I’ve just finished this process for an H-1B visa from the US Embassy in London. The H-1B was allocated from the lottery by USCIS, but following the interview at the embassy I was handed a 221(g) form giving me notice of “administrative processing”. I’ve also previously been through this process for the F-1 student visa. For anyone else in this situation, this post should illustrate some of what’s going on and what you can expect.
WTH is going on?
Administrative processing is a massively vague term. What’s actually happening is that the Embassy is doing a background check on you. They don’t do it themselves – instead, they package your information and send it off to the FBI and other agencies, who are actually doing the checks.
How long should I expect to actually wait?
I waited 32 days for processing of my F-1. I waited 4-5 months for processing of my H-1B.
The London Embassy helpfully publishes the status of your application on their website. Even better – they don’t just publish yours, but everyone else’s information as well. So, I did some quick analysis on this data.
For everyone who’s still waiting (i.e. status = pending), here’s a frequency graph of waiting times.
This analysis is based on data from 09.00hrs on 14th Sept 2010.
This means that, for example, about 52% of people who are waiting have been waiting more than 90 days. If the speed of processing at the Embassy isn’t changing over time, this means that your chances of hearing something before 90 days is about one in two.
I’ve also heard that the 90 day mark is used as an internal check, i.e. the embassy themselves will start chasing various agencies for the results of your check around this time. I’d expect to see an inflexion point in the chart if this was the case, but the data doesn’t seem to bear this out.
(Update: A reader wrote in to show their analysis of the US Embassy in Tokyo. It seems to indicate a 2 week backlog, and a faster average response.)
Is there anything I can do in the meanwhile?
If you want to speed it up, to the best of my knowledge there is precisely bugger all that you can do. To quote the London embassy:
Please do not contact the Embassy while your application is being processed as we will not be able to assist you.
You can only do two things that will yield you information for sure:
- Obsessively check your email
- Check the website if you’re applying through the London embassy
For some people (including me) that’s just not enough, and there is other stuff to do, but it’s all just a shot in the dark rather than anything definite. In each case, I’ll include what I did and whether it helped (spoiler: nothing helped for sure).
Your senator. Although this might seem strange to us Brits, you can contact your local senator for assistance. This is probably the most concrete and useful step here. Unsurprisingly, your senator isn’t required to assist you in any way, but you can ask. In my case, we contacted Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office. The money quote:
My staff will be happy to assist you in following up on the status of your pending name check if your case has been pending with the FBI for at least one year.
Our company lawyer drafted a letter to a contact of his in Feinstein’s office. This is one of the advantages of *having* a lawyer, although it’s certainly no guarantee. We did get a reply back, but by that time the case was already completed.
State department. You can contact the state department directly to find out what the heck is going on. There is a direct number floating around, which I won’t include for fear of inundating the polite chap I spoke to, but it’s around. I did this, and was told that my application was still pending processing (not exactly a revelation). However, they were able to look up my case, so I did now know it had actually made it out of the embassy.
Personal network. If you’ve lived in the states for a while, you may know people who can find something out for you. It turned out that I had an acquaintance at the DOJ, a friend whose colleagues knew some politicians, and a colleague whose wife’s mum used to work for the state department. All of them were wonderful, sympathetic and tried to help by contacting people they knew who might know something. Although noone was able to dig up information specific to my case, I did get back some useful advice (which is now in this blog post).
National Academies. You can fill in a questionnaire. I’m not sure if it helped, but I did get a followup automated email after I was approved to confirm that everything was received.
The embassy themselves. The 221(g) plainly says that you can’t call the embassy for any information until 90 days are up. I called on the 91st day, but it was absolutely no help at all.
Is there anything I can do to avoid this in the future?
If you’re lucky enough to be reading ahead and you’re a few months before your potential 221(g), keep reading. If you’re in the US at the moment, I understand that it’s possible for you to get a check run on yourself before you head out. It will take about 3 months, and your local police department & FBI can help you out with this. Once it’s done, administrative processing should go faster – plus, you can take the checking documentation to the visa interview and wave it at them to save everyone some time.
What should I expect to see when it clears up?
You should get an email, but it’s not guaranteed. I didn’t hear anything on phone or email once the processing had completed on the H-1B, but I did get an email for the F-1. Here’s the text of the email I received.
Dear Mr $applicantName,
Please submit your passport.
You must resubmit your passport via the Embassy-appointed courier service, Special Mail Services (SMS). Once you are prepared to submit your passport for visa issuance please contact SMS by telephone on 0870-950-1760 to arrange pickup of your passport and delivery back to you upon issuance of your visa. The courier service will not have any information about your visa processing.
Important Notice: Your application will take between 15-20 workdays to process once it has been received by the Embassy. Once processing is complete, your passport will be handed to SMS. A further one to two days should be allowed for delivery.
The Embassy cannot expedite your application once it has been received. Please do not call the Operator Assisted Information Line or email us concerning the progress of your application unless more than two weeks has passed since SMS collected your documents, as we will not be able to provide you with any information.
We strongly advise that you do not purchase any tickets for travel to the United States or make irrevocable travel plans until after you have been issued a visa and your passport has been returned to you.
If your travel dates have passed, you must submit a new itinerary. If you are planning to travel for the same purpose at a later date, we may well be able to issue your visa, however, if your circumstances have changed, we will have to do further processing.
Expect to wait. If it clears up quickly – thank your stars and head to the New World.
Please drop a note in the comments if this was useful or you have any other experiences that might help others.
Updated: I added in some extra information as I learned more about the process. My H-1B has been issued and I’m now back in the states. Best of luck to everyone waiting.