How to Apply for an FBI Background Check

Full-page sticker for my E-2 visa in the ROK

Full-page sticker for my E-2 visa in the ROK

Disclaimer: This information is based on the process I went through in 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2015 to obtain myFBI background checks for international immigration. It is not legal advice. It is not necessarily up to date. Official processes change at random and are unpredictable. 

Check with the FBI for the most up to date advice. 

When you move abroad as much as I do, you get really, REALLY good at being fingerprinted. I’m not an international mastermind criminal; I just have to prove that I have no criminal record all the time. For most working visas and a handful of student visas, a national criminal record check is required. For those who live outside the USA, this can take a whopping two days.

Rather unfortunately, for those of us who are form the USA it’s a lot more complicated to get an Identity History Summary.

On September 7, 2014, CJIS installed a new IT system. As a result of this installation, we are experiencing delays in processing. Please be assured that each issue is being identified and resolved as quickly as possible, but at this time anticipated processing time for an Identity History Summary is approximately 14-16 weeks. Allow additional time for mail delivery. –

To be clear, 14-16 weeks is more than three months. With mailing, closer to four and a half. Plan accordingly. If you want to be in Korea by October or earlier this year, you’ll need to apply now. Be aware of how many checks you’ll need! In Korea, you typically need a check for your visa and one for the Education Office.

To submit your FBI background check and get the process started, you’ll need the following: 

  • A set of official fingerprints for each check you need, taken at your local police precinct. Mine cost $11 each.
  • The Applicant Information Form, completed in block capitals and black ink. Download it here.
  • The Credit Card Payment Form, to pay the application fee of $18 per background check. (I highly recommend the credit card payment option; everything else is a certified P.I.T.A)
  • A method of sending these items with a tracking number to the FBI in West Virginia. NEVER send without a tracking number.

Submit all of those things, and wait. And wait. And wait.

You can try calling the FBI and pleading with them to speed up the process, as I did on my lunch break in 2011. It won’t do any good. They won’t even necessarily know whether they’ve received your application or not (and this was three months in). Check your tracking number, and watch your bank account for the charges.

Eventually, you will get a very plain envelope in the mail with a record check in it. The check itself will look something like this.

Redacted for privacy.

Redacted for privacy.

Even though it says that this check is no good for employment, pay no attention. They mean employment in the USA. The most important things are the signature and stamp, and the Result stating ‘no arrest history.’ You can now send this to your prospective university, employers and/or recruiter and get going on the actual visa process.

A word on ‘Channelers’

You may notice that there is an option to pay a company to run the background check instead of the FBI. In fact, these companies are approved by the FBI and listed on their website. In a pinch, it is possible to apply through these companies but you need to keep two things in mind.

#1- Channeler checks may NOT be accepted for apostilles or official use by immigration offices. 

#2- Channeler checks cost a lot more to process, even though they are faster. I applied for one just in case we need a backup location and end up in Korea this year, and the whole process took about a ten days. 

Make certain that you ask the consulate or embassy to which you will apply for your visa BEFORE assuming a channeler check will suffice.

What to Know About Applying for Visas: Become a Bureaucratic Ninja

This morning I arose after a night tossing and turning, with visions of paperwork and stamps in my head. I turned on NPR and jumped in the shower, carrying my pre-laid-out professional-but-not-flashy in person application outfit. I grabbed my Go Folder and headed out the door into a mini-snowstorm. Fifty minutes of intense winter driving later, I was at the Colorado Passport Agency.

Today, I renewed my trusty passport in preparation for moving to Shanghai, China. My international life had taken up too many pages. The passport that ushered me across the borders of 25 countries was suddenly no more, with two precise holes punched through it.

This is normal for me. I have applied for more than five full-pager visas. This is what they can look like.

Full-page sticker for my E-2 visa in the ROK

Full-page sticker for my E-2 visa in the ROK. Chile’s is above. 

I don’t know which process was more intense, the E-2 work visa for Korea or the Tier 4 student visa for the UK. Both were months long, involved huge amounts of paperwork, and required various biological data (biometrics for the UK, a full-blown health exam and fingerprinting for Korea). Italy’s Schengen study visa was the first I ever applied for. India required a full application even as a tourist. Chile’s took me far longer than my programme said it would because I lived in a tiny town in Patagonia. In seven years, five major visa applications. And I’m in the middle of my sixth.

You could say I’m familiar with immigration and visas.

I know from experience that this amount of involvement can feel less like red tape and more like a bureaucratic Ninja Warrior course. It’s not something that many people mention when talking about study and work abroad, perhaps because it would re-traumatise those who make it through. Being able to get a visa is the step that can make or break a trip abroad.

My best advice for getting yourself into Paperwork Warrior shape is here:

Before you do anything else, make certain that your passport is in hand. It must be valid for at least six months after you intend to leave your destination in most cases. You also need to consider how many pages you have available. Some countries (ahem, Korea and China) may discourage the use of ‘additional visa pages’ and require the originals. Renew as necessary.


Get a folder. Label it on the front in black, permanent, HUGE letters with words to reflect the seriousness of the process. Something to the effect of “VISA DOCUMENTS. Do not move, touch, re-arrange, or put away this folder or I will chuck my passport repeatedly at your thick head!” (don’t actually write that….). This will be your Folder of Doom.

Organize thyself!

Organize thyself!

Take this Folder of Doom and make sure it has a home. Always put it back in that home. It gets homesick if it’s out for even a few minutes, if it’s not doing the work for which it was born. Be consistent. Losing this shit will make you lose out on your trip.

Depending on the country to which you are applying, and the nature of the visa you require, the list of documents that must go into the Folder of Doom will change. For example, a student visa will generally require a letter of enrolment (official), proof of funding and means, and more. A work visa is generally more intensive, requiring criminal background checks, degrees that have been officially recognised, letters of reference, you firstborn, etc.

An FBI Background Check for a visa (required for work and some student visas) should be your first priority to submit. It requires:

  1. A set of fingerprints taken at your local police station.
  2. A completed form and payment (you can pay with a credit card).
  3. 14-16 WEEKS for processing (an international embarrassment; the UK takes two days). According to the FBI’s website as of 4 February 2015:

On September 7, 2014, CJIS installed a new IT system. As a result of this installation, we are experiencing delays in processing. Please be assured that each issue is being identified and resolved as quickly as possible, but at this time anticipated processing time for an Identity History Summary is approximately 14-16 weeks. Allow additional time for mail delivery. “

As soon as you possibly can, submit this. Even before you have a job secured in Korea or a place on your year-long study abroad program in Spain or Chile. Before applying for a passport, if you need one.

Get familiar with your local notary.

Get familiar with the term ‘apostille.’ This is a special recognition of the authenticity and importance and general expensiveness of an official document like a university degree or a criminal record check. It can be quite stressful to obtain, and takes time. Check your state’s Secretary of State website for more details, and consider going with a channeler.

Get familiar with being fingerprinted. It takes practice, believe it or not.

Always show up early for appointments at the embassy or any other official office. Leave time for getting lost/a giant random snowstorm. Bring only what is necessary for that appointment, and leave the Folder of Doom in its home.

Be stubborn, but practical. If necessary, ask to speak to a manager. I once sat down on the floor of the Chilean equivalent of the DMV and refused to leave until they gave me my passport back. It had been two weeks that I’d been walking around passportless, and I couldn’t go on a trip to Argentina without it. I gauged the situation carefully, and I don’t recommend this except as a last resort. The woman eventually opened an unlocked filing cabinet (!) and attempted to hand me a Russian passport. I walked out with the passport and that damn sticker, ready to complete the next step of any work permit: the residency card.

Three different kinds of ID, lined up from three different adventures

Three different kinds of ID, lined up from three different adventures.

Keep all your receipts. ALLLL you receipts. You never know when you may need them. Put them in the Folder of Doom.

If your visa requires a health check, either before or after arrival, assume that you will be drug tested. Don’t take any risks. I live in Colorado now, and there are temptations. Just don’t do it. The laws regarding drug use of the country you are going to is all that anyone will care about. Get healthy and get used to giving up illegal activities. It’s just not worth the consequences.

Find something to do in offices and at home that will keep your hands busy while you wait. Crochet is a great one, I’ve found.

And finally, once you do send away the documents and your passport make certain that you get a tracking number. Put that tracking number into your Folder of Doom. Depending on the embassy and national holidays, you should get the package back in a few days to a few weeks. Make sure you have your ‘No Idle Hands’ activities ready.


Gathering all your documents and getting them to the embassy or consulate on time is enough to give me an ulcer. It comes and goes. It’s cool. Visas and immigration are a big part of my life, and it doesn’t look like they will be leaving it any time soon. When my husband and I go through the partner visa process in one of our countries, or emigrate to a third party country that will accept us both, I’ll post a guide.

If you have any questions, I will do my best to help you out. Contact me here:

How to Apply for a Tier 4 UK Student Visa

London here I come!!

London here I come!!

Disclaimer: This information is based on the process I went through as a low-risk United States applicant in 2013 to obtain my Tier 4 Visa. The process has changed slightly since then.

This guide is ***not*** legal advice, and it may not be up to date. Visa regulations change all the time, without warning. If you wittingly or unwittingly deceive the UKBA, they may ban you from the country for TEN YEARS. Check with the United Kingdom Border Agency for the most up to date information.

If you follow the instructions carefully and do all you are supposed to, then you may get this very expensive sticker in your passport:

UK Tier 4 Student Visa (Redacted for privacy)

UK Tier 4 Student Visa (Redacted for privacy)

Don’t worry, I’m a professional at this. Italy, Chile, Korea, India and now the United Kingdom. I’ve even started putting a section about my bureaucratic expertise in my CV. I’ve applied for at least one visa per year, every year out of the last five. The most difficult so far was the process to obtain legal residency in Korea, but I have to say that the UK Tier 4 process is right up there in complexity! The biggest problem was that there is not a consistent or consolidated list of what one needs to apply anywhere on the UKBA website. I bounced from department to department at UCL asking questions, and no one seemed able or willing to answer.

It’s taken me almost a year to obtain all of the necessary requirements for my Tier 4 visa. 329 days since I began the first step, applying online to my Master’s Program.

Many students must obtain a student visa in order to live and study in the UK. Some nationals are not required to apply for a visa. Maybe you can save yourself the headache!

Determine whether you are required to apply for a visa and which type is appropriate for your course of study, using the quick guide from the UKBA. Tier 4 Student Visas are generally applied for under a Points-Based System that requires 40 total points. According to the UKBA:

As a Tier 4 (General) student, you must have 40 points in our points assessment. You can score:

  • 30 points for having a valid confirmation of acceptance for studies
  • 10 points for having enough money (also known as maintenance or funds) to cover your course fees and living costs

Before you can apply to the UK consulate with jurisdiction over your state/area, you must obtain a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) from your university.

To get your CAS, you will need:

  • A completed and submitted university application
  • An UNCONDITIONAL offer for acceptance at your university
  • Constant vigilance of your email account

Your university should identify you as a student needing a Tier 4 visa and email you with a request to confirm that the identifying information they have is correct. Confirm the details, and they will submit the information to the UKBA.

This is what a CAS looks like, edited to protect my identity somewhat. The blanks are not actually blank.

This is what a CAS looks like, edited to protect my identity somewhat. The blanks are not actually blank.

Now comes the time for gathering the documents for your application. Begin with your online print and send application, which can be accessed for US citizens on the Visa4UK website.

To fill in your VAF9 application form, you will need:

  • Your current contact information
  • The date on which you wish to travel to the UK
  • Your passport information
  • Information about your family origins, including dates of birth and nationalities
  • Information about previous travel and any visas you have held in the past
  • The ability to answer questions about your involvement in war crimes, terrorism, criminality, and genocide (Hint: If you’ve been involved in any of these, do not apply for a UK Visa. As a matter of fact, get the hell off my blog!)

When you complete the VAF9 application form, you will need to pay your visa fee. Use the UKBA Country Finder to find out what the fee is for your nationality. In the case of US citizens, the fee currently stands at £298 (~$460).


OMG I hate the exchange rate

You can pay by credit card or Paypal. I had some issues when my bank tried to cancel the transaction for fear of identity theft. I had to sit around on the phone for a half an hour to get this fixed. Consider letting your bank know that you will be using a card for the visa, in the hopes that they will not do the same to you. Save yourself the agony of listening to Visa’s god-awful elevator music that repeats every 30 seconds.

You will be prompted by the Visa4Uk system to make an appointment at the Biometric Center for your state/area to submit your biometric data. You must be physically present at the appointment. You cannot arrive more than 15 minutes late. Use this planning tool from US Citizenship and Immigration Services to find your center.

To enroll your biometric data, you will need:

  • Your passport
  • Your printed biometrics appointment confirmation

At your biometrics appointment, you will scan each of your ten fingerprints and have a photo of your face taken. You cannot refuse this on the basis of privacy. If you are older than 5 years old, you must have this done or your application cannot proceed.

The biometric center in Colorado is kind of sketchy and quite difficult to find. Give yourself time to get lost, or consider bringing a change of underwear for those moments when you cannot find it!

You will also need to have the appropriate Appendix. In my case, that was Appendix 8.

To fill out your Appendix 8, you will need:

  • A lot of the same information as for the VAF9, for some reason
  • The address at which you will reside in the UK, or a temporary address upon your arrival
  • The information of your University from your CAS
  • Your course details from your CAS
  • Your actual CAS number
  • Information on your English language abilities and financial situation

Protect those documents!

I am considered a “low-risk” applicant because I am a US Citizen. Your passport is used to determine your nationality, and you can check the list of low-risk countries here. I found it very difficult to find accurate and concise information about exactly which documents are required of low-risk nationals, in part because there are many sections on the UKBA website. Additionally, everyone seems afraid of giving advice on this process. I literally got passed from department to department within my university, and no one seemed to have a clue which documents are actually required.

Below is the list of documents that I sent to the New York Consulate General on July 31st, 2013.

Tier 4 Documents List for Low-Risk Applicants:

  • Passport
  • Passport photos (to UKBA standards)
  • Print and send application form VAF9
  • Appendix 8
  • Receipt of payment online
  • CAS information in the form of an email
  • Biometric report receipt stamped by my local immigration office
  • Return shipping envelope (Overnight, with a tracking number!)

You will also need to have ALL of the documents that the UKBA requires of non-low-risk applicants. As part of your application, you will affirm that you hold all the documents necessary, even as a low-risk applicant and they are not required for your application.


My additional documents, if needed.

My additional documents, if needed.

Additional documents:

  • Proof of financial solvency for your course of study, including maintenance
    • Bank statements
    • Official Loan Letters from your university if receiving financial aid
    • Any additional funding/sponsorship
    • Your parents’ financial information if they are paying any part of your costs
  • Proof of your educational history (transcripts/degrees/etc.)

Check all of your documents several times for accuracy, and take them to a mailing center. I used FedEx because I’ve used them for other visa processes and trust them. NEVER send your documents without obtaining a tracking number!

An amazing part of this process is that the New York consulate actually sent me updates on the status of my visa throughout the remarkably short review period. My visa is currently on its way back to me via the return envelope I included, and should arrive tomorrow. I can’t believe that I’ve managed it, after literally 10 months of legwork on applications and recommendations and loan packages and biometrics.

I will be carrying the original documents that are returned to me, as well as copies of everything I submitted to keep with me when I fly out on September 12. They may ask for them when I cross the border, and I don’t want to be turned away!  I will update this blog post as necessary when I have the final details of my process, including a possible trip to register with the police in London.

A couple of final tips:

  • DO fill out all of your documents in BLACK INK (tip from a friend of mine who helps prepare UK visas).
  • DO make and keep copies of every single document and carry them with you on your flight.
  • DO ask questions of your school, but know they may not get back to you.
  • DO consult others who’ve been through the process before you.
  • DON’T try to fake anything.  TEN YEAR BAN TEN YEAR BAN (Clear enough?)
  • DON’T  try to apply more than 3 months before the beginning of your program.
  • DON’T wait until the last minute for any of this.
  • DON’T freak out when the requirements change.

Happy hunting! Please post comments if you have any recent changes or if you have questions.