Social Media May Cause Visa Headaches

Miles & Stockbridge P.C.

On May 31, 2019, the Department of State (DOS) updated its immigrant and nonimmigrant visa application forms (Forms DS-260 and DS-160, respectively) to require that visa applicants divulge their social media identifiers for all accounts used in the five-year period preceding the date of the visa application. While the new forms require visa applicants to list the username, handle, screen name and other identifiers associated with any social media account or profile, disclosure of passwords is not required.

What’s the reason for this change? This change stems from the President’s March 6, 2017 “Memorandum on Implementing Heightened Screening and Vetting of Applications for Visas and other Immigration Benefits” and Section 5 of Executive Order 13780 regarding implementing uniform screening and vetting standards for visa applications. The DOS hopes that collecting this additional information from visa applicants will strengthen its process for identifying and vetting applicants. Prior to this change, consular officers had discretionary authority to request a visa applicant’s social media identifiers, but did not routinely do so; social media identifiers have been requested as part of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) screening process for Visa Waiver visitors since 2017.  

How will the DOS use this information? We expect that the DOS will check social media accounts in an attempt to confirm the factual information stated by the visa applicant in his/her visa application, and for security-related background checks. For example, where a visa application indicates that an applicant is employed by a particular employer, the DOS is likely to check to make sure that the applicant’s social media accounts reflect his/her employment with that employer. Similarly, where an application is based on a family relationship, the DOS may check whether the applicant’s social media accounts reflect the existence of such a relationship. Discrepancies between the information contained in the visa application and the information available on social media may be problematic. The DOS also may examine social media accounts for other potential grounds for visa ineligibility, such as prior criminal acts, membership in prohibited organizations, and the like. Lastly, social media accounts are likely to be cross-referenced with government databases for security-related background checks.

What are the best practices in light of this change? As with all visa application questions, honesty is the best policy. A visa applicant who fails to fully and truthfully respond to questions on a visa application, including questions about his/her social media presence, may face serious adverse consequences, including delay in visa issuance, denial of the pending visa application, and potentially, denial of any future visa applications. In light of this change, best practices would include: (1) truthfully responding to all visa application questions; (2) refraining from social media postings that may be construed (or misconstrued) as being inconsistent with the information stated in a visa applications or otherwise reflect potential grounds for visa denial; and (3) reviewing all social media accounts for accuracy and truthfulness prior to the submission of a visa application.  

Opinions and conclusions in this post are solely those of the author unless otherwise indicated. The information contained in this blog is general in nature and is not offered and cannot be considered as legal advice for any particular situation. Any federal tax advice provided in this communication is not intended or written by the author to be used, and cannot be used by the recipient, for the purpose of avoiding penalties which may be imposed on the recipient by the IRS. Please contact the author if you would like to receive written advice in a format which complies with IRS rules and may be relied upon to avoid penalties.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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