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“Dismay” over Spanish visa issues for study abroad students

Issues with obtaining student visas for the second most popular study abroad destination for US student are continuing to plague the sector while travel returns post pandemic.

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For the past several years, the Association of North American University Programs in Spain has been involved in advocacy efforts around the visa process in Spain

According to IIE’s Open Doors Study Abroad report, Spain is the second most popular destination among US study abroad students.

Post-Brexit, UK students seeking to study in Spain have faced frustration in obtaining timely visa appointments. A 2022 strike of diplomatic staff at the Spanish embassies and consulates nationwide in the UK compounded the delays.

It is now apparent that UK students have not been the only ones to suffer. Staff at Spanish embassies in seven other countries soon followed due to concerns over wages.

“This creates undue stress and uncertainty on students and universities”

According to Jennifer Engel, associate vice president for education abroad at Indiana University, the Spanish visa process “has traditionally been difficult”.

“But in the last few years it has become increasingly challenging  for students, as well as for advisors who are guiding students who wish to study in Spain and need a visa to do so,” she told The PIE.

Indiana continues to experience a major demand for study abroad programs in Spain from students across academic disciplines, and her staff have frequent conversations with students about the persistent visa issues. 

“In order for our students to have any chance of getting a student visa in time, they must have a passport in hand by the time they are accepted into the program,” said Engel.

“Given the challenges this past summer with students struggling to get independent visa appointments, we are now actively encouraging students to consider programs in other countries if they don’t already have a valid passport – and many do not as they are first-time international travellers.”

US secretary of State Antony Blinken and the US State department have been under fire this summer for passport processing times, said to be a lingering effect of the pandemic. Record numbers of renewal applications in 2023 have resulted in a current processing estimate of 10-13 weeks.

Even with a valid passport in hard, Engel indicated that over the last two years, the number of individual visa appointments available has been insufficient to meet the demand.

“This creates undue stress and uncertainty on students and universities. While the visa processing window has increased from 90 to 180 days… students are often not accepted into partner universities in Spain until 80-90 days prior to their program start date.”

And education abroad leadership foresees an even greater demand for appointments this fall with students applying for Spring 2024 programs.

Engel herself has a deep connection to education abroad in Spain, having studied abroad in Madrid as a Spanish major. She considers Spain to be her “second home” and is still connected with her host family from her time at university.

“While I wholeheartedly want to encourage students to study there, given the reality of the current visa situation we have to advise students to consider more accessible options,” she concluded.

For the past several years, the Association of North American University Programs in Spain (APUNE) has been involved in advocacy efforts around the visa process in Spain.

It “continuously seek a solution for the ongoing and ubiquitous visa issues that are currently having a devastating impact on enrolments in international exchange programs in Spain”, Amy Olson, president of APUNE, said.

It collaborates with the Spanish foreign ministry and education officials, as well as international study institutions, the Spanish Embassy in Washington and other Spanish consulates in the US.

Despite Spain being one of the top study abroad destinations, APUNE data indicates the majority of programs are experiencing a decline of between 3-10% enrolment, which translates to about 2,000 students.

Moreover, APUNE members report barriers with the process for the legalisation of documents, stating that current wait times have been as long as 10 weeks.

As such, many students who had originally planned to study in Spain are eventually redirected to other programs in countries with faster visa processes, with some even discontinuing the study abroad process altogether.

“While the concerns of APUNE have been taken seriously, most officials have stated that their hands are tied because each consulate operates independently, and the responsibility has not been assumed by any one organisation or ministry,” Olson said.

In addition, requirements often vary significantly between consulates, including requiring different documentation such as medical insurance, proof of finances or background checks. This “creates a great deal of confusion and a considerable amount of extra work for the university offices helping these students”, Olson asserted.

The Spanish visa process has recently been outsourced to independent agency BLS. However, Olson proffered that regarding BLS, “reports reaching the APUNE community are of chaotic appointments, backlogged processing, and similar difficulties as those experienced to date”.

“Most officials have stated that their hands are tied because each consulate operates independently”

It is possible for students to apply for their visa after arriving in Spain, but there are risks involved and offers no guarantees.

Many leaders in the field have advised against the route, as with no visa assurances, students risk losing significant funds along with academic credits if their visa is denied.

Organisations such as The Forum on Education Abroad and NAFSA have joined in efforts advocating for better efficiency for visa processing. NAFSA is holding a special online session on visa issues in Spain later this month.

However, with the new academic year already underway in the US, Olson and her colleagues are “dismayed at the loss of student participants to programs in Spain because of bureaucratic obstacles they face when applying for a visa”.

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