Visa Delays & Security Clearance
Security Advisory Opinion (SAO), commonly called "security clearance," "administrative clearance," or "administrative processing," is a process that 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, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
International students and scholars seeking U.S. visas may encounter visa delays and/or security clearance checks for a variety of reasons, including:
- Student or scholar's name (or part of their name) may be similar to a name on a U.S. government watch list
- Citizenship or residence is in a country designated as a “state sponsor of terrorism” (Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria)
- Citizenship or residence is in a country designated as a “nonproliferation export control” country, which are those considered by the U.S. to possess nuclear capability (China, India, Israel, Pakistan, and Russia)
- The student or scholar will be engaged in activities in a “sensitive/critical field” that could be used for illegal technology transfer and a possible undesired military application.
It is important to note, though, that 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.
Frequently Asked Questions
How does the visa and SAO process work?
When a student or scholar applies for a visa, the consular officer must decide whether an additional security check is warranted. If the consular officer 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, they may decide to send the visa application to Washington, D.C., 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 will also state, “the refusal may be overcome without filing another visa application once you present the required additional evidence”. The notice will also provide 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 examples of these fields include: chemical and biotechnology engineering, materials technology, information security, robotics, remote sensing and imaging technology, advanced 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 visas to study or work at CMU have to go through the security clearance process. In our experience, most individuals 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.
If I believe I may be subject to a security clearance process, what can I do to prepare for my visa appointment?
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)
Students and scholars involved in “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. Students and scholars who study "sensitive" areas and are from one of the "nonproliferation 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 their timely return to the U.S.
If my visa application is selected for review, should I contact OIE?
If your application is selected for a security review and your visa application may be delayed because of "Administrative Processing" or "Security Clearance," please inform OIE by completing our Visa Delay or Denial Form. You will need the following information to complete this form:
- Your name and date of birth, as they appear on your passport
- The date you applied for the visa
- The U.S. Embassy/Consulate location where you applied
- The case number (if known)
- A copy of the notice as soon as you receive it from the embassy/consulate
- (Optional) Summary of your conversation with the consulate officer and/or any documentation provided by the consulate
- (Optional) A list of any information requested from Carnegie Mellon
- Please note: usually, the requested information should be provided by your academic department.
Can my department help if I encounter a visa delay or security clearance issue?
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 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) used to support that research and description of any export-controlled technology and/or information that will be shared with the 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 email address and a list of publications." If the student does not have a research advisor, the department can decide what information to provide, for example: a CV of the department’s/program’s head and/or 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.
Once my application is sent to the U.S. government in Washington D.C., is there anything else that can be done?
Once a student or scholar's application is sent to Washington, D.C., for review, there is little that can be done, except to inform OIE (email@example.com) and to wait. Concerned advisors or supervisors should consult with OIE before seeking outside help. Many clearances are processed within 4-6 weeks; however, some clearances can take 2-3 months or longer. While it is important for students and scholars to arrive at CMU to begin their studies or research, ultimately the Department of State must follow their processes for national security. An OIE Advisor can work with the academic department and student or scholar to discuss the best course of action for a longer visa delay or security clearance. See the FAQ above on what information to provide to OIE.
Can OIE help if I encounter a visa delay or security clearance issue?
The Office of International Education can help to determine whether the visa delay stems from a 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.