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Screening of Nonimmigrant Visas

The Brief

This is one of three blog posts explaining the current vetting process for different groups of immigrant and nonimmigrant foreign persons seeking entry into the United States. Read our posts on Refugees and Legal Permanent Residents.

Nonimmigrant visas are issued to foreign nationals for business, tourism, and visiting purposes.

These visas do not establish permanent residence. Under U.S. immigration law, approximately 21 visa categories are classified as “temporary workers.” These visas allow people to work in the United States for a specific period of time. The most commonly discussed temporary worker programs are H-1B specialty occupation workers, H-2A agricultural workers, H-2B seasonal workers, and L intracompany transferees. Visitors for business purposes are issued B-1 visas and any other visitors or tourists are issued B-2 visas. Students use F or J visas for entry to attend school or training programs.

In addition to nonimmigrant visa programs, the United States also allows nationals of 38 countries to visit the United States for up to 90 days without a visa.

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Nonimmigrant Screening Process

  1. Applicants must present a valid passport, completed visa application, application fee payment receipt, and a photo to interview for a nonimmigrant visa at a United States embassy or consulate abroad.

  2. Applicants are asked to provide documentation regarding the purpose of their visit to the U.S., their intent to depart the country, and their ability to afford travel.

  3. Visitors are screened through US-VISIT, which runs biographic information and biometric scans against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) IDENT database, which also links to FBI and terrorist databases.

  4. Certain cases can be referred for additional interagency checks based on specific risk factors. These checks can be for terrorism ties, criminal checks, counter-espionage, or other security or criminal concerns. These checks can involve DHS, the Defense Department, the State Department, and the intelligence community.

  5. DHS also employs a variety of other travel-related screens for nonimmigrant visitors:

    Advance Passenger Information and Passenger Name Record Data

    Airlines flying into the U.S. must submit passenger biographical and travel data for a terrorist screen against terrorist intelligence and patterns. This program flagged over 3,000 individuals tied to terrorism from 2008-09. In FY 2010, one quarter of potential visitors denied for terrorism connections were identified by these programs.

    Visa Security Program

    Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are deployed to various countries around the world to identify potential threats before they reach the U.S.

    Pre-Departure Vetting

    Airlines are requested to not allow passengers of concern to board aircraft. Over 2,800 individuals have been identified since 2010 by this program.

    Secure Flight Program

    DHS screens passengers against criminal and terrorist watchlist before boarding passes are issued.

  6. DHS and Customs and Border Protection officials stationed at the visitor’s port of entry have a final say in whether or not a traveler may be admitted.

Visa Waiver Program (VWP)

In addition to nonimmigrant visa programs, the United States also allows nationals of 38 countries to visit the United States for up to 90 days without a visa.

  1. VWP participants must have an e-passport equipped with a unique electronic chip.

  2. The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is used to automatically screen applicants for any concerns that would render them unable to participate in the VWP.

  3. Anyone that has traveled to Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011 is ineligible to participate in the program without diplomatic or military purpose and must apply for a visa.

  4. Nationals of the 38 countries who are also nationals of Iraq, Iran, Sudan, or Syria must also apply for a visa, regardless of travel to countries listed.

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