You can apply for a green card from the United States or from abroad. The process of applying from outside the United States, through a local U.S. embassy or consulate, is called consular processing. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) handles the initial stages of consular processing green card applications. Then, the U.S. Department of State's National Visa Center (NVC) handles the final stages of the application processing. In this article, we explain the function of the National Visa Center (NVC) and how to file State Department forms DS-260 and DS-261 with the NVC as part of the consular green card process.
Written by Jonathan Petts.
Written May 26, 2022
What Is the National Visa Center (NVC)?
The National Visa Center (NVC) is a branch of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. The NVC is responsible for processing the second stage of your green card application if you're applying from abroad.
After approving your Form I-130 petition, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will send your documents to the NVC. The NVC will take over with processing your green card case.
First, the NVC will send you a welcome letter by mail or e-mail, depending on which notification method you selected on your application. The welcome letter will contain your case identification number, a beneficiary ID number, and an invoice number. You'll need these details to complete your online immigrant visa form and pay your application fees.
You can complete the form and pay the fees when you visit the Consular Electronic Application Center (CEAC). The CEAC website will give you access to Forms DS-261 and DS-260, which you will need to submit to complete your application.
What Is Form DS-261?
On the National Visa Center's welcome letter, you'll see instructions for submitting Form DS-261: Online Choice of Address and Agent. Form DS-261 will let you choose how you want the Department of State to communicate with you throughout the green card application process.
There is no fee to file Form DS-261 and it may take the NVC up to three weeks to process the form. You must log in to your CEAC website portal using the case number the NVC sent to you to access Form DS-261.
What Is Form DS-260?
After you submit Form DS-261, you must pay your $325 immigrant visa application processing fee and $120 Affidavit of Support filing fee. You may then access and submit Form DS-260 on the Consular Electronic Application Center website.
Form DS-260 is the Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration Application. It is a required online form for foreign nationals applying for family-based green cards from abroad. You'll be able to move forward in the marriage-based green card consular process once the NVC approves your Form DS-260.
When Do I Need To Submit Forms DS-260 and DS-261?
You’ll be ready to file the DS-260 and 261 after the NVC receives your case and begins processing.
First, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) will send your approved I-130 petition to the National Visa Center. The NVC will begin processing green card cases for spouses of U.S. citizens as soon as they receive them. For spouses of U.S. green card holders, processing will continue when their priority date is current. They'll have to wait 8-10 months for their priority date to be current on the Department of State’s visa bulletin. Then, they can submit the rest of their green card application.
When the NVC opens your case, they'll send you a welcome letter by mail or e-mail. Your case identification number, beneficiary ID number, and invoice number will be on the letter. You'll use this information to access the Consular Electronic Application Center online where you'll complete both Forms DS-261 and DS-260.
How Do I File Form DS-261?
To file Form DS-261, you first need to sign in to the CEAC website with the case number that the National Visa Center (NVC) sent you earlier. When you're signed in, you'll identify your relation to the person applying for a green card. If you are filling out your own Form DS-261 you should identify yourself as the applicant. If another person completes the form for you, they should select the corresponding options. For example, the petitioner.
After, you'll arrive at a webpage asking you to choose an agent. An agent is a person who NVC will communicate with throughout the process. You can be the agent. Your green card sponsor, a friend, an immigration attorney, or another trusted individual can be the agent too. Be sure to check that all contact information you provide is correct — you can’t change this information after submitting the form.
After the NVC processes your Form DS-261 (up to three weeks later), you will have to pay two required filing fees online. The immigrant visa application processing fee is $325 and the Affidavit of Support fee is $120. But sometimes you won't have to pay the Affidavit of Support Fee. You can confirm that on the State Department website. You should expect to wait up to a week for the NVC to process your DS-261 payment.
How Do I File Form DS-260?
After the NVC processes your DS-261 payment, you can file Form DS-260 online through CEAC.
You need your case identification number, beneficiary ID number, and invoice number from the NVC’s welcome letter to access the form. Form DS-260 asks biographical questions, such as any names you have used, and your date and place of birth. It also asks for any addresses where you have physically lived since the age of 16 (not just the addresses you have used as permanent addresses).
You will also answer questions about any personal social media platforms you have used in the last five years. Be sure that all information on your social media accounts is consistent. Update any public information displayed on your accounts, such as your name or marital status, to reflect your actual name or status. Immigration officials review your social media accounts to confirm your identity. They also want to ensure that you are not associated with groups that threaten U.S. security.
On the DS-260, you'll have to confirm your mailing address and permanent address. Your permanent address is where you intend to live after arriving in the United States. You can also choose whether your permanent address is where you would like the NVC to mail your permanent resident card (green card). It is important that you have access to this address for the next several months, as it may take a while for your green card to arrive at your U.S. address. If your U.S. address changes before you receive your green card, you can change your address online or call the USCIS Contact Center.
The next step on the form is to provide information on your family members. Please record all familial relationships here. For example, you must include all stepchildren, adopted children, and biological children, whether or not they are immigrating to the U.S. with you.
You'll also answer questions about your previous U.S. travel and describe your work, school, and training history. You also have to respond to questions about your medical health history.
You will then answer a series of questions to determine whether you are legally "inadmissible" to the United States. Should you answer “yes” to any of these questions, be sure to explain your situation fully. A “yes” answer does not automatically disqualify your green card application. Be aware that you may have to provide documentation to support any explanations to questions you answered with “yes.”
You can't move on in the Consular Electronic Application Center system if you leave any important information blank. Be sure to answer all questions presented to you. You should also regularly save your work, as you run the risk of having the system time out and erase your information if you are inactive for too long.
Please note that you must complete the form in English and transliterate any words that are not in English characters. Finally, make sure to print the confirmation page, as you will need this for your immigrant visa interview.
For additional help with filing forms for the family green card consular process, please see our detailed filing guide.
What Supporting Documents Do I Need To File With Form DS-260?
In addition to Form DS-260, you and your spouse will also have to submit certain supporting documents. Check out our detailed checklist of required supporting documents for Form DS-260 in our filing guide.
As the applicant spouse, you will need to provide:
Proof of your nationality (a copy of your birth certificate and your passport photo page).
A copy of your marriage certificate. If you had any previous marriages, you need proof of marriage termination, such as a divorce or death certificate.
If you have served in the military, you will need a copy of your military record.
If you have a history of infractions, you may need to provide police clearance letters documenting these incidents.
As the sponsoring spouse, you will need to provide:
The Affidavit of Support (Form I-864) to prove that you can financially support your spouse in the United States.
If you had any previous marriages, you will need proof of marriage termination, such as a divorce or death certificate.
Proof that you have ties to the United States. Proof of address or a state-issued ID should be enough if you live in the U.S. If you are living outside of the United States, you have to meet one of the following requirements:
You hold temporary residence abroad and maintain a primary domicile in the United States.
You were abroad at the request of U.S. government employers or U.S. institutions.
You intend to come back to the U.S. and establish yourself before or when the applicant enters the United States.
Depending on which U.S. consulate or embassy processes your application, you may need to provide more documents. You should submit all supporting documents together in one package.
What Happens After I File Form DS-260?
After you successfully file Form DS-260, the National Visa Center will send your paperwork to your local U.S. embassy or consulate. The NVC will ask you to schedule an immigrant visa interview at your local U.S. embassy or consulate. Before your interview, you must complete a medical exam with a USCIS-approved doctor. You’ll find more details on the interview process and the medical exam at your local U.S. embassy or consulate’s website.
Once you schedule your interview, you’ll receive an interview appointment letter from the NVC. The letter lists everyone who has to be at the interview.
You must bring your valid passport and two passport-size photos to your interview. You'll also need your appointment letter, Form DS-260 confirmation page, and the supporting documents that you uploaded to the CEAC website. The embassy or consulate will return all original documents to you after your interview but may keep any photocopied documents.
If you didn’t translate any of the required documents sent to the NVC, you should do so in preparation for your interview and bring them with you. Also, be prepared to pay any outstanding fees at the U.S. embassy or consulate.
After the interview, the embassy or consulate will decide the outcome of your case. You'll get the final decision either immediately after your interview or later on. If the embassy approves your application, you'll receive a U.S. visa that is valid for up to 12 months so you can travel to the United States.
As an approved applicant, you'll also receive a sealed envelope with your file. Don’t open this envelope. A U.S. border officer will open it when you immigrate to the United States.
With an approved visa, you may now pay the required USCIS Immigrant Fee ($220) online. USCIS will then mail your official green card to your U.S. permanent address within three to four weeks of entry. As a permanent resident, you will get a Social Security number, allowing you to work in the United States and pay any required taxes.
How Long Does Form DS-260 Take To Process?
The National Visa Center processes most cases within three months, but this timeline can vary by case. Typically, the longer you wait to submit, the longer the form will take to process. You can read more about the NVC’s processing times in our detailed article on how long application processing takes.
How Can I Check My Form DS-260 Status?
You’ll also be able to see where your application processing stands online. You can input your case number on the Consular Electronic Application Center’s Status Tracker to check the progress of your application at any point in the process. You may also contact the National Visa Center by phone to check your application status.