A View From Behind the Glass: Student Visa Advice From a U.S. Visa Office



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Over the last decade, nearly one million Indian students were granted visas to study in the United States. Every one of them appeared before an American visa officer for an interview. If you have applied for a U.S. visa, you too have come face-to-face with one of us. Have you ever wondered who the visa officers are that will approve or deny your visa? 

When I was a child, I did not dream of becoming a visa officer when I grew up. Even as a young adult, first majoring in literature and then taking up teaching, it did not occur to me that I would one day sit on a high stool behind a glass window at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi and adjudicate visas. But for the last nine months, I have been doing just that -- almost 100 interviews a day.

I mention this by way of reminding you that visa officers are people too. We come from a variety of backgrounds. We once were lawyers, teachers, IT professionals, even fire fighters. But at some point in our lives, we took the Foreign Service written test, passed the day-long oral exam, and, after extensive training, became diplomats. Most of us are on our first or second tours. 

We joined the Foreign Service because we are interested in other cultures. Most of us are here because we chose to come to India. We visit the Taj Mahal; we read Chetan Bhagat's novels; we watch Delhi Belly; we love butter chicken. We want to be here, and we enjoy talking with you.

A lot of us studied Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, or Bengali for several months before we came to India so that we can conduct interviews with applicants who do not speak English. We might not be fluent or flawless, but we can ask a few basic questions: What is the purpose of your travel? Who do you know in America? How long do you plan to stay? Usually, we can understand the answers; when we do not, we ask our Indian colleagues to translate.

Every day in New Delhi, eight or nine officers interview hundreds of people seeking visas to the United States. Because we try to serve as many applicants as we can, the interviews are quite short -- only two to three minutes. A lot of the information that we need is already there in your application, but we like to hear from you, personally, about your travel plans. Sometimes, visa applicants bring stacks of documents, and they seem disappointed when we do not look at all that paperwork. But the idea of a personal interview is to speak with you face-to-face -- not to examine documents.

Our job is to uphold the law. Sometimes that means denying a visa. If you apply for a tourist visa, but we get the idea from the interview that you are really going to work at your uncle's pizza shop, then we will not issue the visa. Students who only apply to one school and cannot explain their choice are also unlikely to be granted a visa. It is important that your intentions match your visa category.

Many visa applicants pay consultants to prepare their applications. Although some consultants might provide helpful information, many do not. Remember that you alone are responsible for the accuracy of the information in your application. False information on the application or fake document packages could result in permanent ineligibility. 

If you are a student, we expect you to be credible and qualified. You should be prepared to talk about why you chose the university that you plan to attend, and you should be able to explain how you will pay for your studies. It should be easy for us to believe that you will finish the degree at the institution you have selected, and we must be convinced that full-time study is the primary purpose of your travel. 

It is best to apply early, but not before you have heard from your first-choice school. (Your visa will be annotated with the name of the school listed on your I-20 form at the time of your interview.) You can apply for a visa up to 120 days before your program is scheduled to begin. However, you may not enter the U.S. more than 30 days before the report date for your course. If you are applying for graduate work, be sure to apply as early as you can, as sometimes administrative processing is required that might delay the issuance of your visa.

Nearly 104,000 Indians are currently studying in the United States. Like you, they were nervous when they faced the American visa officer behind the glass. The situation, admittedly, does not put one at ease. However, if you know yourself to be a credible, qualified student, then you should have nothing to worry about. Take a deep breath, relax, and remember that the person behind the glass is there to help you. We are regular people too -- just like you.

For free and accurate information about how to apply for a U.S. visa, please visit the U.S. Embassy New Delhi website or the Department of State Travel site.

Monica Shie serves as a Consular Officer at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India.

(Source: US Depat of State, Official Blog)