Dear Sophie: How should I prepare for my visa interview?

Dear Sophie,

Our startup was just accepted into the winter batch of a top accelerator! 

My co-founder just got laid off from big tech in H-1B, but he’s ok because his immigration lawyer is filing a change of status to B-1 within the 60-day grace period. I’m nervous, though, because I’m outside the U.S., and I don’t yet have a B-1/B-2 visitor visa.

How can I ace the visa interview? What type of questions will I be asked? How should I prepare?

— Tenacious in Tobago

A composite image of immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn in front of a background with a TechCrunch logo. laid off H-1B

Image Credits: Joanna Buniak / Sophie Alcorn

Summary: Common questions are Why do you want to travel to the U.S.? Where in the U.S. will you be going? How long do you plan to stay? What will you be doing while you’re in the U.S.? Do you have any relatives in the U.S.? If you’re self-employed, who is running your business while you are in the U.S.? Will you be looking for work in the U.S.? Who is paying for your visit?

More questions are listed below. Prepare with an immigration attorney or a consultant who specializes in visa interview strategies. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter for the latest immigration news and our upcoming webinars.

Full Dear Sophie article:

Dear Tenacious,

Thanks so much for reaching out! Let’s calm you and your cofounder – here is some recent valuable insight from my Mandy Feuerbacher, who spent seven years at the U.S. Department of State as a consular officer stationed in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Matamoros, Mexico. She knows all about visa interviews because she has conducted more than 100,000 visa interviews during her time as a consular officer.

Before I dive into your questions, let me provide some context and general recommendations for preparing for a consular interview.

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A visa interview with any immigration official is a high-stakes undertaking. Immigration officials have the discretion to decide whether or not to grant you a nonimmigrant visa or an immigrant visa (green card) that will enable you to enter the United States. And how well—or poorly—you do during the interview will have implications for your future visa and green card applications. 

Feuerbacher says that consular officers take notes about whether they think an interviewee is responsible, credible, and qualified, and that record will be available for all consular officers to see even if a person applies for another visa category or at another U.S. embassy or consulate. Unfortunately, you cannot bring an immigration attorney with you to a consular interview—a practice that the State Department did away with more than 25 years ago. (In contrast, you are allowed to bring an attorney with you to a green card interview with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer inside the U.S.) However, an expert consultant like Feuerbacher or an immigration attorney can devise a visa interview strategy and help prepare you with a practice interview.

Immigration officers are human, too!

This sounds obvious, but reminding yourself may help reduce some of the fear you feel. Like everyone else, consular officers have families, good and bad days, hopes and dreams, and personalities and world views shaped by their unique experiences. They are simply trying to do their job to the very best of their ability. They are responsible for assessing whether you’re eligible for the work visa or green card you are applying for and making sure that everyone they let into the United States does not pose a safety threat, is not trying to game the system, and won’t overstay their visa.

As an aside, the H-1B specialty occupation visa and the L-1 visa for intracompany transferees are dual intent and allow you to intend to remain in the U.S. by filing for a green card—another name for an immigrant visa. The O-1 extraordinary ability visa has offered some flexibility as well.

Consular officers approach interviews as individual conversations with a foreign applicant, according to Feuerbacher. They don’t think too much about any legal arguments previously made.

Be honest and proactive—and bring documentation!

Feuerbacher says the consular officer’s job is very subjective, and some are tougher than others. Some are extremely trusting because they have had little reason not to be. Others may be more cynical and cautious, scarred by instances in which individuals overstayed their time in the U.S. or did work they weren’t authorized to do.

According to Feuerbacher, first and foremost, answer questions posed by the consular officer with honesty and integrity. She recommends avoiding one-word answers, which can make you seem secretive or that you’re withholding information. In addition to assessing your answers, a consular officer is assessing your credibility. Determine a strategy for proactively offering up important info or addressing any potential concerns, such as if you’ve been denied a visa before, overstayed a previous visa, or have a boyfriend or girlfriend who is an American citizen. Be proactive about sharing your ties in Tobago, which demonstrates that you intend to return to your country, and any ties you have in the U.S. If you have ties in the U.S., you must demonstrate that your stay in B-1 business visitor status will only be temporary.

Don’t ramble on about unnecessary information. Clearly and concisely discuss your plan for coming to the U.S.—how long you plan to stay and what you plan to do while you’re here. For instance, in addition to participating in the accelerator program, will you be meeting with a corporate attorney or establishing your startup as a Delaware C corporation? Will you be looking for an office in the U.S.? Will you be meeting with prospective clients or investors? Will you be still working in the evenings for your company and getting paid back in your home country while you’re in the U.S.? All of these activities are not considered “work” under immigration law and therefore are allowed under the B-1 business visitor visa.  But you shouldn’t work, be employed, or earn payment for any labor while you are in B-1 status.

While it’s important to figure out ahead of time what you will say, make sure you speak truthfully and authentically. You’ll also want to bring documentation to back up what you’re saying. I offer more examples below.

Questions you may be asked

A consular officer will look into your U.S. immigration history to see if you have traveled to the U.S. before, how much time you’ve spent here, and other places you’ve traveled to outside your home country. The B-1 business visitor visa is a temporary non-immigrant visa, which means that you can neither stay nor intend to stay permanently in the U.S. The consular officer may deny a visa if she or he feels for any reason that you may decide to stay permanently.

The officer will likely ask you questions based on your history, your reasons for traveling to the United States, and what you plan to do once you get here, such as:

  • Why do you want to travel to the U.S.?
  • Where in the U.S. will you be going?
  • How long do you plan to stay?
  • What will you be doing while you’re in the U.S.?
  • Do you have any relatives in the U.S.?
  • Is a shorter stay in the U.S. possible? 
  • Is there a chance you will extend your stay in the U.S.?
  • Will you be returning to the U.S. after this trip?
  • Will you be traveling alone? If not, who will be joining you?
  • Can you provide evidence you will be leaving the U.S.?

You should go to the interview with plenty of documentation to back up your answers, such as your travel itinerary and flight reservations, addresses of the places where you’ll be staying, and paperwork showing you own a home, apartment, or other assets in Tobago.

If you do have relatives in the U.S., but don’t plan to visit them during this trip, make sure to say that to the consular officer. Bring along the names, addresses, and contact info with you since the consular officer may want to confirm that info.

Since you are applying for a B-1 business visitor visa, the consular officer may ask questions to find out more about your business reasons for traveling to the U.S., such as:

  • What’s your profession?
  • Who do you work for?
  • If you’re self-employed, who is running your business while you are in the U.S.?
  • Will you be looking for work in the U.S.?
  • Who is paying for your visit?

The documentation you should have with you during your visa interview is your employment contract, business card, and recent proof of income, such as pay stubs or bank statements. You should also provide detail of the expected cost of the trip and whether your startup is paying for the cost of the trip. The consular officer will want to see that you know what activities are permitted under a B-1 business visitor visa, such as attending an accelerator program or educational, professional, or business conferences; consulting with business associates; finding office space; or negotiating contracts.

You’ve got this!

— Sophie

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The information provided in “Dear Sophie” is general information and not legal advice. For more information on the limitations of “Dear Sophie,” please view our full disclaimer. You can contact Sophie directly at Alcorn Immigration Law.

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