Administrative processing, or INA §221(g), is the catch-all term used by the U.S. Department of State to describe when a consular officer cannot make an immediate decision on a visa application. Most visa applications are adjudicated by consular officers at the time of the interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate.
An applicant’s case or background could prompt additional review, commonly known as administrative processing. The resulting delay creates significant hardships and financial challenges for applicants, their U.S. citizen family members, and sponsoring U.S. employers and businesses.
Going into a visa interview well prepared can lower the likelihood of administrative processing, while identifying the root cause may result in a faster resolution.
The Elevator Pitch
Consular officers are busy, often interviewing up to 120 visa applicants in a single day at high-volume posts like Monterrey, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, New Delhi, Guadalajara, Buenos Aires, Manila, and Guangzhou. Officers quickly review an applicant’s DS-160 nonimmigrant or DS-260 immigrant visa application before conducting a brief interview that may last only a few minutes.
Applicants who arrive prepared with a concise elevator pitch that explains their case and highlights their qualifications increase their chances of approval at the interview.
When administrative processing is required, the officer should give the applicant a Form 221(g), which will list any missing documents and provide instructions for submission to the post, if applicable.
Immediately after the interview, visa applicants should memorialize the consular conversation. Having a written record of the questions the officer asked and the responses will help attorneys understand why the case may be undergoing administrative processing to plan the best way to resolve it.
Visa Status: Refused
A common misconception is that a visa status appearing as “refused” on the Department of State’s Consular Electronic Application Center (CEAC) website means that the visa was “denied.” This is not the case in the context of administrative processing, and a refusal may be overcome.
One way to distinguish between the two types of refusals, i.e., denied or undergoing administrative processing, is that the latter includes an additional paragraph that refers applicants to instructions from the consular officer.
Attorneys may choose to email the post to inquire about the reason for the application’s refusal, bearing in mind that posts typically do not disclose specific details, and to inquire whether any further information is needed from the applicant at this stage.
Once administrative processing is complete, the post will inform the applicant of its decision. The case status on CEAC will also be updated to either “issued” (visa granted) or “refused” (visa denied) with the date of the change, while no longer displaying the annotation that refers applicants to the consular officer’s instructions.
Factors Underlying Administrative Processing
The handling and duration of administrative processing depend on the nature of the case. The application may stay under review at the post with the consular officer who interviewed the applicant, allowing the officer to control the processing time. This often occurs when additional documentation, information, or time is needed to make a decision on a visa application.
In other instances, consular officers may be required to forward the case to the State Department in Washington, D.C., where the officer will not have access to information about the status of the case and lack authority to speed up processing. One indication that resolution might take a long time is when the officer returns the applicant’s passport at the end of the interview.
Administrative processing may be prompted by various factors:
Incomplete documentation. Missing documents, such as originals or incomplete medical exams, will delay visa issuance.
Missing information. An officer may be reluctant to make a decision at the interview if the applicant is not well prepared to answer questions about the purpose of the trip, financial stability, or ties to the home country.
Additional review. A consular officer may need more time to review a complex case.
Legal question. A consular officer may wish to review the law or the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM), which provides instructions related to visa issuances. The officer may also contact the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser in Washington, D.C.
Prior visa denial. A consular officer will have access to notes from a previous denial by another officer. Applicants should be ready to clarify any changes in their circumstances since their last interview.
Suspicion of fraud. A consular officers may be suspicious about the case and refer it to the Fraud Prevention Unit (FPU), which may conduct investigations and visit applicants or their employers in the U.S. and abroad to verify that the information in the petition is true.
Criminal history. Background checks are typically performed the day before the visa interview to ensure the most up-to-date information is available. If an applicant has a criminal record, the consular officer may need to conduct additional research to determine the applicant’s eligibility for the visa.
Security concerns. A Security Advisory Opinion (SAO) from the State Department in Washington, D.C., is required in cases involving national security concerns. SAOs are extensive biographic checks conducted by interagency partners from the intelligence community and law enforcement. They are a black box that can take months to years to complete, until the interagency partners, which are not disclosed to the applicant, provide their findings to the State Department. Consular officers do have the ability to follow up with the State Department about long-pending SAOs.
In conclusion, while certain factors that cause consular processing delays are beyond our control, visa applicants can improve their visa application experience by being prepared with a compelling elevator pitch and all required documentation, writing down the consular conversation, and understanding the considerations that may lead to administrative processing.
AILA members interested in learning more about how to address administrative processing delays may be interested in AILA National’s Web Seminar on October 12, Dealing with Consular Interview Delays, INA §221(g) Letters, and Administrative Processing: “What’s the Delay?”.