The U.S. State Department this year introduced a new visa application form, the DS-160. It replaces the DS-156 and DS-157 forms, which most visa applicants have been using to obtain visas for initial entry or return travel to the United States.
For background, except for individuals from certain countries traveling to the U.S. for short-term (90 days maximum) business or pleasure trips and Canadian citizens, most individuals traveling to the U.S. must obtain visas from a United States consulate abroad before traveling to the United States. Upon entry, the Customs and Border Protection agent then issues an "I-94 Departure Record" confirming the visa class and authorized period of stay. While the terms "visa" and "I-94" sometimes are used interchangeably, they are very different documents. The visa allows a foreign national to present him- or herself for entry to the United States. If allowed to enter, the I-94 then governs for how long and what purpose the person may stay.
Until this year, all applicants needed to prepare the DS-156 form. It elicits basic biographical information, the purpose of the intended travel to the United States, prior visa issuances and travel to the U.S. and health and criminal background information. Male applicants between 16 and 45 also needed to complete the DS-157 form to provide additional information concerning their education, employment history, any specialized weapons, chemical, biological or nuclear training or experience, military service and armed conflict participation. Some consulates allowed individuals to complete these forms by hand. Over the past several years, however, most posts had transitioned to electronic versions, which the applicant completed online, printed and then took to the visa interview. The data was entered into the Consulate’s systems by scanning a bar code imprinted on the paper forms.
The new DS-160 form is an entirely electronic application. The visa applicant completes and submits the form online. The system then generates a confirmation page for the applicant to take to the visa interview. The consular officer uses the confirmation page to retrieve the application from the State Department’s system. The rollout of this new form already is well underway at U.S. consulates around the world. The goal was to transition all posts to the new form by April 30, 2010, but it now appears that some posts will be delayed. Experience to date has shown that the DS-160 requests more information than the DS-156 and DS-157 and takes longer to complete. The instructions recommend saving the form frequently to avoid lost data while completing the form. As with any new process, there is a learning curve for both applicants and State Department personnel. There have also been some technology issues in the implementation of the new form. While the DS-160 is a slightly different method to capture much of the same information, visa applicants should be able to adapt to it with relative ease. As the various consular posts transition to the new form, links to the DS-160 will be available on the consulates’ web sites. In this regard, employers of individuals traveling abroad and applying for visas can remind their employees to make sure they follow the particular consulate’s instructions and complete the required forms.