Thursday, November 10, 2011

The visa process

Here it is, the long-awaited, very detailed post explaining the process we went through to get Lionel’s visa for the US. Warning: this post will be very long and boring for those not interested in the visa process!
 
The visa we had to get for Lionel was an immigrant visa for immediate relatives (the spouse, widow(er), unmarried children under 21 and parents of a U.S. citizen who is 21 or older), though immigrant visas exist in four different categories: immediate relatives, family based, employment based and Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (also known as the "green card" lottery). Immigrant visas are necessary for anyone who plans to reside permanently in the US, whether or not they plan to work there. Non-immigrant visas (for those who which to reside temporarily in the US for work or study) and emergency visas are also available for the United States. However, since we are planning to move to the US, with the idea that this MIGHT be a permanent move, we had to get an immigrant visa, and since Lionel and I are married we needed the immigrant visa for immediate relatives.

For the most part we relied on the visa section of US Embassy in Paris website for information about the process, though the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website is also very helpful.

In order to get Lionel’s visa we first spent a lot of time researching our different options and the process, finally deciding to go with the normal, longer process (which usually takes anywhere from 4-6 months) rather than the faster process (K3/K4 visa) which is more complicated but much quicker for those in a hurry to enter the US (but not yet have permanent residence status). Since for personal and professional reasons we did not want or need to rush to the US, we didn’t see the point in spending the extra money and doing the extra paperwork in order for Lionel to be able to enter the US faster.

Once we decided what route we wanted to go and had learned more about what was involved, we actually started the process of getting Lionel’s visa. First we had to file a petition for an alien relative. Once this was approved we had to gather all the documents necessary for the visa interview. Then, finally, we had to go to the visa interview and provide them with all of the documents they requested and then wait to be “approved” and receive the visa in the mail, “postponed” meaning they need additional documents, or “denied” meaning we are screwed.

Because this post is meant to be informative, rather than entertaining, I am going to talk about each step of the process individually, provide any helpful hints, insight or tips I can and include all possible links to helpful websites and necessary documents. And if you get lucky I might even include a little rant or two! So here we go:

The Petition:

When we did our Petition for an Alien Relative, we were still able to do it at the US Embassy in Paris, which is no longer possible. So for us we just had to prepare all of the documents and then show up at the embassy on a Friday morning between 9am and 10am (first come first serve). To do our petition we first had to go see someone and show that we had all our documents, and while we were going through the documents, one of us had to go and pay the petition fee, which is a whopping $420. After turning all our documents in, we sat back down and waited for them to call our number again for a short “interview” where they asked us a few basic questions and then we were able to ask any questions we had about the process. They also explained how the rest of the process would work at this time. After this short “interview” we were done, all in all 45 minutes at the embassy (a far cry from the 4-5 hours I usually spend at the prefecture for my carte de sejour!). We were told that we would normally receive a letter in about 4 weeks telling us if our petition had been approved or not (if it’s not approved, you lose your $420), and if it had been approved we would also receive a list of the documents we would need to prepare to bring to the visa interview and further instructions about the interview process.

However, since August 15, 2011 you can no longer file a petition at the US Embassy in Paris. It now must be done by mail. I know that some people were worried about this, but I really don’t think it will change the process much. In my opinion, the only differences will really be that you won’t have the opportunity to ask questions in person at the beginning of the visa process and you will need translations. Otherwise, you are still gathering the same documents, and instead of bringing them to the embassy and handing them in personally on a Friday morning, you are mailing them to Chicago to the USCIS Lockbox where they then review the papers and decide whether the petition is approved or not. You would then be notified by mail of the decision, and if approved, receive the list of documents needed for the visa interview as well as the additional instructions. I really don’t think that change will make the process take much longer, and it saves you from having to take time off work to file in person. The only real problem this new system might create is the need for translations. Before, when filing in Paris, you could submit any documents in English or French, but now I imagine that all documents must be submitted in English, therefore increasing the cost.

The purpose of the Petition for an Alien Relative is to establish the nature of the relationship that exists between yourself and the potential immigrant in order to determine if the potential immigrant should be given a visa. As such, the documents that must be submitted when filing a petition are primarily documents that prove the nature of the relationship. When filing a petition for a husband/wife you need the following (a more complete and detailed list is available in the instructions for the form I-130):
  • Completed and signed form I-130
  • Birth certificate of US citizen
  • Unexpired passport of US citizen
  • US citizen’s carte de sejour in France (or proof that the US citizen has been residing in France for more than 6 months, and not as a student)
  • Copy of marriage certificate
  • Photos of yourself and your husband/wife
  • Completed form G-325A for yourself and your husband/wife
  • Divorce records for yourself and husband/wife, if applicable
 And a few of the following:
  • Documentation showing joint ownership or property
  • A lease showing joint tenancy
  • Documentation showing co-mingling of financial resources
  • Birth certificates of any children from your marriage
  • Affidavits by third parties about your relationship
  • Any other documentation establishing a marital union and ongoing relationship
We also needed the completed and signed form DS-230, part 1 (part 2 should be brought to the visa interview and signed in front of a consular official), though apparently with the new procedure you don’t need this form for the petition, but you send it to the embassy after the petition has been approved…this is not how it was done for us.

These documents are all very easy to get, as you should have most of them in your home already, and therefore you just need to make photocopies, get translations when necessary (because of the new system), download, fill out and print the appropriate forms and voila!

Once you have all the documents, and you have verified that everything is correctly filled out, you send it all to the Chicago Lockbox along with form G-1145 (if you wish for e-notification that your petition has been received in Chicago) and then you wait to hear if you have been approved and to receive further instructions regarding the visa interview.

The Visa Interview:

Once we filed the petition we waited impatiently for the response. They told us it would probably take about four weeks, but in the end we had the response in only two weeks! Obviously, the petition was approved and our relationship was established in the eyes of the government. Included with the approval was a packet informing us of the documents we needed to prepare for the visa interview as well as a form to fill out, sign and send back to the embassy once we had gathered all the documents.

Again, in general, the documents were not too difficult:

  • Completed form DS-230, part 2 (but NOT SIGNED, you must sign it in front of the consular official)
  • Birth certificate of intended immigrant
  • Unexpired passport of intended immigrant
  • Criminal record of intended immigrant (they even sent us the form to fill in and mail to request the criminal record in France, though this can also be done online)
  • Military record of intended immigrant, if applicable (since Lionel comes from the time when they still had mandatory military service in France, we had to provide a copy of the exemption he had received)
  • Recent photo of intended immigrant
  • Deportation record of intended immigrant, if applicable
  • Marriage certificate (again)
  • Divorce records, if applicable (again)
  • One Chronopost envelope (1kg or more) self-addressed
  • And, the most complicated of the documents in my opinion, form I-864 Affidavit of Support., which can be found here, and the instructions can be found here
The Affidavit of Support must be filled out by the petitioner (the US citizen) pledging to financially support the intended immigrant for the next 10 years (the length of the green card they will receive) should the immigrant fail to find employment, in order to avoid the immigrant becoming a public charge. Basically, if you are in the same position as mean and live in France, you basically cannot pledge financial support unless you already have a job in the US (and even then I’m not sure unless you have been working this job for a while already) or if your job will not be changing, even when you move to the US. Because my job was in France and I wouldn’t be continuing it, and I didn’t have a job in the US that I had been working for awhile and therefore showed on my US taxes, I couldn’t sponsor Lionel alone. And even if the intended immigrant has a job, they cannot sponsor themselves.

Since I couldn’t sponsor Lionel, I then needed a joint sponsor. The joint sponsor can be anyone, as long as they are willing to fill out all the papers, provide you with a lot of their financial information to bring with you to the embassy and to pledge to financially support your husband/wife for the next ten years, even if you get divorced (oh yeah…even if you get divorced the intended immigrant could come at you for financial support!). In our case we used my dad as the joint sponsor, and then he had my mom fill out form I-864A Contract between Sponsor and Household Member saying that he had her agreement that he could use her income as well (because they fill out joint tax forms in the US). In order to sponsor someone you must me the income guidelines based on the number of people in your household. These guidelines can be found here or you can get more information from the embassy.

In the end, we ended up with a lot of documents for the Affidavit of Support. I still had to be the primary sponsor, as the petitioner, then my father had to be the joint sponsor with my mother’s household member contract. For each sponsor, and for my mother as a household member who signed a contract, we had to provide (and the documents, except for the tax returns, all really depend on your case and financial situation):
  • Completed form I-864
  • Completed form I-864A, if applicable
  • The most recent years US tax return (or transcript of the tax return which can be obtained from the IRS, but it is generally recommended, but not required, to bring the 3 most recent years of US tax returns
  • Any bank account information proving liquid assets, if necessary
  • Other documentation proving assets (such as cars, houses, etc), if necessary
  • Copies of the passports of each sponsor and/or household member
  • Proof of employment or most recent pay stubs, if necessary

Once you have gathered all of these documents, you can inform the embassy that you are ready for the visa interview using the form they provided with the instructions they sent you. They will then schedule your appointment for the visa interview and send you an appointment letter about one month before your appointment. The appointment letter will tell you how much you will have to pay in visa fees (these are in addition to the petition fees and range from $400-$800 depending on the case…we were very happy to only have to pay $400 more!). With the appointment letter (which you must save and bring with you to the embassy the day of your appointment or you will not be allowed to enter) you will also receive your final instructions concerning the medical exam. For the medical exam the intending immigrant must contact one of the few doctors permitted to give US visa medical exams (I don’t know if there are any in other cities, but there were only 3 doctors possible in Paris) and pay a hefty doctors fee of about 180 euros which is not reimbursable through French social security. The medical exam includes a blood test, chest x-ray and a basic check up (and you must bring the carnet de santé and vaccination records). The doctor then gives you a sealed envelope which you are not allowed to open. Only the consular officer can open this envelope. We had not problem getting Lionel and appointment with one of these doctors, but we were upset to see how inconveniently located they were for us…they are all on the western side of the city or in the western banlieu.

The appointment letter also includes information on the visa interview and what to expect the day of your interview. All visa interviews are conducted on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 1pm at the US Embassy in Paris. The interview was pretty easy, we just showed up the day of our appointment, went through security and then got a number from the machine. We then sat down and waited for our number to be called. The first time we were called it was to go pay the visa fee. Then we sat back down and waited to be called again. The next time it was to go turn in all the documents we had prepared and for Lionel to provide his fingerprints. Then we sat back down and the final time we were called it was for the “interview”. They tell you that the length of the interview depends on your case and that it can take up to half a day. In our case we were asked one or two simple questions such as “how long have you known each other” and that was that for the interview. The entire process took maybe an hour at most.

After the interview you go home and wait for them to send the visa in the mail with the chronopost envelope you provided. I imagine that if you are denied they tell you this when you are there and they don’t keep your chronopost envelope and your passport (though they do keep your visa fee), but I don’t know for sure. It takes about 7-10 days maximum to receive your visa in the mail, but for us it took less than this. When they send you the visa it is already stuck in the immigrant’s passport and they also send an envelope with (I’m assuming) your visa documents in it which you are not supposed to open and you are supposed to give, still sealed, to the US Customs Officer upon arrival in the US. Once you have the visa, it is good for 6 months, meaning you have 6 months to enter the US. Upon entry in the US the immigrant will receive a stamp in his or her passport with an alien registration number. This allows the person to live and work in the US for one year while waiting to receive the 10 year green card. I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty jealous of this since I had to wait 5 miserable months in France before having the right to work, and Lionel will be allowed to work the second one of his feet enters the United States!

The USCIS will be informed when you enter the US and provided with the alien registration number that was assigned to you. At this point they will begin to prepare the 10 year green card, which you receive by mail (!!!) usually a few months after arriving in the US, but it can take up to a year which is why the stamp is good for one year. You will also notice that when filling out form DS-230 that you can choose to check a box requesting a US Social Security Number. If you do this, then the immigrant will receive their US social security card automatically, in the mail too (!!!), about 2-3 weeks after arrival. Obviously, we haven’t even gotten to the US yet, so I can’t really tell you how all of this works out, but I will keep you posted.

We did have a few snags along the way, two out of three of which were caused by the damn Poste (my enemy). The one that wasn’t La Poste’s fault was with our Affidavit of Support and the documents our joint sponsor gave us…it’s a long, long story and had to do with one of my dad’s businesses. In the end we didn’t even notice it until the consular official was examining the documents at the embassy for our visa interview and then we thought “crap” we are going to be denied for the visa! In the end they were really nice, postponed the visa application, and explained everything we could provide to remedy the situation, as well as who we could contact with further questions. We went home that afternoon and started gathering the other documents and sent them in the mail the following afternoon, after communicating through email with the embassy about further questions, and received a confirmation that the documents had been received, the visa had been approved and had been sent in the mail two days later.

La Poste, however, was not very helpful (not a surprise)! They lost our packet with our appointment letter and medical exam information and we only knew we were supposed to receive it because, after a month and a half of waiting, I started to get nervous and emailed the embassy to make sure they had received our notification that we were ready for the interview. When I told them we never received the packet, they were happy to send out a second one. Also, when the visa was sent, La Poste once again failed to leave us an avis de passage in our mailbox. Luckily it was a chronopost so I had the tracking number and the email from the embassy telling us when it had been sent, so we knew to go get it. However, we had an adrenaline-filled hour when we went to our Poste and they couldn’t find our chronopost and we thought we would have to take them to court for all the visa fees, the lost passport and certainly the missed cruise to the US because I’m sure it would have taken us quite awhile to get all those documents again. Luckily, after two trips to La Poste in one afternoon, they were finally able to find the envelope and we were extremely relieved, especially when we discovered, upon reading the envelope, that chronopost is only liable for up to 250 euros in the case of undelivered/damaged/lost mail. The visa and cruise certainly cost a hell of a lot more than that!

Regardless of those little problems, all in all the experience was very good, very well organized, and quite simple. We now have the visa in our hands and we are ready to go in less than two weeks! The things I really like about the US process compared to my experiences in France are how organized it all was, the small amount of time you need to take off to accomplish it all (for us we only spent about 2 hours total at the embassy on two different days in order for Lionel to get a 10 year green card which will arrive in the mail and will require no more visits to government offices compared to my carte de sejour which requires 3 days per year and usually at least 3 hours per trip to the prefecture). I love how the US is so willing to do so much by mail. I also love that you can email them with questions and get quick responses whereas with the prefecture I have to go there every time I have a question. Another plus, in my opinion, is that we just had to check a box and Lionel will have a social security number and card issued very shortly after his arrival in the US, whereas I spent 3 years battling the secu in order to get my number and carte vitale, even though I was working and paying for it! In the end we ended up paying $820 for the visa, but he is good for 10 years, so I feel like it was worth it. Besides, here in France I spent 300 euros for my first card and then 110 euros to renew the first time and 85 euros to renew the second time, not to mention all the time taken off work to do all of it, and I still only have a temporary, 1-year card.

People used to ask me how I could criticize the French immigration process when I didn’t know about the US one, but now I feel quite confident that I have every right to criticize the French system because I have also been through the American one, and ours is definitely better.

Well, I’m very sorry for how long this ended up being, and congratulations to anyone who managed to make it to the end of this post! I just wanted to be as thorough as possible and I really hope this ends up helping someone out one day!

 

3 comments:

  1. Hi Michele, thanks so much for this blog. I found you through a Google search and am currently going through the same process as you now. not sure if you check comments, and I wasn't able to find your email on the site, but if you see this, can you email me? I have some questions that maybe you would know the answer to as you've been through this already. Thank you! coral1223 at gmail dot com

    ReplyDelete
  2. Really appreciate your approach. You are doing good job well we also deal in Immediate Relatives of US Citizens, How to Petition Parents of US Citizen, Green Card Petition, Self Petition Green Card, Immediate Relatives US Visa. If you have any query in your mind please feel free to contact or visit our website. Thanks for sharing this post





    ReplyDelete
  3. Glad that I've found this post. Very informative. I will share this post to my cousin because I think he is now dealing with visa processing system. Thank you my dear.

    ReplyDelete