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US rejects record number of student visas in 2023

The US state department rejected an unprecedented quarter of a million student visa applications in 2023, comprising 36% of total applicants.  

Student visas were denied at twice the rate of any other non-immigrant visas in the past two years. Photo: Pexels.

"Consular officials have a wide latitude for denial and they are almost never going to be punished for saying no."

From 2021 to 2023, student visas were denied at nearly twice the rate of all other types of non-immigrant visa applications, such as those for tourism or business, according to State Department data. 

“The denials we are seeing are far above the norm, and total college enrolment has fallen very significantly over the last decade,” David J. Bier, associate director of immigration studies at The Cato Institute, told The PIE News. 

It is important to note that the total number of student visas issued in the US has shown steady growth over the past three years, after a record low in 2020 caused by the pandemic.  

However, visa issuances are still far below their peak in 2015, and denial rates have increased from a low of 15% in 2014 to 36% in 2023.  

Bar chart showing US student visa rejections

Courtesy of The Cato Institute.

Unlike in the UK, Canada and Australia, where intentional government efforts have been made to curb international student numbers, efforts to attract international students to the US are being “stymied by an outdated immigration system”, said NAFSA.  

Australia saw its highest student visa denial rate of 34% in September 2023. Likewise, the UK’s five priority markets all saw visa rejection rates rise in the second half of 2023.

Education professionals have expressed frustration about the lost economic and cultural opportunities caused by the record 253,355 visa denials in the US.  

However, according to immigration experts and international student recruitment officers, the rejections are not entirely surprising.  

“Not so much in the US, but certainly in other parts of the world like Australia and Canada there’s increasing scrutiny from governments about the integrity of the visa systems and concern about growing visa fraud,” said Eddie West, Assistant Dean of International Strategy at San Diego SU. 

“US consular officials might not be taking the pulse of what’s going on in those other countries on a day-by-day basis, but they’re certainly aware of the overall climate.” 

The State Department does not delineate the reason for student visa rejections, but most non-immigrant visa denials are for failing to prove non-immigrant intent, according to Bier.  

Proving non-immigrant intent means that applicants must prove sufficient ties to their home country that would impel them to return after their visa has ended.  

“If it seems likely that a visa applicant might overstay their welcome, consular officials have a wide latitude for denial and they are almost never going to be punished for saying no,” a US immigration lawyer told The PIE.  

“Consular officials are aware of fraud in other countries and are careful and judicious about who they approve. There is also still a view held by some that they are the dyke holding back an uncontrollable flood of migration.”   

Concerns have been raised about the State Department’s handling of visa interviews, which sometimes last less than two minutes, and are an “absurd method of adjudicating student visas”, according to Bier. 

“Legitimate students with legitimate intent to study here are being denied because of this blunt policy instrument” 

The burden of proving non-immigrant intent can be particularly difficult for students who typically lack strong the economic and social ties of more established visa applicants and who plan to stay longer in the US. 

In 2021, State Department officials attempted to return to the lower standard of evidence for students that existed before Trump, on the basis that “the natural circumstances of being a student do not disqualify the applicant”.

This admission was a welcome change in terms of granting students the benefit of the doubt, but – as displayed by the 2023 rise in visa denials – it didn’t go far enough, said West.  

NAFSA has been campaigning for several years to expand dual intent for F-1 visa applicants, which would allow students to communicate an interest in staying in the US after completion of their degree, without it hampering their visa acceptance chances. 

The State Department has not released the denial rate by nationality for 2022 or 2023, but the rise in applications from Indian students, who historically have a higher rejection rate, could have contributed.  

“China used to be one of our top two countries of origin of international students coming to SDSU, but now it’s fallen out of the top five. India, on the other hand, is not only number one, but it’s number one by far. And I know that we’re not alone in that,” said West.  

Over four years that number rises to $30.4 billion in lost economic benefits to the US”

Though it is important not to generalise, Chinese students were typically focused on attaining academic degrees and returning home, whereas Indian students are more driven by work opportunities in the US, he added.  

“When you couple that with the whole intent question, it only stands to reason that denials might start creeping up accordingly.” 

Crucially, before applying for an F-1 visa, students must already be accepted into a government-approved university. International students typically pay full tuition and are used to subsidise domestic students, according to Bier.  

“This means that the US Department of State turned down 253,355 students who would have likely paid roughly $30,000 per year or $7.6 billion per year in tuition and living expenses. Over four years that number rises to $30.4 billion in lost economic benefits to the US,” he said.

On top of the time taken to apply, personal financial losses of the students are often upwards of $1,000 after paying for visa applications, English and SATs fees, among other hidden costs.  

Educators are also concerned about the negative effect on America’s people-to-people relations, and the damaging impact on the country’s reputation as an attractive study destination causing prospective students to apply elsewhere. 

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One Response to US rejects record number of student visas in 2023

  1. I understand the importance of immigration policies in maintaining the integrity of a country’s borders. However, I believe that denying visas to Indian students solely based on assumptions about their intentions undermines the values of academic exchange and mutual understanding between nations.

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