One major difference between applications for asylum or refugee status is where the application is made. Refugees are required to apply from outside the United States, whereas people requesting asylum must apply either at a US border (airports, seaports) or from within the US.
Applying for Refugee Status
To apply for refugee status, you have to go to a US Embassy or Consulate or, preferably, to an office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). You should prepare and submit Form I-590 and other documents, including a promise by a US sponsor (normally an organization) to support your cause.
You are required to provide proof of your persecution and a detailed affidavit explaining what happened and why you do not want to return to your home country. The affidavit is particularly important and should give detailed description of what exactly happened to you and what you fear would happen if you go back to your country. In addition, you need to undergo a medical examination.
After submitting your completed application, you have to meet with an overseas asylum officer who will make a final decision on your case. If the officer deems your case as appropriate and approves, you will be given a visa that you can use to enter the US. If your case is denied, you cannot appeal.
Applying for Asylum Status
Applying at U.S. Borders and Entry Points:
If you are at the US border or airport and have a valid visa or entry document, you can use that to enter, without having to mention your need for asylum. However, the US officials do not permit you to enter, you can explain that you fear returning to your home country and ask to apply for asylum.
The officer does not have the power to approve your request for asylum, he/she can only decide whether you truly are afraid of persecution and so deserve to have a judge hear your case. However, it is important to note that the officer has the power to deny your request and send you home without further appeals.
If the aslyum officer is convinced that you have a credible fear of persecution, you will get no more than seven days to prepare to see an immigration judge. This makes it very hard to find an attorney and prepare your case properly.
Applying in the U.S.:
If you are in the US, you can take up to a year after entering the US to start the process. To apply for asylum, you have to fill out Form I-589 and mail it to USCIS together with the necessary supporting document. It is very important that you send detailed affidavit that contains specific information that you have to explain orally too. Also include documents that back up your claim.
Within a few weeks of having submitted your application, you will be scheduled to attend an interview at a USCIS asylum office.
If your case is denied, the asylum office will refer you to immigration court. There, you can present your case again, to an immigration judge and add more documents and evidence, if needed. Your own attorney will interview you in front of the judge, after which an attorney for the U.S. government will question you.
If the judge denies your claim for asylum, you can appeal it, first to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), then to a federal circuit court, then to the US Supreme Court.