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The DS-260 and DS-261 Online Forms, Explained

How to navigate the State Department’s system for processing green card applications

What is the DS-260?

The DS-260 is the green card application for applicants applying from outside the United States. The DS-260, officially called the “immigrant visa electronic application,” is handled through the National Visa Center (NVC) and your local U.S. Embassy or consulate.

What is the DS-261?

The DS-261 is a relatively simple online form that tells the State Department how to communicate with you during your green card application process.

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How to Apply

The first step in this process is to file the family sponsorship form (I-130) with USCIS, along with supporting documents. The sponsoring spouse will generally get a receipt notice in the mail from USCIS within about two weeks. Assuming that USCIS has all of the information that it needs, they will usually approve or deny this sponsorship petition within 13.5–40 months, depending on your situation. When approved, USCIS will forward your paperwork to the National Visa Center.

the NVC takes the case

Once the National Visa Center (NVC) receives your approved paperwork from USCIS, they will send you a welcome notice by mail or email, depending on which notification method you choose. This notice will include your case number, a beneficiary ID number, and an invoice number. The beneficiary ID number is a unique number that the NVC assigns to each beneficiary in a case (e.g. the spouse seeking the green card). You’ll need all of these numbers in order to submit the online forms and fees described below at the NVC’s Consular Electronic Application Center.

For spouses of U.S. citizens, the NVC starts processing your case immediately after receiving it from USCIS. For spouses of U.S. green card holders, the NVC will hold the case until the “priority date” for the case appears in the State Department’s visa bulletin. In this scenario, the NVC will send you a notice (by mail or email) stating that “visas are not currently available for your visa category” and that you should watch the visa bulletin to monitor progress.


In the April 2023 Visa Bulletin, the F-2A family-based category underwent a significant change that affects spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21 of U.S. Green Card holders. Due to a buildup of cases in this category, the “Final Action Dates” for F-2A applications are no longer current, indicating that applications with priority dates that have reached the front of the line and can be adjudicated are no longer valid. However, the “Dates for Filing” for the F-2A category are still current, allowing applicants to submit their green card applications. Nevertheless, these applications will not be processed until their priority date becomes current. For Mexican applicants, the “Final Action Date” or priority date has retrogressed to November 1, 2018, while for all other applicants, it has retrogressed to September 8, 2020. Consequently, there will likely be a significant increase in wait times for green cards in the F-2A category. We will closely monitor this situation and provide updates in our monthly Visa Bulletin report.

The DS-261

The next step is to file the DS-261 form (technically called the “Online Choice of Address and Agent”). This is a relatively simple form that tells the State Department how to communicate with you, and there is no fee to file it. It can take up to three weeks for the NVC to process the DS-261.

How Much Does the DS-261 Cost?

Once the NVC has processed your DS-261, you will need to pay two required fees online, for a total of $445: the State Department’s application processing fee ($325) and the financial support form fee ($120).

You will know that your DS-261 has been processed when the fee invoices become available at the NVC’s Consular Electronic Application Center. It can take up to a week for the NVC to process your DS-261 payment.

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Filing the DS-260

Once your payment has been processed, you can go online to file the DS-260 (immigrant visa application). This is the primary green card application for relatives living abroad and is administered by the Department of State.

DS-260 filing tips

  • To begin, you’ll need your case number, beneficiary ID number, and invoice number from the original welcome notice that the NVC sent you.
  • The entire DS-260 online form must be filled out in English. If you are submitting addresses or names that aren’t in the Roman alphabet, you must transliterate them.
  • Make sure you include information about all of your children—including stepchildren, adopted children, and biological children—no matter how old they are, and whether or not they will be immigrating to the United States with you.
  • Make sure to list all addresses where you’ve physically lived since the age of 16, not only addresses you’ve used as an official permanent address. For example, if you continued to use your parents’ address as your permanent address when you were in college, even though you weren’t living there, you’ll need to include the addresses where you actually lived.
  • It can take several months for the green card to actually arrive at your address in the United States, so make sure that the mailing address you provide will be valid throughout that time.
  • You can’t correct the DS-260 after you’ve submitted it online. Ideally, you should make sure that all of your information is correct the first time. However, if you discover a mistake after submitting your DS-260, you may simply inform the consular officer at your interview about the mistake and ask to have it corrected at that time.
  • Once you’ve submitted the DS-260 online, you must print the confirmation page so you can bring it to your visa interview at the U.S. consulate.

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Supporting Documents

After you submit your DS-260, the NVC will send out a notice (again via mail or email) confirming receipt of your DS-260, usually on the same day. You will then need to submit your supporting documents to the NVC as well.

Depending on which consulate is processing the application, you will either upload, email, or mail all of the supporting documents to the NVC. The NVC is responsible for gathering all the forms and documents needed to process your green card application and forwarding them to the consulate. The consulate is responsible for scheduling and conducting your immigrant visa interview and making a final decision on your immigrant visa petition.

It’s important to submit these documents in the way the NVC instructs you to—some U.S. consulates require physical copies, while others allow for emailing or uploading digital copies.

Documents from the applicant RELATIVE:

  • Proof of your nationality (copy of birth certificate and passport photo page)
  • Copy of your marriage certificate (for marriage-based green cards)
  • Copy of marriage termination documents (divorce or death certificate), if you had any prior marriages
  • Copy of your military record, if you have served
  • Copy of police certificates showing any past infractions or lack thereof. These certificates, also called “police clearance letters,” must be obtained from:
    • Any place in your home country where you lived for at least six months after age 16
    • Any place outside of your home country where you lived for at least one year after age 16
    • Any jurisdiction where you’ve ever been arrested or charged with a crime, regardless of how long you lived there or what age you were at the time

documents from the sponsoring Relative:

  • Proof of your ability to support your family member in the United States—for more details, see this article on the Affidavit of Support (Form I-864)
  • Copy of marriage termination documents (divorce or death certificate), if you had any prior marriages
  • Proof of domicile, meaning you have significant ties to the United States. For a sponsoring spouse or family member living in the United States, proof of address or a state-issued ID is generally sufficient evidence. For a sponsoring spouse or family member applying from outside the United States, head over here to learn about acceptable evidence of domicile.

Extra tips

  • Depending on your case and the U.S. consulate processing your application, there might be additional documents required. That’s why it’s always a good idea to carefully check the notice you receive from the NVC for any special requirements.
  • It’s important that you submit all of your supporting documents in one package.
  • You should only submit copies of your official documents, not originals.
  • Be prepared to bring the originals to your green card interview at the U.S. consulate.

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Interview and Final Fee

Once you’ve sent your supporting documents, it generally takes – months before your visa interview is scheduled. You’ll receive a notice from either the NVC or your local U.S. consulate informing you of your interview time and date.

DS-260 Costs

Once your visa is approved, you will receive an immigrant visa stamp in your passport. At this point, the USCIS Immigrant Fee ($235) can be paid online here. This fee is required for USCIS to produce and mail the physical green card.

It is best to pay this fee online as soon as you receive the visa stamp, so that you can receive your physical green card soon after you arrive in the United States. You will use the immigrant visa stamp to enter the United States, and you should receive your physical green card at your U.S. address typically within 3–4 weeks of entry.

The DS-260 and DS-261 are key requirements on the way to obtaining a family-based or marriage-based green card for anyone applying from outside the United States. By reading the instructions and following the directions carefully, you can increase the likelihood that your application process will go smoothly and end with an approved green card.

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