Applying for your Visa

The following information outlines the visa application process when a new international scholar comes to Harvard University (or its affiliated hospitals) from outside the United States using a visa sponsored by Harvard University. For information on the scholar visa categories, please see Scholar Visa Types

All scholar visas sponsored by Harvard University require both a visa document issued by the Harvard International Office (HIO) and a visa from a U.S. embassy or consulate outside the United States. Canadian citizens only need a visa document and do not need a visa from a U.S. embassy or consulate.

The information in this section provides an overview of what to expect when requesting a visa document from Harvard University, applying for a visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate, and finally, entering the United States.

Special Note on Impact of COVID-19 on U.S. Visa Issuance

Applying for your visa this year may be more time consuming and require more diligence and patience due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The HIO has prepared this guide for all incoming international scholars to understand the operating status of United States (U.S.) Embassies and Consulates worldwide, and the best tips we currently have for monitoring and booking a visa appointment. If you have additional questions that are not addressed in this guide, please reach out to your HIO Advisor.

Many U.S. Embassies and Consulates worldwide remain closed for routine visa issuance and may only be operating on an emergency appointment basis.

The U.S. Department of State announced that routine visa issuance will start to resume on a country-by-country basis depending on local conditions. At this time, we do not yet have information regarding when individual U.S. Embassies and Consulates will be reopening. In order to determine the operating status of the U.S. Embassies or Consulates in your country, please review the following information and follow the steps outlined to schedule a visa appointment and apply for your visa.

Up to date guidance on visa issuance, travel to the U.S., and COVID-19 travel bans may be found on the HIO COVID-19 FAQ.

Step 1: Get your Visa Documents from Harvard

Harvard Academic Appointment

Before the HIO can consider visa sponsorship, there must be an offer of an academic appointment from Harvard University. The sponsoring department at Harvard (or affiliated hospital) submits the required information to the HIO via ISD. This information includes confirmation that there is a Harvard academic appointment and that there are adequate funds for the visit if Harvard is not funding the position.

Form DS-2019 and other visa documents

After you and the Harvard department submit the ISD record to the HIO, we begin the process of issuing a visa document for you. The Form DS-2019 for the J visa is issued by the HIO. Other visas must be petitioned for and approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in advance.

If there are no unusual circumstances and all data is complete, the time frame for the HIO to generate a Form DS-2019 for a J visa is generally less than 30 days. To petition and obtain an approved Form I-797 for an H-1B or O-1 visa from USCIS via regular processing usually takes 6 months or even more.

Once we issue the DS-2019 or other approval notices from USCIS, we send it to you. The process differs if you are already in the U.S. on a non-immigrant visa. Contact your HIO advisor for details.

Once you receive the visa document from the HIO, you are ready to begin the visa application process at a U.S. embassy or consulate. Canadian citizens only need a visa document and do not need a visa from a U.S. embassy or consulate.

Step 2: Pay SEVIS fee (J-1 Scholars only)

After obtaining your Form DS-2019, J-1 Scholars must pay the SEVIS fee. The Department of Homeland Security collects this congressionally-mandated fee to cover the costs of updating SEVIS.

To pay the SEVIS fee, go to You will need your SEVIS number from your Form DS-2019. The SEVIS number is located on the upper right corner of the Form DS-2019.

If you have a credit card and access to the internet you may pay the SEVIS fee online.

If you were born in or are a citizen of Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria or Gambia you must pay by money order. The fee and the Form I-901 must be mailed to:

I-901 Student/Exchange Visitor Processing Fee
P.O. Box 970020
St. Louis, MO 63197-0020

Evidence of the SEVIS fee payment in the form of a receipt or a payment verification printout must be presented during your visa application interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate and at many U.S. ports of entry. Please have your SEVIS payment receipt ready upon entry and reentry to the U.S.

Although Canadian citizens are not required to have visas, but they are required to present the I-901 SEVIS fee payment receipt at a U.S. port of entry as they enter the U.S. Please note that it is not possible to pay the SEVIS fee at the U.S. port of entry. Canadians must pay the SEVIS fee prior to getting to the port of entry. Canadian citizens skip to Step 7.

Step 3: Prepare for Visa Appointment (except Canadians)

Check the operating status of each of the U.S. Embassies or Consulates in your country through the Department of State’s Visa Appointment Wait Times database.

Within a given country, different U.S. Embassies or Consulates may have a different operating status, so it is best to check each Embassy or Consulate within your country. You may find a directory of all U.S. Embassies and Consulates worldwide here

Monitor the website of the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in your home country for updates on their reopening status. You may find this information in the “Non-immigrant Visas” section of a given U.S. Embassy or Consulate’s website.

Some U.S. Embassies and Consulates may also announce visa appointment calendar openings through social media. Follow your local Embassy or Consulate on Twitter for updates.

Step 4: Complete the DS-160 (except Canadians)

The DS-160 is an online visa application form that you (and your dependents, if applicable) must complete before applying for a non-immigrant visa at a U.S. consulate or embassy outside the U.S.

You may access the DS-160 on the U.S. Department of State website. After you have completed the DS-160, you must take these next steps below:

  • Print and keep the DS-160 barcode page. (You will not need to print the full application.)
  • You must schedule a visa interview appointment. The U.S. Embassy or Consulate does not schedule an appointment for you. Visit the U.S. Embassy or Consulate website where you will be interviewed for country-specific instructions.
  • Pay the visa application processing fee. Review country-specific instructions on the U.S. Embassy or Consulate website. Note, the DS-160 visa application fee is nonrefundable and nontransferable. You must pay this fee first before booking a visa appointment. If you need to change the location of your visa interview after paying this fee, you will not be able to transfer your payment and will need to pay a new DS-160 visa application fee before booking an appointment at a new U.S. Embassy or Consulate.

The U.S. Department of State has compiled a list of Frequently Asked Questions that may be helpful in completing the DS-160, including help for technical issues.

For questions related specifically to your Harvard visa sponsorship, please review the HIO’s DS-160 FAQ.

Note Regarding Visa Appointment Bookings Due to COVID-19

After completing your DS-160 visa application form, you will be able to book your visa interview with your chosen U.S. Embassy or Consulate.

  • In some cases the U.S. Embassy or Consulate may waive the interview requirement if you meet certain qualifications. For more information please see the website of the U.S. Embassy or Consulate you will be visiting.
  • If there are no visa appointments currently available to book at the local U.S. Embassy or Consulate, you will need to keep checking their calendar for more appointment spots to open.
  • If there are visa appointments available to book, you should book the earliest appointment possible. If the earliest appointments available are after your arrival date or start date in the U.S., then you will need to follow the U.S. Embassy or Consulate’s instructions to request an emergency or expedited appointment, or keep checking back to see if more appointment times open in the coming months. Most Embassies or Consulates have these instructions available on their website.
  • Some Embassies and Consulates may open appointment spots before their post has reopened for routine visa services. In this case, it is possible that the Embassy or Consulate may cancel or reschedule your interview if they have not yet reopened prior to your appointment date. In this case, please work with the Embassy or Consulate to continue to reschedule your appointment, or request an expedited or emergency appointment. 

Step 5: Apply for your Visa (except Canadians)

Receiving a Form DS-2019 or I-797 H-1B approval notice from Harvard does not guarantee that you will receive a visa from a U.S. embassy or consulate. In order to schedule an appointment at a U.S. embassy or consulate you will need to follow the instructions and provide the required documents listed on the website of the U.S. embassy or consulate you will visit. While you can apply for a visa at U.S. embassy or consulate in any country outside the U.S., it is always less challenging to apply in your home country.

Schedule an appointment for your visa interview at a U.S. Consulate or Embassy  as soon as possible. You may apply for a J-1 visa up to 120 days prior to the program start date on your Form DS-2019.

As an applicant for a U.S. visa, you must take your passport, your immigration documents received from Harvard, SEVIS fee payment receipt (if applying for a J-1 visa), DS-160 confirmation page, proof of funding, and any additional documentation required by the individual U.S. embassy or consulate you visit when you present your application to the consular official.

The U.S. Department of State posts on their website current wait times for booking a visa appointment. Keep in mind that wait times can be quite long, especially over the busy summer months.

Note that your dependents can book their embassy appointments independently from yours, if need be.

Once you have your appointment booked, please update the HIO with your appointment details by completing the Visa Appointment Reporting Form.

Step 6: The Visa Appointment, Interview Tips, and Visa Processing Times (except Canadians)

The Visa Interview

During your visa appointment, you will have a brief interview. You should be prepared to answer questions regarding the length of your intended stay in the U.S. and how you will use your professional experience gained in the U.S. when you return to your home country. Consular officials expect to see evidence of your ties to your home country, such as family, property, employment, bank accounts, etc. If the consular official determines that you are not eligible for a non-immigrant visa because you have not presented satisfactory evidence that you intend to return to your home country, they are likely to deny your visa application. There is usually no recourse to the visa denial unless you are able to present new information. You may also be asked to present evidence that you have maintained legal immigration status if you have worked, studied, or resided in the U.S. previously.

Additional points to consider when applying for a U.S. visa can be found here.

Visa Wait Times, Delays, and Denials

Visa processing times can vary widely. Depending on your field of study and your country of origin, you could be put through administrative processing, a form of security check, which could delay the entire visa application process. Please keep that in mind when applying for a visa.

If you are told during your visa interview that your application will be subject to a security check or administrative processing, you must alert your alert your HIO Advisor and the appropriate school official as soon as possible. You may find more information about this process in our Administrative Processing FAQ Guide.

Step 7: Arrival in the U.S. & HIO Registration

If you hold J visa status, the U.S. immigration regulations allow you to enter the U.S. no more than 30 days prior to the program start date listed on your Form DS-2019. If you hold an H-1B visa status, you may enter the U.S. no more than 10 days before the start date listed on your H-1B petition approval notice.

You must review our Arrival in the U.S. information for the documents you will need to enter the U.S. with, as well as the details of the required HIO registration.