Making Sense of the U.S. Immigration System’s Complex Electronic Application Process


Here are some quick explainers for how to easily apply for your immigrant visa

Mar 8, 2021


Man files his U.S. immigration form online

Navigating the U.S. immigration system can be a challenge, especially with the many different forms and confusing systems. Here are some quick explainers for how to easily apply for your immigrant visa.

Can you file electronically on USCIS?

One of the simplest ways to file your immigration paperwork is online, and both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. State Department provide options, but these can be limited to certain types of applications.

Want to sign up for our weekly newsletter covering all things immigration?

Enter your email below.

Let’s start with DHS and the online forms you can file with them. The good news is that submitting your application online provides you with instructions and tips from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) as you complete your form, which helps you avoid common mistakes. You can also pay your application fees online. However, only some USCIS forms (for example, Form N-400 or Form I-130) can be filled online, so make sure that you check the forms that can be filed online on the USCIS website.

The State Department allows green card applicants to file both the DS-260 and DS-261 online, as well as applications for temporary visas.

Which application system applies to me? myUSCIS? CEAC?

Here’s where it can get a little confusing. USCIS and the State Department allow you to file online for different steps of the visa process and for different immigration form types.

For USCIS forms (for example, Form N-400 or Form I-130), you create an account on MyUSCIS. On MyUSCIS you can file forms, see your application status, and track correspondence between USCIS and you about your case. There are also tools and other information about applying for U.S. citizenship, as well as the test and interview process for it.

You should use the State Department’s Consular Electronic Application Center (CEAC) website for your green card or temporary visa application if you are outside the United States. So, if your Form I-130 was approved and you are located outside the United States, you will typically be going through the consular processing process and use CEAC to submit the DS-260. Similarly, if you are applying for a temporary U.S. visa, you will also use CEAC.

Important: If you are a green card applicant filing from outside the United States, your sponsor needs to submit Form I-130 online at MyUSCIS or by mail. After Form I-130 is approved, you can use the CEAC website.

How to navigate the myUSCIS application portal

The MyUSCIS application portal is simple to use and easy to navigate. Here are some quick tips for using MyUSCIS:

  • Make sure that you choose a secure, unique password for your account to protect your confidential information.
  • Every time you log in to your USCIS online account, you must enter a one-time verification code. Make sure that you choose to receive this verification code in a way that you will always be able to access (for example, text, email, or authentication app).
  • Even if you filed by mail, you can add paper-filed cases to your MyUSCIS account. Choose “My Account” and then “Add a paper-filed case” in the drop-down menu. Enter your receipt number, and you will see your case status and history.
  • If you need technical support, send USCIS a secure message. If you did not file your case online but have a receipt number that begins with “IOE”, you can create a USCIS online account to send secure messages.

How to navigate the State Department DS-260 application system

The State Department DS-260 application on CEAC is simple to use and easy to navigate. Here are two quick tips for using the DS 260 application:

  • Make sure that you save your application frequently. The DS-260 is a long and detailed form, with a lot of required information. Make sure that you are saving every time you add new information or make changes.
  • Have your case number ready, since it is used to access your application on CEAC.

How do I get an appointment with an immigration office online?

If you are inside the United States, you can no longer schedule an appointment online using InfoPass for domestic offices. However, you can check your case status, see case processing times, change your address, and use other tools on MyUSCIS.

If those online tools don’t provide the help you need, USCIS recommends calling the USCIS Contact Center to request an appointment.

How can I contact USCIS and NVC by phone?

Both USCIS and the NVC experience high call volumes, so be prepared for a long wait.

If you want to call USCIS, make sure you use the information from their official website about their contact center. This will help you call up-to-date numbers and avoid calling scam numbers. After you have found the official and dialled the official USCIS number, press 1 for English (or press other numbers for other languages that are available), then press 1 to check your case status or press 2 to talk to a USCIS representative. USCIS also operates a voice-activated support system that gives you information 24/7 about your case. However, if you want to speak to a USCIS representative, you need to call between 8am and 9pm EST, Monday through Friday (excluding holidays).

To contact the NVC, make sure you call their official number. The number you call depends on what step of the visa process you are in or which visa you are applying for, so make sure you check before you dial. You can call between 7am to midnight EST, Monday through Friday

(excluding holidays).

Can I pay with a credit card, or do I need to send a check?

For fees collected by USCIS (for example, for Form I-130 or Form N-400), you can pay by check or credit card. There are specific rules depending on how many applications you are paying for, so make sure you check the USCIS guidance on acceptable payment methods.

For NVC fees, you cannot pay by credit card or by check. All fees must be paid online through CEAC. If you cannot pay online, ask for assistance by sending a screenshot to NVC by using the Public Inquiry Form. For more information, see the NVC fee payment FAQs.

Where can I check my application status?

If you filed the form with USCIS, you can check your application status online by using your case number, or on MyUSCIS if you applied on the portal or linked your paper-filed application to it.

For NVC cases, go to CEAC and enter your case number into the visa status check.

Where can I find processing times?

Processing time will vary depending on the type of form you filed or the stage of the visa process you’re in. For forms filed with USCIS, check online for the processing times for forms and USCIS offices. For NVC processing times, check online with the State Department.

How can I locate my USCIS field office or U.S. embassy/consulate?

To locate your USCIS field office, go to the field office locator and search with your zip code. To find a U.S. embassy or consulate, go to usembassy.gov to find the nearest diplomatic mission.


Boundless — for people who want the expertise
of an immigration lawyer, not the price tag.