Guide to DS-260 and DS-261

Updated on April 10, 2024

At a Glance

  • The DS-260 is an essential online form for those seeking marriage-based green cards outside the United States, serving as the immigrant visa application.
  • Processed by the local U.S. Consulate or Embassy and the National Visa Center (NVC), it captures background information crucial for green card applications.
  • The DS-261 facilitates communication between the applicant and the NVC, focusing specifically on current contact details.
  • After careful completion, submission, an interview, and final fee payment, the NVC processes the application, granting permanent residency status to the approved applicant before entering the U.S.

If you are a person that is hoping to enter the United States as an immigrant, then you might come across two forms: the DS-260 and the DS-261. These forms are entirely filled online, making them a more convenient choice if you are sending your documentation from a distance – like for instance, a different country.

With so many forms and visas for different types of immigrants, it can be quite difficult to understand which one should be filed where – and most importantly why. While directly related, DS-260 and DS-261 are quite different. This article will help you understand where they meet – and where they start getting different.

What Is the DS-260?

Any person who is opting for marriage-based green cards while outside of the United States will be required to file the online form, DS-260. This form will be handled through your local U.S. Consulate or Embassy and the NVC (National Visa Center). It’s like the Form I-864 – only this one is filled online.

Technically speaking, form DS-260 is referred to as the “immigrant visa application” – where immigrant refers to a “permanent resident. Not a traveler or someone who is going there for business on a temporary basis – but someone who has every intention of living there permanently. Therefore, if your application is approved, you’ll be given your permanent residency status before you even enter the U.S.

What Is the DS-261?

The DS-261 has the purpose of establishing a communication line between the applicant and the NVC. Simply put, this simple online form will tell the state department exactly how to communicate with you during the application process. It will contain your contact information, as well as other kinds of information that may make contacting you an easy process. This is a crucial aspect for both parties, considering that you will have to be contacted in another country.

Differences between DS-260 and DS-261

Not many differences can be seen between the two – but perhaps the main difference lies in their timeline and complexity. Form DS-260 asks questions about your background information, as well as other information they deem relevant. It will ask about all the places where you lived in ever since you were 16 – and simply put, it will be your life written down on paper.

While form DS-260 will have your past information and background, the form DS-261 will only have the current information. It will tell them precisely how they will be able to contact you because they will know for a fact that it is your exact place of residence.

What Is the National Visa Center?

The NVC (short for National Visa Center) is a government office from the U.S. – namely, Portsmouth, New Hampshire – which processes every green card application for those that are living outside the borders of the U.S. and are applying to get a visa through their local consulate or embassy.

Once USCIS (the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) approves Form I-130 – which is your family sponsorship form – they will send the already-approved paperwork to the National Visa Center. From this point on, your marriage-based visa is sent from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to the U.S. Department of States – meaning that it goes from USCIS to the NVC.

Getting Started

The first thing you have to do here is to file Form I-130 – the family sponsorship form – with USCIS and attach any other supporting documents that you may have. Once you have done this, the sponsoring person (the spouse) will receive a notice from USCIS – one that will reach their mail in two weeks time.

With the assumption that USCIS has everything that it requires, it will either approve or deny your application within 7 to 15 months. This will all depend on your own situation. However, once approved, USCIS will forward your documentation towards the National Visa Center.

Form I-130 and the National Visa Center

At this point, you may say that the National Visa Center takes the case. Once the NVC has received your approved paperwork, a notice will be sent to your spouse in the mail or in their e-mail – depending on your choice in notification method. This notice will contain a case number, an ID number of the beneficiary, as well as an invoice number.

In regards to the beneficiary ID number, this number is unique, as it is assigned by the NVC for each particular beneficiary (i.e. the beneficiary that is looking to get their green card). This number is required so that they may submit the form and pay the fees at the Consular Electronic Application Center of the NVC.

If the sponsoring spouse is a U.S. citizen, then the NVC will begin to process your application immediately after it was received from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service. However, if the sponsoring spouse is a green card holder, then the case will be held by the NVC until the case’s “priority date” appears in the visa bulletin of the State Department. Typically, this occurs about 8 to 10 months after you have submitted your application.

In this case, the NVC will send you a notice (it can be by email or mail) where they will announce you that “visas aren’t currently available for your requested category of visa.” Still, there’s no need to panic, as all that you will need to do is monitor the progress on the visa bulletin. Eventually, your name will pop up.

DS-261 Fees

Once you are clear to go onto the next step, you will have to file the Form DS-261 – which is also referred to as the Online Choice of Address and Agent. This form, in particular, is very simple, and it will tell the State Department exactly how they are supposed to communicate with you. With this form, you will not have to pay any fees to file it – but it can still take up to 3 weeks until the NVC processes it.

However, once it has been eventually processed, there will be two fees that you will have to pay – both of which will add up to a total of $445. The application fee for the State Department in $325 – but aside from that, you will also have to pay the financial support form fee.

You will become aware of the fact that your DS-261 has been processed when you will see the fee invoices at the Electronic Application Center of the NVC. It can take as much as a week until your payment is processed by the NVC. To ensure that everything is processed smoothly, you might work together with an immigration attorney – as they will tell you precisely what you should and what you should not do.

How to File DS-260

Once the payment has been processed, you may go online and file the Form DS-260 – your immigrant application visa. Here are the main steps that you will need to follow.

Access the Form

The Form DS-260 is to be submitted online – and only after the processing fee for the visa has been paid. Because of this, there may be a couple of days delay between when you pay the fee and when you will be given access to the form.

Still, once you are granted that access, you should go to the CEAC page and log in. You will immediately find the links that lead you to the Form DS-260.

Provide the Necessary Information

Form DS-260 has quite a few pages that you will have to fill in – and you will be asked a number of questions. You will receive questions about your background, what names you had, what addresses you had in the past, your educational history, as well as information regarding your family members.

You will also receive questions that will determine whether they are admissible in the United States or not. If you have committed crimes, are a security risk, or are likely to need financial assistance from the government, then there is a high chance that you will not be admitted into the U.S.

DS-260 Filing Tips

Many people have their request rejected due to not being attentive enough. Here are some filing tips for the DS-260 that will raise your chances of being approved:

  • Do not leave any blanks in spaces where important information is asked for. The CEAC system won’t let you move forward if you do so.
  • As this form needs to be completed in English (with English characters), you might want to plan ahead to get help if you aren’t really confident in your English.
  • Save your work as often as you can, preferably after each page. If you idle for too long on the system, it will automatically time out.
  • Save the DS-260 and come back later if you can’t finish everything in one sitting.
  • It may take months until you receive your green card, so make sure that you do not change your address until then.
  • Always proofread before submitting, because you won’t be able to make any corrections once you have made the submission.
  • Once the DS-260 has been submitted online, you will need to print the confirmation page so that you can take it with you to your interview at the Consulate of the United States.

If you aren’t completely certain how to handle filing the form, you may ask for advice from an immigrant attorney – as they are very likely to have handled these forms before.

DS-260 Supporting Documents

When opting for a green card in the online medium, there are two categories of documents that will be required: from the beneficiary and from the spouse that is sponsoring the beneficiary. These are the documents that are needed from the applicant spouse:

  • Nationality proof (a passport photo page and a copy of the birth certificate).
  • A copy of the marriage certificate.
  • In the event of any prior marriages, a copy of the termination documents for the marriage (i.e. death or divorce certificates)
  • If you served, a copy of your military record is requested.
  • A copy of your police certificate that will show any infractions from your past – or even the lack thereof.

Aside from the documents for the applicant spouse, the sponsor will also have to provide a few documents:

  • Proof that they have the ability to support their spouse in the United States.
  • Copies of marriage termination documents (i.e. death certificate or divorce papers) in the event that they have had any previous marriages.

Once these documents have been brought to the table, the process should go smoothly.

DS-260 Interview and Final Fee

Once the supporting documents have been sent, all that is left for you to do is to attend the interview. You will receive notice about the time and date – but generally, it will take 1-2 months after the document submission until you are scheduled.

If and when your visa is approved, you will be given an immigrant visa stamp on your passport. At this stage, you will be required to pay the USCIS Immigrant Fee, which is $220 and can be paid online. This fee is needed so that they may send the physical green card at your U.S. address in 3-4 weeks time.

The process should be simple, provided you follow the steps correctly. The DS-260 and the DS-261 are mandatory if you wish to obtain a marriage-based green card from outside the borders of the U.S. However, if you read the instructions carefully and follow the directions provided by USCIS and the NVC, you should be able to increase your chances of receiving a green card.

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Final Thoughts

If you want to gain your citizenship through marriage, then the Form DS-260 and Form DS-261 are certainly some documents you might want to familiarize yourself with. In the event that you are not entirely certain how to fill in the documents, you might want to work with an immigration lawyer or someone that has the necessary expertise.

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