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Majority of US consulates remain closed with only limited visa services available

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A new analysis from a US-based think tank reveals that under a quarter of all US posts abroad are now fully operational for processing nonimmigrant visa applications, including those for study visas
  • US educators are appealing to the federal government to restore or streamline visa services as quickly as possible in support of students preparing to begin or resume studies in September 2021

US educators are urging the Department of Homeland Security to take steps to “ensure the timely and efficient processing of visa applications and work authorisations for international students and scholars.”

A March 2021 open letter signed by more than 40 peak bodies across the US education spectrum makes the urgent point that, “March and April are critical months for the processing of visas for the fall 2021 semester. International students around the world must make their country choices and begin the visa process in April to ensure they can arrive for the beginning of the fall semester.”

Even so, roughly three out of four US diplomatic posts remained closed, or are operating on a limited or emergency basis, as of mid-April. This, in effect, means that visa services are effectively suspended or at least offered at a much-reduced capacity in many US embassies and consulates.

A recent summary from the Cato Institute, a public policy research group, reports that, “As of 8 April 2021, just 57 of 237 visa processing sites around the world (24%) were fully operational for nonimmigrant visa applicants, and just 97 (41%) allowed anything other than emergency applications. Even many open sites have massive wait times for visas. The average wait was 95 days for a visitor or business traveler visa, but 31% of sites open for those visas had waits longer than four months, and 22% had waits longer than six months.”

Drawing on State Department data and status reports, the Cato Institute has compiled the following summary of visa processing status in US posts around the world as of 8 April 2021.

Those widespread disruptions to visa services hark back to the initial COVID-related shutdowns in March 2020 but many have persisted in some form through to the present day.

The situation remains extremely fluid, including in key sending markets around the world. Only emergency services are being offered in Beijing, for example. And just this week the US Embassy in New Delhi announced that all visa appointments would be cancelled through April 25 in keeping with a city-wide lockdown announced for the Indian capital.

The following chart shows the impact of the limited visa services available, in combination with travel bans that were in effect over the past year, on issuance of nonimmigrant visa classes for visitors to the US – a broad category that includes study visas as well as work visas for foreign graduates. The Cato Institute reports that, “Overall, nonimmigrant visa issuances were down 67% from February 2020 to February 2021.”

The broader context here is that the US is still maintaining an entry ban on travellers from Europe, China, Brazil, and South Africa. A recent report from CNBC suggests the American government may begin to ease some restrictions in mid-May but no official timetable has been set out as yet.

In any event, we are now reaching the outer limit of the key March-April window that US educators cited in their open letter to the Department of State and Department of Homeland Security. This in turn sets up an even more uncertain environment for educators, students, and families planning for the start of the new academic year in the US this September.

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