explanation known as a “221(g) letter.” Please notify ISSS immediately if you are selected for administrative processing and receive a 221(g) letter and scan a copy of it to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and your department administrator. The consulate will email you when administrative processing is completed, usually within 30 days. However, there is no set timeframe, and it can take up to 60 days. The Department of State will neither discuss nor reveal the reason for requesting administrative processing on a particular applicant, and there are no provisions for expediting review. If you have not received your passport and visa within 60 days, we will work with your department to follow the instructions provided in the 221(g) letter and provide an additional support letter for you.

If you are employed or conduct research in a technologically or biologically “sensitive” field, consult your supervisor or faculty advisor to discuss contingency plans in the event you are placed under administrative processing or face security clearance issues.

Some individuals may be subject to a Security Advisory Opinion because of their country of origin, citizenship, the field of study/research, or at the discretion of the consular officer. Security Advisory Opinions commonly take 6 to 8 weeks but may take longer in some cases. As a reminder, citizens of Iran, Sudan, and Syria cannot apply for a visa in Canada or Mexico.

  • If an SAO is requested, the consular post will ask the Department of State to initiate the process of requesting clearances from various government agencies and databases including the FBI, CIA, Drug Enforcement Agency, Department of Commerce, Office of Foreign Asset Control, Interpol, the national criminal and law enforcement databases, the DOS Bureau of Non-proliferation, and others. The Bureau of Non-proliferation is concerned with technology transfer and other issues. It considers lasers and many other technologies studied and researched at UAB to be “sensitive” technologies with possibly risky applications or risk of being exported.
  • If you conduct research in certain technologically sensitive fields appearing on the TAL, the Department of State must conduct a security clearance prior to issuing a visa. Clearance may take one to several months. The TAL includes: nuclear technology; rocket systems; unmanned air vehicle subsystems; navigation, avionics, and flight control usable in rocket systems; chemical, biotechnological, and biomedical engineering; remote sensing, imaging, and reconnaissance; advanced computer/microelectronic technology; materials technology; information security; laser and directed energy systems technology; sensors and sensor technology; marine technology; robotics; and urban planning. Please understand that there can be many reasons for a delay in visa issuance other than administrative processing. All applicants must fulfill multiple criteria to the satisfaction of the consular officer. The burden of proof lies with applicants to demonstrate that the documents presented are genuine and that they are eligible for the visa.

Issues that may cause problems or delays in the visa application process:

  • Inconsistent spelling of name on documents (passport, visa application, supporting documentation).
  • Failure to read and follow the tips and guidance on the consulate’s website.
  • The consular officer cannot understand your purpose for being at UAB and therefore cannot assess the risk/benefit of granting the visa.
  • You are a citizen of a country considered to pose a risk, or your work will involve a sensitive research field listed on the Technology Alert List (“TAL”).
  • Someone else has the same or similar names as you. The consulate must rule out any incidents and resolve any “hits” the Consular Lookout (CLASS) system reveals on the name(s).

You can check the status of your visa application online via the Department of State’s Consular Electronic Application Center.

Exceptions to Needing a Visa

Canadian citizens do not need a physical visa stamp in their passport or an appointment at a US consulate. Canadian citizens can enter the US by presenting their H-1B approval notice (Form I-797) to a Customs and Border Protection official at any US port of entry.

If the visa stamp in your passport has expired, you can still travel for less than 30 days to Canada, Mexico, and certain island nations designated as “adjacent” on the expired visa as long as you present a valid Form I-797 USCIS Notice of Approval at a US port of entry. This process is known as “automatic visa revalidation”.

Read More About Automatic Visa Revalidation →