There are two major pathways to apply for a United States green card. One method, called “adjustment of status,” applies when you’re already in the United States. The other method is consular processing, which refers to the process of applying for lawful permanent resident status while located overseas. The consular process begins with filing a petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which then hands it over to the National Visa Center (NVC). The NVC completes the green card application process and issues a visa allowing you to travel to the United States and get your green card.
What Is Consular Processing?
The green card application process differs depending on whether you are located inside or outside the United States. You will undergo consular processing if you are located outside the United States. For example, you may be married to a U.S. green card holder but living outside of the United States and seeking an immigrant visa. Consular processing allows you to submit your immigrant petition from your home country. A U.S. embassy or U.S. consulate in your country will handle your application.
Is Consular Process Part of the Adjustment of Status Process?
No. Consular processing is not part of the adjustment of status (AOS) process. Consular processing and adjustment of status are two separate systems. Applicants already in the United States adjust status, while applicants abroad submit their immigrant visa application through consular processing.
For example, if you came to the United States on a nonimmigrant visa, and then you became eligible for a green card because an immediate relative became a U.S. citizen, you’d go through the adjustment of status process. To do so, you would file an immigrant petition, check that an immigrant visa number is available, then file Form I-485: Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status.
After filing your application, you’d attend a biometrics appointment. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) may also schedule you for a green card interview. Finally, if USCIS approved your application, you would receive an approval notice and, afterward, your physical green card.
What’s Required for Consular Processing?
If you live outside of the U.S., you’ll go through consular processing to apply for a green card. Before you start the process, you need to make sure you meet one of the eligibility categories to receive a green card. The most common types of eligibility are:
- Eligibility because a family member is a U.S. citizen who can petition on your behalf
- Eligibility because an employer is petitioning on your behalf
- Eligibility based on your own refugee, asylum, or another special status
Once you confirm that you qualify, you will then follow five main steps to receive a green card.
Step 1: The Petitioner Files an Immigration Petition With the USCIS
The first step in the process is the immigrant petition. A petitioner, such as an employer or a family member who is a U.S. citizen or green card holder, must file this form on your behalf. You, as the beneficiary, will not file this form.
The two most common petitions are Form I-130 and Form I-140. Form I-130: Petition for Alien Relative is a family-based petition. Form I-140: Immigrant Petition for Alien Workers is an employment-based petition.
Step 2: The USCIS Processes the Petition and Sends It to the NVC
If USCIS approves your visa petition, they will forward it to the U.S. Department of State’s National Visa Center (NVC). If USCIS denies your petition, you can appeal this decision. The NVC will notify you when they receive your visa petition.
The NVC will not do anything with your petition unless an immigrant visa number is available for you. Immigrant visa numbers are automatically available to certain visa preference categories. For example, you can automatically access an immigrant visa if your spouse is a U.S. citizen. However, you will have to wait longer if your spouse is only a green card holder. The number of immigrant visas available to noncitizens annually is determined by U.S. immigration law. You will need to wait until a visa number becomes available.
Each month, the Department of State releases a visa bulletin that lists when a visa number will be available to you, depending on when you submit your petition. You can check the current visa bulletin online. Furthermore, the NVC will notify you when a visa number is about to become available. They will also tell you when you need to submit supporting documents and the processing fees.
Step 3: You Prepare for and Attend a Consular Interview
Once a visa number becomes available, a consular officer will schedule your visa interview and notify you of the interview date, place, and time.
Before your interview, you need to undergo a medical exam by a USCIS-approved doctor. You can check your local U.S. consulate or embassy’s website, which will often provide a list of approved doctors and more information. You must bring your green card interview appointment letter to the medical office. The doctor should fill out Form I-693: Report of Medical Examination and Vaccination Record. You will bring this completed form to your visa interview.
For your green card interview, you must bring a copy of your application packet, passport, other travel documents if you travel between your application and interview, copies of supporting documents you submitted, your medical exam report, and government-issued I.D.
The consular officer will ask you questions to make sure the information you provided on the forms is accurate. They will also want to make sure your application is genuine. For example, if you are applying for a marriage-based green card, the officer will ask questions to ensure that your marriage is legitimate and not for immigration benefits. If you are applying for an asylum-based green card, the interviewer will want to check that you truly need the green card for safety and protection.
It is essential to be as honest as possible throughout this interview.
Step 4: You Get Your Visa
After your interview, if your application is successful, the consular officer will give you a visa packet. You cannot open the packet. It must stay sealed until you arrive in the United States.
You will need to pay the USCIS immigrant fee to process your packet and receive your green card. It is best to pay this after getting your visa but before arriving in the United States. You can pay this fee after you arrive in the U.S., but if you do, you won’t get your green card until the fee is paid. Very few types of applications, such as children coming under orphan programs, qualify for a fee waiver.
After you arrive in the United States, you should give your visa packet to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer at the port of entry. The CBP officer will then open the packet and inspect you to confirm you can enter the United States as a lawful permanent resident. Once admitted, you have lawful permanent resident status.
Step 5: You Get Your Green Card
If you have already paid the USCIS immigrant fee, you should receive your green card in the mail within 45 days of arriving in the United States. If you don’t receive your card within this 45-day period, you should contact the USCIS Contact Center at 1-800-375-5283.
If you have not paid the fee yet, you will not receive the green card until you do so.
How Long Does Consular Processing Take?
Immigrant visa processing time can vary depending on two major factors. First, it depends on how long USCIS takes to process your initial petition. Second, it depends on whether your petitioner or sponsor is a U.S. citizen or green card holder.
If your sponsor is a U.S. citizen, the whole process can take 6–14 months because a visa number is automatically available to you. However, it may take much longer if your petitioner only has a green card. You will need to wait for a visa number to become available or for the priority date of your application to become current.
Consular processing can be complicated, but help is available. If you are eligible, our free web app will walk you through the green card process and help you prepare and file your application with the U.S. government. If our app isn’t a good fit, we may be able to refer you to an experienced immigration attorney to help. Click "Get Started" to see how we can help make your American dream come true!