Visa Delays and Department of State Security Clearances

All individuals who apply for a U.S. entry or re-entry visa at a consulate are screened before the visa is issued, regardless of nationality. The U.S. Department of State (DOS) requires consulates to comply with pre-visa clearances on all cases, with no exceptions. The consular post conducts an initial review of the application and interviews the applicant about his/her planned activity in the U.S.

There is no regulatory time frame within which such clearances must be completed. DOS and various agencies will take as long as they deem necessary to complete a thorough clearance.

  • U.S. Consulates and Embassies abroad have a limited number of appointments available for visa interviews. Consulates are often operating at capacity, so getting an appointment can be challenging. A scholar may be told that the first available appointment is weeks or even months into the future. Certain options may or may not be available to visa applicants:

    • During the visa application process online, the scholar will see either a calendar (to schedule an appointment) or a form to complete to request a “waiver” of the interview/visa appointment. Most scholars must undergo an interview and will not see this option. Only upon acceptance of the visa application in the electronic application system will the scholar see if an interview/visa appointment is or is not required.
    • Scholars should take the first available appointment and, if eligible, subsequently request an expedite (move the appointment to an earlier date). In general, expedites are only available for humanitarian reasons. Although, with guidance from the ISchO, and in extraordinary circumstance, the scholar and Department may draft a document to provide to the Consulate in support of an expedite, because arrival is critical by a particular deadline. An ISchO adviser can discuss when such a request is appropriate, possible, or has some chance, if any, of being successful.

    Note: After the visa interview, consular processing of the visa application will begin. Requesting an expedited appointment for a visa interview does not impact actual processing time of the visa application.

  • Note: Visa processing times/estimates on the websites of U.S. Consulate Posts are often inaccurate.

    Security Advisory Opinions (SAO): All foreign nationals who apply at a U.S. Consulate or Embassy abroad for a U.S. entry or re-entry visa are screened before the visa can be issued, regardless of nationality. The U.S. Department of State considers the vetting of visa applicants to be a matter of national security.

    It is at the visa interview stage when clear and concise information about the scholar's teaching, research, or other activity should be explained. It could be useful for the scholar to submit an employment letter explaining this, with the other visa application materials.

    The consular post asks the Department of State in Washington, D.C. to initiate the process of requesting clearances from various government agencies and databases including the FBI, CIA, Drug Enforcement Agency, Department of Commerce, Office of Foreign Asset Control, Interpol, the national criminal and law enforcement databases, the DOS Bureau of Non-proliferation, and others. The Bureau of Non-proliferation is concerned with technology transfer and other issues. This bureau considers lasers, satellites, and many other technologies that people study and research at MIT to be "sensitive" technologies. For example, satellites are considered "munitions." It is important to understand this in order to understand why MIT researchers are subject to these clearances.

    In general, when a security advisory opinion is necessary, the Consulate will tell the international scholar their visa is “refused” (not “denied”) while administrative processing is pending. And, they may give the scholar an “estimate” of processing time. The Consulate cannot be held to that timeframe, however. Depending on the scholar’s country of origin and field of research, administrative processing can be lengthy. For scholars from certain regions of the world it can take 1-4 weeks, or longer. For scholars born in or citizens of other regions, routine administrative processing can take up to 90 days. And lastly, for certain specific countries and regions of the world, administrative processing can take 5-8 months, or longer. An ISchO advisor can provide more information based on recent cases/experience.

  • Yes. All visa applicants need to fulfill multiple criteria to the satisfaction of the consular officer. The burden of proof lies on the applicant to demonstrate that the documents presented are genuine, the stated objectives are accurate, he/she has adequate financial resources, and he/she intends to return to the home country upon completion of the stated activity (F-1s and J-1s, not applicable to H-1B or O-1 applicants).

    Presidential Proclamation 10043, implemented by former President, Donald Trump, suspended entry of certain students and researchers from the People's Republic of China (impacts J-1 exchange visitors and F-1 students). See a news item summary of the proclamation.

    If the application for a visa is denied, the consular officer is supposed to provide the applicant with a document stating the reason for the denial. The international scholar can share that document with the MIT Department and/or ISchO to interpret its contents and ISchO will advise what, if any, further steps are possible.

  • As stated above, routine administrative processing takes longer for some scholars versus others, based on their country of birth and/or citizenship and the nature of their research. It is not possible for the International Scholars Office to predict or tell scholars and DLCs how long it will take. 

    • If the scholar did not initially present an employment letter describing their activity with the visa application, it can be provided to the Consulate subsequently, while the application is still pending.
    • The most effective strategy is to WAIT for administrative processing to be completed. A scholar may make occasional inquires to the U.S. Consulate to ask for an update and/or remind the consular officials they are waiting.
    • Although MIT has a worldwide reputation as an excellent and prominent institution, Institute officials do not have the ability to speed the processing of security advisory opinions/administrative processing.
    • Members of Congress cannot expedite administrative processing. As stated above, these security clearances are considered a matter of national security. However, a combination of efforts on the part of congressional representatives, institutions such as MIT, and higher education associations has resulted in high-level awareness of the problems and there are on-going efforts for improvement.

    Although there is little MIT can do for scholars whose arrivals or re-entries to the U.S. have been delayed due to administrative processing, please do inform ISchO about affected scholars. there may be transactions needed in government systems, such as amending J-1 program start dates in SEVIS, or other requirements.  Likewise, ISchO needs to know about lecturer, assistant professor of other instructional staff/employee deferrals.

    Emergencies and/or humanitarian situations: DLC HR administrators should contact the ISchO in the event a currently active/already appointed scholar or scholar’s family members’ re-entry has been delayed after travel, when the situation involves urgent or humanitarian reasons.

  • MIT departments, laboratories, and centers should decide on a case-by-case basis how to handle this issue, such as whether to place someone on unpaid leave, charge vacation days, terminate employment, or consult with MIT Global Support Resources.  It is important to inform the ISchO of these human resources decisions, as it may affect the visa documentation that MIT/ISchO filed, on behalf of the scholar, with the U.S. Department of Labor and/or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Page updated April 2023