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Jill on the Hill: welcome to the US…again! A better visa process now in place for students

Imagine a vetting system in which those seeking visas to study in the US were thoroughly screened, only to have to get back in line to be personally interviewed again and again once they had already secured their visas.

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Imagine a more streamlined and efficient vetting system that makes wiser use of limited resources

Whether the reason for duplicative screening was because they had traveled home during their academic program, because they completed a J-1 exchange program and now wanted to pursue a graduate program with an F-1 visa – or some other technicality – these students could never fully rest assured that they would be able to secure a coveted visa interview slot in the timeframe needed to make it back to the US in time for their classes.

Now imagine a more streamlined and efficient vetting system that makes wiser use of limited resources and instead, requires in-person interviews only for those who have yet to be screened and who thus merit greater time and attention from consular officers.

In recent updates that went into effect on January 1, 2024, the State Department has imagined and implemented just that – a smarter visa processing system that makes sense, not only for those who have previously been to the US but also for those who seek to come for the first time.

These updates mean that all nonimmigrant visa applicants in any visa category, including student and exchange visitor visa applicants (F, M, and J visas) who were previously issued any type of visa within 48 months, can apply for a visa renewal or even a new visa without having to clog up the visa interview queues. The only exception is if the only prior visa was a B1/B2 visitor visa.

These new interview waiver authorities allow the Department of State to interview more student applicants, as consular sections worldwide can now waive the interview for even more visa applicants compared to the expired authorities, leading to greater appointment availability across visa classes.

And while consular officers will no longer be able to waive the in-person interview for student visa applicants who previously only held a B visa, or for those from Visa Waiver Program countries who previously traveled to the US with an ESTA approval but never held a US visa, the overall increase in interview waived cases is expected to enhance visa processing efficiency.

It is also expected to benefit all visa applicants, including students.

In addition, students and exchange visitors can still renew their previous F-1 or J-1 visas without an interview within 48 months of the prior visa’s expiration.

In these ways, the new authorities are expansive, yet different than previous versions.  Unlike the temporary authorities implemented during the COVID pandemic, these new policies will remain in effect without a sunset date.

The State Department indicates that it will continue to provide expedited student appointments throughout the busy student interview season, and still encourage international students to apply for their visa as early as possible.

“We remain fully committed to ensuring applicants interested in studying in the US can obtain a visa in a timely manner,” said Julie Stufft, a senior official.

“Students should check the website of the embassy or consulate where they are applying”

“Students should check the website of the embassy or consulate where they are applying to see whether they may be eligible for interview waiver, or an expedited appointment if an interview will be required.”

Advocating for these changes was a new coalition, US for Success, which aims to work in partnership with the US government, higher education institutions, the business sector, and other key partners to foster supportive policies and practices that allow the US to compete and cooperate effectively on the global stage.

This coalition, which now includes 30 members from higher and international education, the business community and policy think tanks, is focused on welcoming international students to our nation’s campuses and making pathways for them to apply their knowledge and skills in our local economies upon graduation.

As noted by the US for Success coalition, Congress should ultimately modernise immigration law to make these and other improvements permanent.

Meanwhile, the higher education community in the US congratulates the Biden-Harris administration for doing what it can within the scope of current law to facilitate a smooth visa process for all those who wish to study in the US.


About the author: This is the fourth article in a series from Jill Welch. Jill is an international education policy expert with more than two decades serving in senior policy leadership positions both inside and outside of government, including the Hill, the Institute of International Education, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, and the U.S. Institute of Peace. She currently leads Out of Many, One, a consulting practice supporting nonprofit organisations in achieving inclusive, progressive, and bold goals that advance the democratic values on which the United States was founded. She also serves as Senior Policy Advisor for the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.

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