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Chinese students head to Singapore in search of US visas

Chinese students planning study in the US are facing extreme difficulty in obtaining visa appointments at US embassies in the country, which is leading some to head to third countries to access services.

Chinese students are flying to Singapore to obtain US visas. Photo: Pexels

"[The appointments] almost got all cancelled"

“There are very, very few places available in the US Beijing Embassy for Chinese students to make appointments,” Ben Chen, executive vice president of Global Education Alliance, told The PIE News, adding that booking an appointment has become a matter of constantly refreshing the website in the hope something becomes available.

“Last Friday, we saw they had maybe a hundred and something places available… [They were] fully booked in maybe one or two minutes.”

“Last Friday, we saw they had maybe a hundred and something places available… [They were] fully booked in maybe one or two minutes”

With hundreds of thousands of Chinese students studying in the US every year, the sheer lack of places is leaving many anxious that they may be forced to spend another year studying online at unsociable hours over Zoom. As reported by The PIE, visa appointments at many US embassies globally currently have a long wait time.

According to Huini Gu, founder of ZoomIN, a Shanghai-based college admission counselling agency, even booking an appointment is no guarantee of actually being able to attend it.

“[There’s] uncertainty caused by constant cancellation,” she said.

“They managed to booked it. The thing is that [the appointments] almost all got cancelled.

“Domestically it looks at the moment like getting an appointment for a US visa in Beijing will be in June at the earliest.”

While some agents are counselling students to wait in the hopes that the application process will open up over the next few months, others are now recommending applying for visas in third countries – a route that data from Shorelight suggests has been chosen by thousands of Chinese students so far this year.

“Through Shorelight’s proprietary data analytics platform, we know that thousands of Chinese students have qualified for a visa through third country options including Singapore this year,” a spokesperson told The PIE.

According to BOSSA spokesperson Jon Santangelo, “Chinese students are also going to Thailand’s US visa office [but] most of these kinds of indirect US-bound Chinese students are going through Singapore’s US visa office”.

With borders open to mainland Chinese citizens since last November, the advantage of going to Singapore comes from the relative easy of obtaining a one month visa, giving ample time to complete the process.

Students also said its perception as a safe, developed destination made it preferable to other neighbouring countries.

As such, companies have now begun offering all-inclusive packages for students to go to Singapore.

A price list for services including quarantine in Singapore

The packages, some of which cost more than US$10,000, offer visas and flights to the city, quarantine on arrival, help in applying for the US visa, accommodation and meals.

One student, “Jun”, writing on WeChat about his experience of making the trip to Singapore earlier this year from Xiamen, recounted that the whole process in Singapore took 20 days, three flights “and an hour and a half by car”.

“I heard about the possibility of this route during the summer holidays,” he said, as he described the process of preparing visas, flights, quarantine and documentation, adding that upon arriving in the US he was the only Chinese student taking in-person classes among the international cohort.

However not all agents are recommending the route. One said they felt it was “not worth [the trouble] and a bit risky”, while another said their students were choosing not to take the risk in case of visas being rejected and were planning to remain as remote students.

Indeed, there is hope that the the situation will improve over the next few months.

“US universities are experiencing some of the highest demand in recent history with international applications on the rise in double digits,” said Imran Oomer, head of global recruitment at Shorelight.

“US embassies and consulates in many countries are operating at limited capacity, creating a real challenge for international students, especially from China”

“Due to ongoing concerns around the pandemic, US embassies and consulates in many countries are operating at limited capacity, creating a real challenge for international students, especially from China.”

While this is not the first time delays have been seen at the US embassies in China, some China-based agents continue to suspect the delays could also be the result of political issues between the US and China.

“We are working closely with our university partners and the American Council of Education to advocate for the US Department of State and US Department of Homeland Security to re-open embassies and consulates, roll back travel restrictions, and expand capacity and flexibility,” continued Oomer.

“We are confident that these concerns will be addressed in the near future.”

Clare Rawlins, vice president, international recruitment, enrolment and marketing at Kaplan International Pathways, acknowledged, “We know that visa delays to the US are causing our students, parents, agents and partner universities real concern.

“Kaplan has increased our on-the-ground recruitment and support activities to help students choose the path that is right for them as the visa situation evolves — online study, deferral or travel.”

A spokesperson for the State Department said that while the pandemic and a range of Presidential Proclamations restricting travel due to to the pandemic had resulted in reductions in visa processing capacity and issuance, they had no changes to announce at this time.

This article was updated to include a response from the State Department.

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