The DS-260 and DS-261 Online Forms, Explained

How to navigate the State Department's system for processing marriage green card applications

What is the DS-260?

Anyone who is applying for a marriage-based green card from outside the United States needs to file the DS-260 online form, which is handled through the National Visa Center (NVC) and your local U.S. embassy or consulate. The DS-260 is technically called an “immigrant visa application” (where “immigrant” means a permanent resident, not a tourist or other person who is only traveling to the United States on a temporary basis).

What is the National Visa Center?

The National Visa Center (NVC) is a U.S. government office in Portsmouth, New Hampshire that processes all green card applications for people who are living outside of the United States and applying through their local U.S. embassy or consulate.

Once U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approves your family sponsorship form (the I-130), they will forward this approved paperwork to the National Visa Center. At this point, your marriage-based green card case is transferred from USCIS (which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) to the NVC (which is part of the U.S. Department of State).

Getting Started

The first step in this process is to file the family sponsorship form (I-130) with USCIS, along with supporting documents. The sponsoring spouse will generally get a receipt notice in the mail from USCIS within about two weeks. Assuming that USCIS has all of the information that it needs, they will usually approve or deny this sponsorship petition within 7-15 months, depending on your situation. When approved, USCIS will forward your paperwork to the National Visa Center.

the NVC takes the case

Once the National Visa Center (NVC) receives your approved paperwork from USCIS, they will send you a welcome notice by mail or email, depending on which notification method you choose. This notice will include your case number, a beneficiary ID number, and an invoice number. The beneficiary ID number is a unique number that the NVC assigns to each beneficiary in a case (e.g. the spouse seeking the green card). You’ll need all of these numbers in order to submit the online forms and fees described below at the NVC’s Consular Electronic Application Center.

For spouses of U.S. citizens, the NVC starts processing your case immediately after receiving it from USCIS. For spouses of U.S. green card holders, the NVC will hold the case until the “priority date” for the case appears in the State Department’s visa bulletin (typically 8-10 months later). In this scenario, the NVC will send you a notice (by mail or email) stating that “visas are not currently available for your visa category” and that you should watch the visa bulletin to monitor progress.

The DS-261 and Required Fees

The next step is to file the DS-261 form (technically called the “Online Choice of Address and Agent”). This is a relatively simple form that tells the State Department how to communicate with you, and there is no fee to file it. It can take up to three weeks for the NVC to process the DS-261.

Once the NVC has processed your DS-261, you will need to pay two required fees online, for a total of $445: the State Department’s application processing fee ($325) and the financial support form fee ($120). You will know that your DS-261 has been processed when the fee invoices become available at the NVC’s Consular Electronic Application Center. It can take up to a week for the NVC to process your payment.

Filing the DS-260

Once your payment has been processed, you can go online to file the DS-260 (immigrant visa application). This is the primary green card application for spouses living abroad, and is administered by the Department of State.

DS-260 filing tips

  • To begin, you’ll need your case number, beneficiary ID number, and invoice number from the original welcome notice that the NVC sent you.
  • The entire DS-260 online form must be filled out in English. If you are submitting addresses or names that aren’t in the Roman alphabet, you must transliterate them.
  • Make sure you include information about all of your children—including stepchildren, adopted children, and biological children—no matter how old they are, and whether or not they will be immigrating to the United States with you.
  • Make sure to list all addresses where you’ve physically lived since the age of 16, not only addresses you’ve used as an official permanent address. For example, if you continued to use your parents’ address as your permanent address when you were in college, even though you weren’t living there, you’ll need to include the addresses where you actually lived.
  • It can take several months for the green card to actually arrive at your address in the United States, so make sure that the mailing address you provide will be valid throughout that time.
  • You can’t correct the DS-260 after you’ve submitted it online. Ideally, you should make sure that all of your information is correct the first time. However, if you discover a mistake after submitting your DS-260, you may simply inform the consular officer at your interview about the mistake and ask to have it corrected at that time.
  • Once you’ve submitted the DS-260 online, you must print the confirmation page so you can bring it to your visa interview at the U.S. consulate.

Supporting Documents

After you submit your DS-260, the NVC will send out a notice (again via mail or email) confirming receipt of your DS-260, usually on the same day. You will then need to submit your supporting documents to the NVC as well.

Depending on which consulate is processing the application, you will either upload, email, or mail all of the supporting documents to the NVC. The NVC is responsible for gathering all the forms and documents needed to process your green card application and forwarding them to the consulate. The consulate is responsible for scheduling and conducting your immigrant visa interview and making a final decision on your immigrant visa petition.

It’s important to submit these documents in the way the NVC instructs you to—some U.S. consulates require physical copies, while others allow for emailing or uploading digital copies.

Documents from the applicant spouse:

  • Proof of your nationality (copy of birth certificate and passport photo page)
  • Copy of your marriage certificate
  • Copy of marriage termination documents (divorce or death certificate), if you had any prior marriages
  • Copy of your military record, if you have served
  • Copy of police certificates showing any past infractions or lack thereof. These certificates, also called “police clearance letters,” must be obtained from:
    • Any place in your home country where you lived for at least six months after age 16
    • Any place outside of your home country where you lived for at least one year after age 16
    • Any jurisdiction where you’ve ever been arrested or charged with a crime, regardless of how long you lived there or what age you were at the time

documents from the sponsoring spouse:

  • Proof of your ability to support your spouse in the United States—for more details, see this article on the Affidavit of Support (Form I-864)
  • Copy of marriage termination documents (divorce or death certificate), if you had any prior marriages

Extra tips

  • Depending on your case and the U.S. consulate processing your application, there might be additional documents required. That’s why it’s always a good idea to carefully check the notice you receive from the NVC for any special requirements.
  • It’s important that you submit all of your supporting documents in one package.
  • You should only submit copies of your official documents, not originals.
  • Be prepared to bring the originals to your green card interview at the U.S. consulate.

Interview and Final Fee

Once you’ve sent your supporting documents, it generally takes 1-2 months before your visa interview is scheduled. You’ll receive a notice from either the NVC or your local U.S. consulate informing you of your interview time and date.

Once your visa is approved, you will receive an immigrant visa stamp in your passport. At this point, the USCIS Immigrant Fee ($220) can be paid online here. This fee is required for USCIS to produce and mail the physical green card.

It is best to pay this fee online as soon as you receive the visa stamp, so that you can receive your physical green card soon after you arrive in the United States. You will use the immigrant visa stamp to enter the United States, and you should receive your physical green card at your U.S. address typically within 3–4 weeks of entry.

The DS-260 and DS-261 are key requirements on the way to obtaining a marriage-based green card for anyone applying from outside the United States. By reading the instructions and following the directions carefully, you can increase the likelihood that your application process will go smoothly and end with an approved green card.