At a briefing on November 17, 2022, the U.S. Department of State responded to criticism that wait times have been too long and have harmed workers, families and companies. The department cited data showing improvement. Businesses and attorneys have noted these improvements, but problems with obtaining visas in India have been a serious issue since the Covid-19 pandemic started.
At the briefing, Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie Stufft cited statistics that showed a median worldwide wait time of seven days for students and temporary workers and two months for a tourist visa (B1/B2), not counting those who can obtain an emergency appointment. However, the State Department website lists the wait time for visa interview appointments in Mumbai (India) as 351 calendar days for H-1B or L-1 visas and 999 calendar days for visitor visas (as of November 17, 2022). The wait times are similar at other U.S. consulates in India.
Stufft discussed the strategies to improve the wait times, including at high-profile locations. These have included bringing staff up to pre-pandemic levels; waiving the in-person interview requirement for many students, temporary workers and those renewing visas, particularly individuals who had prior travel to the United States; and “electronically sending visa applications from certain overseas posts that have a high appointment wait time to other posts that have spare capacity every day.”
Stufft said U.S. consular officers in China remotely adjudicate hundreds of applicants from India (with waived interviews), and a similar process happens with applicants from Mexico. “This allows our consular officers in places like India and Mexico to focus on first-time and other visa applicants who do require an in-person interview,” she said.
In response to a question about conducting more interviews using remote video technology, such as Zoom, Stufft said the department opted against it. She said waiving interviews for certain people reduced the need for remote interviews, and for those who require an interview, they typically needed to come in person to a consulate to provide biometrics, providing a time to conduct the interview.
Analysts agree that allowing foreign nationals to revalidate visas while physically inside the United States—a practice that ended in 2004—would solve many problems for visa holders. It would save them from trips that could leave them stranded outside the United States and waiting months to obtain an appointment to return to their employer in America.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie Stufft said at the briefing, “We are actively pursuing this. I can’t give you an update on timing right now, but it’s something that we’re actively working on.”
Stufft discussed the logistical issues of visa revalidation. “We need to create a new consular section from scratch here in Washington to be able to have that capacity,” she said. “And we have to work out domestic payment for visa fees, which is something that obviously generally we don’t do.” She cited the need to expand the ability to use technology to manage a domestic validation program. “We talk extensively to industry and other stakeholders. And we have the message loud and clear that this will be a useful tool.”
Some Signs of Improvement
Companies and attorneys have seen improvements, even if the progress has yet to be across the board. “I do think consular appointments are getting better: We see a couple of months instead of eight-plus months,” said one technology company executive. “I’m happy to see they encourage applicants to apply where they can, even if not in their home location. This was discouraged during Covid, so glad to hear it is back. We have utilized Mexico for some of our Indian nationals for renewals. Visa revalidation would be amazing. I would love to see this happen.”
“It’s great to hear about the progress that the State Department is making in reducing visa wait times and expanding the use of interview waivers,” said William Stock of Klasko Immigration Law Partners in an interview. “Just a couple of months ago, I was speaking with an Indian-American physician whose parents had not been able to visit their grandchildren here for more than two years because of the pandemic, but because their visitor visas expired, they were going to have to wait until 2024 to get a visitor visa appointment when they last checked. Any improvement would be greatly appreciated by families like that.”
Kevin Miner, a partner with Fragomen, also remains concerned about visa processing in India. “The practical reality right now is that it remains very, very difficult to obtain appointments in some locations, especially India,” he said. “It simply isn’t feasible for businesses to wait until the fall of 2023 (when State indicates they may be back to more normal availability) to bring in key talent. Many foreign nationals are not able to travel, missing important business meetings and critical family events. People with parents who are quite ill aren’t able to travel to see them, possibly for the last time.”
William Stock sees two other areas of concern. “First, while I applaud the expanded use of interview waivers, in many instances, we see that if a person travels and is told their visa interview is waived, but then for whatever reason their visa can’t be issued without an interview, the person can languish outside the United States for many months with no news.” Stock cited the example of a client, an attorney overseas, whose visitor visa application has been in “a black hole.”
Stock and other attorneys still see significant delays in scheduling appointments or obtaining decisions on E visa applications (for investors in U.S. companies and their employees). Stock has a client waiting since May for a decision on renewing his E-2 visa, which means his business in the U.S. has been without a full-time manager.
The State Department has improved visa processing times at many locations. Those in countries and visa categories still waiting for improvements hope their wait will end.