December is one of the busiest travel times of the year, and a time when many foreign nationals and their families take the opportunity to return home for the holidays. U.S. Consulates and Embassies around the world are particularly busy during this time of year with visa appointments. Indeed, this year, consulates and embassies around the world appear to be more short-staffed than usual and therefore, appointments are filling up very quickly. Foreign national employees in the United States who are planning to travel internationally in December should therefore plan now to ensure that they and their families have the proper documents in hand and that visa appointments are scheduled well in advance at U.S. Consulates abroad.

Below, we list a few key points that foreign national employees should remember prior to traveling internationally:

Check the Validity of Travel Documents

Travelers should first review the expiration date of their passport. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection ("CBP") officer at the port of entry will not admit a foreign national with an expired passport. CBP will also not admit a foreign national for a period of stay beyond the expiration of the passport if the passport is expiring within the following six months. Foreign nationals should therefore renew their passport if necessary and be sure to carefully review the period of stay given to them upon their re-entry into the U.S.

In addition, with very limited exceptions, in order to re-enter the U.S. after travel abroad, foreign nationals must have a valid visa stamp in their passport that reflects their current status in the U.S. and that is valid at the time they re-enter the country. If the visa stamp has expired or will expire before they return to the U.S., they will need to apply for a new visa at a U.S. consulate.

Schedule Visa Appointments Early

Foreign nationals and their families applying for a new visa or a renewal of their visa will need to appear for a visa appointment at a U.S. consulate or embassy outside of the United States. The foreign national must complete an online Form DS-160 here, pay a visa application fee, and schedule a visa appointment. Most U.S. consulates now allow foreign nationals to pay the application fee and schedule visa appointments online through an official U.S. visa information and appointment service site. Some applicants who have previously obtained a U.S. visa may also be eligible for a renewal process by mail. More information, including links to the various visa services sites, is available here.

Detailed information on obtaining a visa, including current appointment wait times, is available on the U.S. Department of State's website.

Wait times for visa appointments during the holiday season can be lengthy, so individuals are advised to schedule their appointments as early as possible.

Attending a Visa Appointment

Foreign nationals should be prepared to attend their visa appointments with the required documents. Consulates will require that applicants provide their current and expired passports, DS-160 barcode confirmation page, appointment confirmation notice, a Form I-797 Approval Notice, one passport-size photo, and an employment verification letter or paystubs to demonstrate continued employment. Passports must be valid for at least six months and contain at least one blank page. Dependents applying for a visa should also bring evidence of their relationship, for example marriage and birth certificates.

Some Consulates may request additional documents, such as federal tax returns, W-2 forms, and/or a resume. Therefore, foreign nationals are strongly advised to check the website of the applicable Consulate to confirm whether any additional documents are required.

Potential Security Delays at Consulates and U.S. Ports of Entry

Applicants for new visas may be subjected to additional security screening during the visa application process. In March 2017, the Trump Administration directed the enhanced screening and vetting of applicants for visas to the U.S. As a result, more visa applicants may be subjected to increased security screening, known as "administrative processing," before their visa will be issued. It is not possible to know in advance if an applicant will be flagged for an additional security check.

Foreign nationals may also expect additional security screening and questioning at their U.S. port of entry. The CBP Officer may ask questions about the purpose of the visit to the U.S., employment, and travel history, among other things. They may also search a traveler's luggage and electronic devices.

Procedures for Entry Into the U.S.

When re-entering the U.S., foreign nationals should present their passport bearing their current visa stamp and the Form I-797 Approval Notice to the CBP officer at the port of entry. Depending on the visa category, a traveler may need to present an alternate document such as an endorsed Form I-129S for L Blanket visa holders, Form DS-2019 for J-1 visa holders, or Form I-20 for students. The officer will stamp the passport with an admission stamp that will show the date of admission, class of admission, and the expiration date of the individual's admission period. An electronic Arrival/Departure record (I-94 record) will then be created, which can be retrieved from the CBP website. Foreign nationals should carefully review their admission stamp and their I-94 record to ensure they reflect their correct status and expiration date, as an error, particularly on the I-94 record, can have a serious negative impact on the foreign national's status in the U.S.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.