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Visa Delays and Department of State Security Clearances

MIT Administrators > Visa Delays

What is it about the U.S. visa application process that causes people to get "stuck" outside the U.S.?

All individuals who apply at a U.S. Consulate or Embassy abroad for a U.S. entry or re-entry visa are screened before the visa is issued, regardless of nationality. After the events of September 11, 2001, the U.S. Department of State is especially strict and 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. It is at this initial stage that clear and concise information about the scholar's teaching, research, or other activity should be explained. In most cases, the visa is issued within a matter of days or weeks. However, in some cases it is decided that further checks are needed.

Issues that may cause problems or delays in the visa application process:

  • The applicant has not spelled his/her name consistently on all documents (passport, visa application, supporting documentation). This can cause delays and confusion. The name given on the visa application and supporting documentation should be exactly the same as the name listed in the passport.
  • The applicant has not read and followed the tips and guidance on the website of the U.S. consular post having jurisdiction over the visa application; this can cause delays or denial.
  • The consular post cannot understand the kind of work the person is doing and officers cannot assess the risk/benefit of granting the person a visa. A security clearance will likely be requested if the field is unclear.
  • The applicant is from a country considered to pose a risk or is working in a field that is considered "sensitive" in some way.
  • There are other individuals with the same or similar names. The consulate must rule out any incidents and clear up any "hits" the Consular Lookout (CLASS) system reveals on the name(s) in question.

The consular officer may tell the individual that a security advisory opinion (SAO) is needed and that he/she will be notified when it has been completed. In most cases, security clearances are completed within 30 days; however, there is no set time frame. The U.S. Department of State will neither discuss nor reveal the reason for a security advisory opinion on a particular case.

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What happens when a security advisory opinion is requested?

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 with possibly risky applications or at risk of being exported. Satellites are considered "munitions." It is important to understand this in order to understand why MIT researchers are subject to these clearances.

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How can we prevent this from occurring?

Although discretion to request SAOs always rests with the consular post, there are ways to ensure that the U.S. Consulate has the information needed to determine if such a clearance is really necessary:

  • Make sure the scholar follows all directions from the Consulate and web site and lists his/her name consistently on all documents.
  • Make sure the scholar reads the ISchO travel advisory.
  • Make sure that a scholar who is already at MIT discusses his/her travel plans with the ISchO before leaving the U.S.
  • Provide the scholar with a brief, concise letter from the faculty sponsor or other department official describing the nature of the research. (See a sample letter.)

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What should be done if a scholar has been stuck outside the U.S. with no security clearance for over 30 days?

First, report the delay to the International Scholars Office (ISchO). The ISchO has been tracking these cases and reporting them to the MIT administration and government relations staff and to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. The National Academy of Sciences has been collecting and reporting similar information. These statistics are used to lobby government agencies for increased cooperation at improving and expediting security clearances. National attention has now been focused on this issue and the need for the agencies involved to improve their systems and procedures. Many steps have already been taken to streamline interagency communication.

If the applicant is still awaiting the security clearance and visa 90 days or more after making the application, please notify the ISchO again.

Unfortunately, congressional offices are unable to help expedite visa issuance. The Department of State considers this to be a matter of national security and will not circumvent the security advisory opinion process under any circumstances. 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.

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What do we do about salary and benefits for a scholar who is already on appointment at MIT and is unexpectedly gone for many months?

MIT departments, laboratories, and centers should decide on a case-by-case basis how to handle this issue. Decisions about whether to place someone on unpaid leave, charge vacation days, or terminate employment should be made at the departmental level.

Please notify the ISchO of any such decisions, as they may affect visa documentation that MIT filed with the Department of Labor and/or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

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Are there other reasons for visa delays and denials beside those related to security clearances?

Yes. All 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 (except in the case of H-1B or O-1 applications).

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Last Updated: July 2019

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