The State Department announced an update to its discretionary interview waiver policy for nonimmigrant visa applicants on December 21, 2023. It replaces the temporary policies in place for almost three years. Most importantly, the State Department made this a standing policy that will be reviewed annually, which will decrease uncertainty for many stakeholders. Interview waivers have played a key role in reducing visa processing times at the agency.
Generally, all nonimmigrant visa applicants between the ages of 14 and 79 are required to undergo an in-person interview at a U.S. Embassy or consulate. However, U.S. law provides some exceptions, including if the secretary of state determines that a waiver is in the national interest or necessary under unusual and emergent circumstances. These interview waiver authorities have been used to shore up the U.S. economy by speeding up processing for certain nonimmigrant visas. Most have focused on low-risk applicants who were previously vetted and received a visa or were nationals of a country participating in the Visa Waiver Program and had traveled to the U.S. before.
For example, in 2012, the Obama administration implemented a visa interview waiver program to increase foreign visitors to the U.S. and support the country’s travel and tourism industry. That program was suspended in January 2017 when President Trump took office.
At the onset of the pandemic, the Trump administration used interview waivers to facilitate the entry of temporary agricultural and non-agricultural workers given the State Department’s reduced processing capacity. In March 2020, the Trump administration announced interview waivers could be issued for certain low-risk first-time and renewing H-2 visa applicants given their “essential” role in the country’s economy and food security. By fall 2020, the State Department expanded the interview waiver option for applicants seeking a nonimmigrant visa in the same category if their previous visa expired within the last 24 months.
As U.S. Embassies and consulates continued to address growing visa processing backlogs, which caused uncertainty for international students and universities, in fall 2021 the Biden administration expanded interview waivers for student (F, M) and academic exchange visitor (J) visa applicants. Those who had previously received any other type of visa or first-time applicants who were nationals of a country in the Visa Waiver Program were eligible to be considered.
The interview waivers were then expanded to include first-time and renewing applicants in specialty occupation (H-1B), intracompany transferee (L), extraordinary ability (O), athlete, artist, and entertainer (P) and cultural exchange (Q) visa categories. First-time visa applicants in these categories had to be nationals of a country in the Visa Waiver Program who had traveled to the U.S. after vetting through that program’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). The travel/vetting requirement also was imposed on first-time applicants for student and academic exchange visitor visas. This policy was extended twice and was set to expire on December 31, 2023.
Last year, 40% of the 10.4 million nonimmigrant visas issued had an in-person interview waived. Wait times for temporary workers, students, and exchange visitors dropped significantly. For example, wait times for a student visa in Mumbai dropped from 49 days to 7 days between November 2022 and August 2023. Temporary workers experienced a comparable improvement: over the same period in Mumbai, wait times for H, L, O, P, and Q visas dropped from 339 days to 22 days.
Despite these improvements, it was unclear whether the policy—crafted by the State Department in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security—would be extended. Stakeholders from across various sectors advocated for its continuation.
The U.S. Travel Association highlighted that a failure to extend the policy could result in the loss of “$7 billion in foreign visitor spending” in 2023. The U.S. for Success Coalition focused on the unpredictability in visa processing for international students and its negative impact on America’s ability to attract and retain international student talent. The American Immigration Council, along with more than 60 other organizations, noted that the policy could benefit an estimated 30% of nonimmigrant visa applicants in the future under its current terms.
10 days before it expired, the State Department announced an updated policy to take effect on January 1, 2024. The policy continues to provide discretionary interview waivers for first-time applicants for temporary agricultural and non-agricultural work (H-2 visas). Instead of singling out specific visas, this version allows interview waivers for other nonimmigrant visa applicants who were previously issued any nonimmigrant visa (other than a visitor’s visa) and have applied within 48 months of the expiration date of their most recent visa. Similarly, the State Department continues to implement an interview waiver policy from 2021 for applicants renewing their nonimmigrant visa if it’s in the same category and renewed within 48 months of the visa’s expiration date.
As was required with the previous versions, applicants must also apply in their country of nationality or residence, have never been refused a visa (unless it was overcome or waived), and have no apparent or potential ineligibility.
A downside to the update is that it restricts eligibility for certain categories of individuals. It’s less favorable to nationals of Visa Waiver Program countries as first-time nonimmigrant visa applicants. They no longer qualify for an interview waiver by virtue of their country’s membership in that program. In addition, visitor visa applicants can no longer use a previously issued visitor’s visa to be eligible for an interview waiver and those individuals whose previously issued nonimmigrant visa expired more than 48 months ago are also no longer eligible.
Several lawmakers have proposed codifying similar language into law instead of leaving it to agency policy. For instance, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) recently introduced the Visa Processing Improvement Act, which would codify interview waivers for individuals who, among other requirements, previously held certain nonimmigrant visas, as well as first-time applicants from Visa Waiver Program countries who traveled to the U.S. through ESTA. Representative Tony Gonzales (R-TX) also introduced the bipartisan H-2 Improvements to Relieve Employers (HIRE) Act, which would codify interview waivers for certain temporary workers renewing their H-2 visas.
Nevertheless, this new standing interview waiver policy is an essential tool for the State Department to address its lengthy wait times. As the Department continues to struggle with historically high levels of demand, this positive step will continue to reap benefits for all U.S.-bound travelers.
FILED UNDER: Department of State