The major hurdles for travelers to the United States

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Those requiring a visa to enter the United States, including workers, students, and certain business travelers and tourists, must carefully plan their trips months in advance in light of current consular wait times. As travel returns to pre-pandemic levels, individuals awaiting issuance of a US visa remain impacted by COVID-related delays. Ultimately, the global pandemic significantly disrupted visa processing at US consulates and embassies across the world, and despite improvements, major hurdles persist.

This article provides an overview of the current environment at US consulates worldwide and examines important considerations that travelers must take into account when planning a trip to the United States. The article also discusses practical alternatives to consider if someone is affected by visa processing delays.

Impacts of COVID-19 and the current post-COVID environment

The US Department of State’s important function of issuing visas to foreign nationals has undeniably been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is also largely to blame for the current backlog of visa applicants. The Department of State (“DOS”) is responsible for issuing visas to those seeking to travel to the United States and currently operates over 270 embassies, consulates, and other posts in more than 180 countries around the world.

In early 2020, US consular posts began suspending routine visa operations and transitioned to providing essential and mission-critical consular services. This was due to a variety of issues stemming from the pandemic, including COVID-19 travel restrictions, local policies of the host country, government lockdowns, social distancing guidelines, and staffing shortages.

The suspension of routine services lasted more than one year at many US consular posts and had a direct impact on the number of visas US consulates were able to issue. For example, the US Consulate in Frankfurt, Germany issued only 12,835 nonimmigrant visas in fiscal year 2021 as opposed to 45,156 in fiscal year 2019. The US Embassy in London, United Kingdom issued 20,901 nonimmigrant visas in fiscal year 2021 as opposed to the 142,486 nonimmigrant visas issued in fiscal year 2019. However, the sharp drop in the number of visas issued is by no means exclusive to Europe. In Chennai, India, 69,614 nonimmigrant visas were issued in fiscal year 2021 compared to 224,289 in fiscal year 2019, and in Bogota, Columbia, 57,542 nonimmigrant visas were issued in fiscal year 2021 compared to 215,902 in fiscal year 2019. These figures reflect a trend which was visible at nearly all US visa-issuing consulates across the world.

The Ukraine-Russia conflict has further contributed to visa delays. Cessation of both Ukrainian and Russian consular operations has resulted in nationals from those countries seeking alternative locations to apply. The US Consulate in Frankfurt has been redesignated as the primary processing post for Ukrainians seeking immigrant visas, and the US Embassy in Warsaw has been redesignated as the primary processing post for Russians seeking immigrant visas. The US Embassies in Warsaw and Krakow, Poland have also seen a considerable volume of Ukrainian applicants seeking nonimmigrant visas, whereas posts such as the US Embassy in Yerevan, Armenia and the US Embassy in Muscat, Oman have had to absorb an additional volume of Russian nationals seeking nonimmigrant visas.

As we approach three years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been noticeable improvements in visa processing. Perhaps most significantly, 96 percent of US consulates and embassies are now providing routine services to customers. However, those seeking to travel to the United States must continue to plan well in advance to ensure they can obtain a visa prior to departure.

Current wait times at US Consulates and Embassies

Although the Department of State has been able to resume operations at most US consulates, wait times for US visa appointments vary significantly from a few days to several months. These delays adversely impact families, employers, and students, who are forced to push back their travel plans to the United States as they await an in-person interview at a US consulate.

A family travelling to Disney World from the Netherlands will have to wait 194 days to attend a B-1/B-2 visa appointment at the US Embassy in Amsterdam, based on current processing times. A student travelling from the UAE to attend university in the United States will need to wait 129 days for an F-1 visa appointment at the US Embassy in Dubai. A specialized knowledge worker from western India will need to wait 351 days for an H-1B visa appointment at the US Embassy in Mumbai. In some cases, visa applicants may have to wait over one year simply to attend a visa appointment. This is a significant wait, especially when considering most face-to-face visa interviews generally last less than five minutes in total.

Although progress has been slow, the situation is improving. The Department of State recently reported that the median worldwide wait time for B-1/B-2 business visitor and tourist visa appointments averaged about two months as of November 2022. However, a wait time of even two months still poses challenges for individuals that have to travel unexpectedly or urgently. Consider an engineer who must install critical equipment at a power plant in the United States or an executive that must meet with US-based colleagues to explore a potential merger Situations like these simply do not offer the luxury of several months of advanced planning.

Further, many visa applicants are often unaware of the current backlogs and are surprised by how long it takes to obtain a visa appointment. Although the Department of State has recently released an updated and improved wait time estimator, applicants must pay a required government visa fee to view real-time appointment calendars. This has proven especially frustrating to those who pay the government visa fee, only to discover there are no immediately available appointments, essentially resulting in a sunk cost if their travel plans become untenable.

Ultimately, visa wait times present a serious hindrance to companies who need critical workers to be physically present in the US, to families who are separated, and to individuals whose futures are uncertain and subject to both financial and logistical complexities.

Increase in security-related clearances

Lengthy visa wait times have been exacerbated by an increase in mandatory security clearances, which can take months to complete. This has created an additional obstacle for many travelers.

Prior to issuing a visa, the Department of State must vet travelers for a range of security-related risks. During the visa appointment, the consular officer submits the applicant’s electronic visa application to an electronic database which automatically screens the individual for possible threats. When there is a match, the visa application must undergo an inter-agency national security review, commonly referred to as “administrative processing.” Although only a small percentage of applicants are subject to additional administrative processing, the volume of impacted individuals is noticeably increasing, despite most of these individuals not posing any real threat to US national security.

Whereas it usually only takes about one week for a visa to be issued following a standard visa appointment, there is no minimum processing time for applications subject to additional administrative processing. Many security-related clearances can exceed six months and applicants have little recourse or alternative methods to travel to the United States while a clearance is being reviewed.

The lack of a clear timeline introduces an additional complication and one that is largely unavoidable.

Steps taken to address long visa wait times

Despite the lasting impacts, the Department of State has taken active steps in order to address the backlogs. In order to meet its goal of returning to pre-pandemic processing levels by the end of fiscal year 2023, the DOS has expanded the waiver of in-person interviews to certain qualifying applicants. According to a recent DOS press release, almost half of the nearly seven million nonimmigrant visas that were issued globally in fiscal year 2022 were adjudicated without an in-person interview. This has alleviated the strain on US consulate and embassy staff. The DOS has also increased its staffing levels, with embassies seeking to double their hiring of US foreign service personnel.

Moreover, the Department of State has made strides to expand visa processing for certain categories of applicants that make key contributions to the US economy, including seasonal workers, students, health care workers, and airline personnel. Notably, the DOS issued more student visas in fiscal year 2022 than in the previous five years.

The US government has also taken steps to streamline internal processes so that it is able to review more visa applications with fewer resources. As of the end of fiscal year 2022, the Department of State had processed nearly the same number of nonimmigrant visas that they processed in fiscal year 2019. However, the number of individuals seeking a visa has dramatically increased due to pent up demand during the pandemic.

Practical considerations and what to expect going forward

US visa applicants should continue to expect lengthy visa wait times in the immediate future. However, as the US Department of State bolsters its international workforce, processing times are expected to improve. As mentioned above, 96% of US consulates and embassies have resumed visa interviews and have reached 94% processing timelines for nonimmigrant visas and 130% for immigrant visas as of October 2022. Despite these commendable improvements, there is a scarcity of visa appointments in many locations, and the current climate is unlikely to change before the end of 2022 and into early 2023.

Applicants should consider whether they meet the eligibility criteria for a waiver of the in-person interview. If so, they should then compare processing times for interview waiver cases with in-person interview wait times for their specific visa category. Because visa applications eligible for a waiver are reviewed on a “first-come-first-served” basis, it can prove quicker to attend an in-person appointment, depending on the consular location. Further, many applicants do not qualify for the in-person interview waiver and therefore must resort to scheduling regular interviews.

In addition, applicants with an urgent need to travel to the United States can request an emergency visa appointment directly from their local US consulate or embassy. Generally, consular officials will grant expedited visa appointments for medical emergencies, urgent humanitarian concerns, and compelling business necessities. Furthermore, applicants should regularly monitor appointment calendars for earlier openings, as cancelations and the release of additional appointments can occur.

If an individual is present in a country where there are significant visa backlogs, that individual may also seek to apply at an alternative consulate either within or beyond their local country of residence. Although US consulates and embassies do prioritize appointment availability for nationals and residents of the host country, individuals can apply as a third-country national in a location that offers more favorable wait times. Consular officers have been increasingly accommodating to nonresident applicants and are aware of the backlogs that applicants face.

In conclusion, individuals seeking to travel to the United States who require a visa must plan well in advance. Individuals are encouraged to keep their travel arrangements flexible or refundable in the event that delays persist. It can also be helpful to seek the advice and strategic guidance of an immigration professional to navigate the complex environment of obtaining a timely visa appointment.

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