Security Clearance during Visa Application Process
Security Advisory Opinion (SAO), commonly called “security clearance”, “administrative clearance”, or “administrative processing” is a process the U.S. Department of State and its consulates use in deciding to grant or deny a U.S. visa. The process involves sending a request from the visa issuing post to the Department of State headquarters in Washington, D.C., to investigate a visa applicant’s case for a possible national security risk. The process also involves other U.S. government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, FBI, CIA, etc.
International scholars and students seeking U.S. visas may face visa delays/security clearance checks for many reasons:
- Because someone’s name (or part of a name) may be similar to a name on a U.S. government watch list;
- Due to citizenship or residence in a country designated as a “state sponsor of terrorism” (Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria);
- Due to citizenship or residence in a country designated as a “non-proliferation export control” country - citizens from countries considered to possess nuclear capability (China, India, Israel, Pakistan, and Russia);
- When the individual will be engaged in activities in a “sensitive/critical field” that may be used for illegal technology transfer and a possible undesired military application.
NOTE: any student or scholar applying for a U.S. visa may be subject to the security clearance process, regardless of the field or country of origin.
How does the visa and SAO process work?
When a student or scholar applies for a visa, the Consular Official must make a decision about whether an additional security check is warranted. If the Consular Official has reasons to think that the applicant’s case fits one of the security check reasons outlined above or is unsure about whether the research area fits into one of the sensitive categories, he/she may decide to send the visa application to Washington for review. The visa applicant is then given a notice from the consulate, stating that their visa application “has been refused under Section 221(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952”. This is not a final visa denial, but a delay in the visa issuance, pending a security clearance process. As the notice also states, “The refusal may be overcome without filing another visa application once you present the required additional evidence”. The notice also provides a list of additional evidence/documents that the visa applicant must provide to the consulate.
Not surprisingly, there are many research fields on the government’s “sensitive/critical fields” list that reflect research that is conducted at CMU. Some example of these fields would be: chemical and biotechnology engineering, materials technology, information security, robotics, remote sensing and imaging technology, advance computer /microelectronic technology, sensors and sensor technology, and urban planning (including architecture, design and civil engineering). As a result, many students and scholars applying for their visa to attend/work at CMU have to go through the security clearance process. In our experience, most of them receive their visas once the security checks are completed. The process ranges from 4-6 weeks (most common) to a few months in some cases.
What can the visa applicant do to prepare for the visa appointment, if they believe that they may be subject to a security clearance process?
Review the Consulate’s website for specific guidance. In general, when applying for a U.S. visa you should provide the following:
- Copy of departmental description of the degree program
- Current official transcript (students only)
- Complete resume/CV
- List of publications and presentations (including samples), if any
- Sources of funding for education (students) or exchange visit (scholars)
If your application is selected for a security review, please inform OIE by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the following information:
- Place of application
- Date of application
- Passport number
- Case number (if known)
- Summary of your conversation with the consulate officer
- Any documentation provided by the consulate
- A list of any information requested from Carnegie Mellon
Students and scholars involved in the “sensitive/critical fields” must be honest about the nature of the research, but it is recommended to answer only those questions asked by the U.S. consulate. The consular officer knows precisely what information they need for the visa review. In the event that the U.S. consular officer targets the application for review, a wait of several weeks to several months is likely inevitable while the case is checked in Washington, D.C. Students and scholars who study "sensitive" areas and are from one of the "non-proliferation export control countries" (China, India, Israel, Pakistan, and Russia) in particular may consider delaying or postponing any discretionary international travel when a new visa is required. If travel is unavoidable and a new visa is necessary, visa applicants should be prepared for the possibility of a long delay preventing the student or scholar's timely return to the U.S.
What can the CMU department do to help students and scholars avoid problems?
If a student or scholar receives a notice from the consulate, asking for additional information about their research or course of study, the academic advisor who will supervise the student's or scholar's research is in the best position to explain the nature of the research and relevance (or not) to the “sensitive/critical fields”. An advisor or supervisor of a current or prospective graduate student or scholar who must apply for a U.S. visa abroad may write a letter addressing the issue in support of the visa application of the student's or scholar's visa interview.
Address the letter to "Dear Consular Officer," and explain the content of the course (for students) or the nature of the student or scholar's research in layman's terms. You should not use complex or overly-technical language. If the nature of the research is theoretical, this should be clearly stated. If the research is applied, the application should be explained. The letter should also list sources and amounts of any U.S. government money (or funding from U.S. corporations assisting the U.S. government) to be used to support that research and description of any export-controlled technology and/or information that will be shared with applicant. This letter should be addressed to the appropriate consulate, based on the consular request provided to the student or scholar.
The consulate may also request a “detailed CV or resume of research advisor in the U.S., including e-mail address and a list of publications”. If the student does not have a research advisor, the department can decide what information to provide in this case: e.g., a CV of the department’s/program’s head, a brief letter of explanation stating that the student’s program does not involve any research and therefore the student does not have a research advisor, etc.
What can be done once the application is sent to Washington?
Once a student or scholar's application is sent to Washington for review, there is little that can be done, except to inform OIE and to wait. Many clearances are processed within 4-6 weeks. While that seems to be the case, some clearances have taken 2-3 months or longer. OIE recommends that students and scholars notify OIE of security clearance delays and that concerned advisors or supervisors consult with OIE before seeking outside help. Even if it is very important for a student or scholar to be at CMU by a certain date, the perception of national security needs outweigh the advisor or department's concern about delayed arrival of a student or researcher.
What can the Office of International Education do to help?
The Office of International Education can help to determine whether the visa delay stems from the security clearance or another issue. If it is determined that the security clearance is the reason for the delay, OIE unfortunately cannot facilitate or speed up the processing of the visa application, for the reasons stated above. OIE can review letters and provide updated information that becomes available about this process. Please contact the OIE advisor responsible for your department by emailing OIE.