Nonimmigrant Visa Processing Delays Continue: Trends and Recommendations
The outbreak of the COVID pandemic in early 2020 placed significant stress on Consular operations at U.S. Consulates around the world. U.S. Consulates were closed other than for essential U.S. citizen services for more than a year and in many cases during this time Consular Officers returned to the United States and/or left their positions entirely. Even as U.S. Consulates began to reopen their Consular operations in 2021, they have experienced problems related to new COVID outbreaks resulting in renewed closures, significant backlogs in processing family and employment-based Immigrant Visas (“Green Cards”) and staff shortages.
Processing Delays Will Continue for Several Years
While the U.S. State Department, which manages Consular operations, has taken steps to streamline the visa application process and to fill hiring gaps, it predicts that it will take a number of years before U.S. Consular operations globally are back to pre-pandemic levels. Continuing COVID issues and backlogs have manifested themselves in significant delays in being able to schedule appointments for temporary or nonimmigrant visas (H-1B, L-1) and refusal to accept visa applications from third country nationals at most U.S. Consulates around the world. The U.S. State Department’s most recent figures for nonimmigrant visa issuance show a monthly average since August of 2021 of 498,171 nonimmigrant visas compared to an average of 721,305 visas per month in the pre-pandemic period between March 2019 and February 2020. While this is a significant improvement over the average monthly nonimmigrant visa issuance between March of 2020 and July of 2021 of 174,766 visas, it indicates that U.S. Consulates have a long way to go before they get their operations back to pre-pandemic levels.
Trends in Non Immigrant Visa Applications
With the above as background, we are seeing the following trends in nonimmigrant visa applications:
- While many U.S. Consulates are offering nonimmigrant visa appointments within a few days or weeks to citizens of the country in which the Consulate is located, many more have delays of 6 months or longer. This includes the busier U.S. Consular posts in western Europe as well as Canada, India and China.
- Most U.S. Consulates are not accepting applications from third country nationals (that is, citizens of countries other than the one in which the Consulate in located). A variation on this is that while some U.S. Consulates, such as Canada, are accepting third-country national applications they are scheduling them many months in the future. We do know from recent experience that the U.S. Consulates in Oman UAE, some countries in Eastern Europe and some countries in the Caribbean are accepting third-country national applications, but this does not appear to be an official policy and is likely subject to change.
- During the pandemic, the U.S. State Department authorized and encouraged Consular operations to waive the in-person visa application interview and allow certain applicants to submit their visa applications by mail or through a drop box process. Note that this authorization still requires the applicant to be physically present in the jurisdiction of the U.S. Consulate at which they are applying. Most U.S. Consulates are now applying the interview waiver rule, which has streamlined processes and time frames. This was certainly the case at the U.S. Consulates in India at the end of 2021 and early 2022, but we are now seeing months of delay in being able to schedule a drop box appointment in India. While this authorization to waive visa interviews expires at the end of this year, recently the U.S. State Department has indicated that it intends to extend the authorization for an additional period of time.
Strategies for Managing Nonimmigrant Visa Processing Delays
Given these trends, we recommend the following approaches and strategies:
- Use the general information about wait times for visa appointments site to gather information about visa appointment wait times. Note that the information on this site is not necessarily up-to-date or entirely accurate but it will give you a general sense of availability. Unfortunately, in order to see the actual visa appointment scheduling calendar at a particular Consulate, you have to complete a DS-160 on-line Visa Application form and pay the visa application fee.
- After scheduling the earliest appointment you can find at a U.S. Consulate, go back into the scheduling system at different times of the day to see if earlier slots become available. Often they do, and our clients have had success checking back into the system repeatedly to secure an earlier appointment slot.
- Request an expedited appointment based on financial harm to you or your employer, or personal emergency. In making these requests, be as detailed as possible about the financial or individual harm and provide examples if possible. Our experience is that unfortunately only a small minority of these requests are approved.
Possible Introduction Stateside Processing
Finally, we note an interesting development in this area to keep an eye on. Until 2004, certain nonimmigrant visa holders could apply to renew their visa by submitting an application together with their passport to the U.S. State Department in the United States. The State Department has indicated that it is now considering reinstating “stateside processing” for certain types of nonimmigrant visas including H-1B and L-1 visas. While this decision may take some time because of the challenges of implementation, it will be a welcome change that would help to address the continuing backlogs in visa processing at U.S. Consulates abroad.
While Consular operations have made significant strides in the past year to recover from the worst of the COVID pandemic, these operations are still not functioning at pre-pandemic levels and the delays in being able to schedule visa appointments continue to create personal hardship and business challenges. Unfortunately, the best way to navigate these challenges involves significant work by the visa applicant to try to get the earliest visa appointment possible and/or to find a more convenient and less backlogged U.S. Consulate to accept their case. Parker Gallini LLP will continue to provide up-dates on this evolving situation.