Meaning of asterisks and binary mask in the US visa

  • What do these two sections mean in the United States visa?

    American Visa (from the Google Images)

    1. Asterisks (stars) below a photo.
    2. Some kind of binary mask of size 4. On this photo, it is 0111 in the right middle part of a visa.

    Most sources say that it's a "risk" indicator. However, it sounds strange for me - why would someone disclose such a confidential information while it can be stored in a private database for restricted users.

    If you have any information, please, help to solve this mystery and quell my curiosity.

  • First, note that these features appear only on nonimmigrant visas; immigrant visas have a completely different format and do not contain either the asterisks or the four-digit number.

    I strongly suspect you will probably never find out what these mean as the purposes of these fields are most likely classified. Direct questions put to U.S. consular officials about the stars and four-digit number have, as far as I can tell, never gotten a straight answer. They have gotten evasions such as "not of any significance" and "the stars on a U.S. visa are among the normal features of a U.S. visa."

    Officially, the features do not exist. Guidance on the US State Department web site does not acknowledge their existence:

    Annotated image of a sample US nonimmigrant visa

    Based on a survey of images of US visas found on Google, I believe these features were introduced sometime between 1999 and 2000. I was able to find visas issued in 1999 without the features, and visas issued in 2000 with the features, including this well known visitor who never left.

    Visa issued to Mohamed Atta

    In issuing visas, consular posts follow rules laid down in chapter 9 of the Foreign Affairs Manual, in which the US State Department's procedures are laid out. These are based on various sections of the Code of Federal Regulations.

    In the case of issuing nonimmigrant visas, this is covered by 9 FAM 41.113, which tells consular officers how to issue a visa in accordance with the regulations at 22 CFR 41.113. The relevant section is the very first one:


    The information on the MRV is printed on an adhesive foil and consists of five sections that:

    1. Reflect the applicant’s biographic data;
    2. Contain information about the visa itself (visa type, number of entries, date of issuance, and date of expiration);
    3. Show the 88-character field used for annotating additional information about the recipient, when necessary; (e.g., annotation of a petition number, SEVIS number, etc.);
    4. Display a digitized photo of the visa recipient; and
    5. Contain a machine-readable zone (MRZ) consisting of two lines of highly sensitive coded data. Scanners connected to authorized computer networks can read the data located in the MRZ and instantly recall records associated with the MRV. Damage to either line may prevent the scanner from reading the data, requiring manual data-entry before processing, which could lead to delays at ports of entry. You should instruct MRV recipients to take care with their MRVs, avoiding folding the foil, and preventing contact between the foil and objects that could damage it, such as paper clips, staples, etc.

    Note that no mention is made here, or anywhere else in the unclassified parts of 9 FAM, about the asterisks or the four-digit number. Those parts of the visa do not appear to be relevant to whether the visa holder is of any particular concern to US authorities. In particular, it does not appear to indicate that the visa holder poses any particular level of "risk". This also appears to be the opinion of various immigration lawyers.

    After reading a lot of other sections of 9 FAM and 22 CFR, and some versions at going back to before 2000, I am pretty well convinced that while these features do serve a purpose, that purpose is classified and appears only in a classified section of 9 FAM, if at all.

    One last thing I can tell you for sure is that the four digit number is not binary. Numerous examples can be seen on Google Images of visas with four-digit numbers containing digits other than 0 or 1, though these appear to be far less common.

    +1, stunningly good answer. Very grateful for the authoritative references...

    @pnuts Since this is a common enough question, it is obvious that consular officials would have to have some response to it. I know from my own experiences that the sort of responses officials _have_ given for the question indicate that something is being concealed. I also know from experience that the most likely reason for a government official to conceal something in this manner is that it's classified.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM