U.S. Department of State gave business visa applicants and their U.S. employers a holiday present.

When a U.S. company petitions for a non-immigrant (temporary) visa for a prospective employee, it is a two-step process. First, they file a petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and request that the approval be sent to a specific U.S. Consulate which is usually the country of residence or country of citizenship of the employee. Second, they must obtain the visa at a U.S. Consulate after having an interview. 

The processing time for the first step can be long. For a petition for a high-level manager or an executive of a company located in Florida, the processing time for the visa petition can be three or more months but if the employer is in a hurry for the services of the employee, they can apply for premium processing. By paying an additional fee of $ 2500 the petition will receive a response in 15 days. This part of the process is not new. 

After receiving an approval of the visa petition from USICS, the employee must then obtain a visa at a foreign consulate to be able to enter the U.S. Before the announcement by the State Department on December 23rd, an in-person interview was required to obtain the visa. Prior to the announcement, it was taking many months to obtain the appointment. Some consulates were showing 156 days for an appointment, and some were showing 999 days which meant that only emergency appointments were being scheduled and the guidelines for emergency appointment are quite stringent. The reason that there was/is such a long wait time is that many consulates were closed for some time or barely operating due to COVID-19. A few consulates such as Tel Aviv were scheduling visa interview in about a week but that was only for citizens or residents of Israel. The waiver of the interview was authorized until 12/31/2022.

The December 23rd announcement waived interviews for H, L, O, P and Q visa applicants who were previously issued any type of visa and had no prior visa refusal (unless overcome or waived) and no apparent ineligibility issues. It also waived interviews for first-time applicants for citizens of countries that participate in the Visa Waiver Program and have previously traveled to the U.S. on ESTA (Electronics System for travel authorization). The business visas in question include the following:

H – Professionals

L- Executives, high-level managers and those with specialized knowledge 

O- Extraordinary Ability or Achievement

P- Athletes or Performers

Q- Cultural Exchange 

In addition to waiving interviews for the business visas, the announcement extended previously approved waiver interviews for some students, professors, research scholars and extended the waiver of interview for some H-2 visas which are for temporary agricultural and non-agricultural seasonal workers. 

It is too early to see the effect of the waiver of interview on the actual issuance of visas. The notice said “Consular resources and local government restrictions vary widely, and each consular section is continuously reviewing its capacity to adjudicate visa applications during this worldwide pandemic and as we address global issues and competing priorities. We encourage applicants to check the website of the relevant U.S. embassy or consulate to confirm the level of services currently offered and to find guidelines for applying for a visa without an interview” 

I have often told my clients that the most difficult question to answer was often “How long will it take.” That is still a difficult question as we wait to see how the interview waiver will impact processing of the visa applications but with this announcement, there is real hope that it will be much improved. 

Linda M Kaplan