People have argued back and forth about the online DS 160 nonimmigrant visa form ever since it was first introduced by the Department of State beginning in 2009, but it has actually been a quiet success, and has made it easier for applicants to apply–and for consuls to adjudicate visas.
Predictions of massive problems arising from the abandonment of the paper DS 156 visa application were overblown, but adopting the the DS 160 was not as seamless as one might expect. Uploading the photo proved to be an initial problem– consular sections had to give applicants who weren’t able to accomplish it the opportunity to do so at the time of their interview. Confusion reigned about whether or not someone else–an attorney or more computer-savvy friend or relation–could submit the form for the applicant (they cannot). Software glitches caused people who were taking longer than anticipated to fill out the form to be locked out or lose their data entirely. And the detailed information required of E visa applicants–which in the old days of the paper DS 156 visa application required an additional form, the DS 156E–continues to defeat efforts to incorporate this information into the DS 160 or an online replacement for the DS 156E, requiring most E applicants to still submit the paper 156E when they apply for their visas.
But despite these growing pains, the DS 160 online application process actually works pretty well for most applicants and has been a distinct improvement over the old DS 156 form in many ways. Visa data retrieval and storage by consular officers is now much easier–gone are the days of rows of file cabinets full of visa applications that have to be periodically retired to long term storage. It’s also much easier to review the electronic data the DS 160 contains than handwritten or typed DS 156 records.
And the DS 160 doesn’t just make life easier for overworked consular officers–it has some surprising benefits for visa applicants. In the old days, applicants who made errors on their paper visa applications had to correct them at the interview window. Now, after they submit their online DS 160 applications, applicants who have made mistakes or typos, or have changes in their personal circumstances–new passports, changes of address– can, as long as they catch these before their scheduled visa interviews, submit a corrected DS 160. When they do, the corrected one, not the initial submission, will be utilized by the consular officer. Applicants aren’t penalized for doing this–even if the corrected version contains negative details, such as a prior visa refusal, that were not mentioned in the first one. The fact that follow-on DS 160s can be sent can greatly reduce the risk that an applicant will make a material misrepresentation on his or her visa application–and give them one last chance to pull back from a misrepresentation already made.
Of course, this advantage is only useful if applicants and counsel work together closely in preparing the DS 160, and this is one area where the adoption of the DS 160 has made things more complicated than they were before. As with the old paper form, pre-interview review by counsel is essential to protect one’s clients from submitting incomplete or inaccurate information to the adjudicating consular officer. But that was easier to do when the applicant’s forms could be typed up by counsel and hand carried by applicants to their visa interviews. Now, unless the applicant is actually filling out his or her DS 160 at a terminal in the attorney’s office, it can sometimes be a challenge for counsel to ensure that the form is complete and properly filled out before its submission. There are work-arounds that make this easier to accomplish. For example, the online system allows applicants to share their pending DS 160 application with counsel if they provide them with the unique application ID and answer to the security question they set up when they began filling in the form. Another way to facilitate pre-transmission review is to have the client send screen shots to counsel to review–although this can sometimes result in a difficult to read view of the application pages. In both instances, counsel will be able to protect their clients from the adverse consequences of providing inaccurate or untruthful information to a consular official.
One of the principle concerns about phasing out paper visa forms–that it would penalize individuals who have limited computer access–has failed to materialize. Even visa applicants in developing nations where personal computers are not in widespread use have quickly managed to find ways to submit their online visa applications. The DS 160 is not a perfect tool–some of the drop down menus are unclear, and there is insufficient allowance made for clarifying comments. It is, however, more of an improvement than its critics may acknowledge, and it’s getting better with use.