What is the National Visa Center?

Many of my clients have the same experience: Now that my petition for an immigrant visa has been approved by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), why is it still taking several months for my loved one to be scheduled for an interview at the U.S. embassy or consulate overseas?

The answer to this question is simple. Many people do not know this, but in fact there is another stage of processing for intended immigrants who reside outside of the United States that occurs after USCIS approval of immigration petitions. After petition approval, USCIS sends the petition package to the U.S. Department of State, the American version of most countries’ foreign ministries. The State Department then determines which consular post the case will be sent to, so that the consular post may schedule an interview. As part of this important work, the State Department collects various up-to-date documents from the would-be immigrant, including personal documents such as passport copy, birth certificate, marriage certificate and so on, as well as an immigrant visa interview fee. After this is done, and after conducting its own checks for fraud and other security issues, the State Department finally forwards the visa interview package to the U.S. consular post overseas, which then receives the package and schedules an interview date. Often times, this process can take at least several months.

This is where the National Visa Center, or NVC for short, comes in. Lots of people who sponsor their loved ones for immigrant visas, as well as the beneficiaries of such immigrant petitions, have no idea what the NVC is. In short, the NVC is a giant immigrant visa processing center headquartered in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a scenic town in New England. Staffed by only a handful of State Department employees, the NVC relies on daily efforts by about 500 staffers working for various contractors. As of a few years ago, NVC received more than 2 million letters and packages each year. But in more recent years, the NVC has been transitioning to files sent electronically via e-mail.

Each time an immigrant visa petition is approved by USCIS, a package is transported to NVC either by truck or electronically. After it gets to NVC, a contract employee examines the case and begins the process of contacting the immigrant’s sponsor to request documentation and payment of the immigrant visa interview fee. After these documents and fees are collected, the case is prepared and finalized to be sent to the U.S. consular post abroad, which can open the case and go directly to preparing for an interview.
Many people are confused as to why this process can take up to several months. The reason for this is twofold. First of all, it takes time for the case to be transferred from USCIS to NVC and for NVC to get it assigned to a handling staff member. Secondly, lots of times the delays are not caused by NVC at all, but rather are caused by long backlogs at some consular posts abroad that are very busy with lots of interviews. Due to huge demand, Saigon in Vietnam and Guangzhou in China are among some of the busiest U.S. consular posts in the world, where thousands of people can be waiting for an interview appointment at any given time.

I am often asked by my clients why their loved one’s interview cannot be transferred to another U.S. consular post where the waiting time is shorter. The answer to this is simply that in most cases, interviews can only be scheduled at consular posts having consular jurisdiction over the place where the would-be immigrant resides. By “reside,” this means that the interviewee must have regularly and lawfully resided in that jurisdiction for six months or more. So for example, if a Vietnamese citizen wants to interview at a U.S. consular post in Japan, that person would need to show he or she has a Japanese resident permit or visa and that he or she has actually resided in Japan for six months or more.

Another question I often get about NVC is why does the NVC often ask me for documents that were already provided with my immigration petition sent to USCIS? For example, most petitions already contain copies of the beneficiary’s passport ID page, birth certificate, marriage certificate and so on. The answer to this is that lots of times, immigration petitions remain pending at USCIS for many months or years. Often times, by the time the petitions get approved by USCIS, sent to NVC and finally assigned to a staff member at NVC, the documents in question may have already expired. Some documents, such as a physical examination completed by a USCIS-approved doctor, have to be dated within six months of the immigrant visa interview. For this reason, NVC as a matter of routine asks for all of these documents over again. There is indeed a good reason for this.

Overall, the NVC has greatly improved the efficiency of document collection and interview preparation since it was first inaugurated back in 1994. If people are not satisfied with how long NVC takes to get the petition prepared today, they should try to think about how much longer it used to take before these tasks were centralized in the NVC before the mid-1990s.

Jason Blatt

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