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US visa processing delays worsening at midpoint of 2022

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Wait times for interview appointments for student visa applicants are averaging 49 days as of July 2022
  • This compares to a pre-pandemic average wait time of ten days
  • Processing times for student visas vary widely around the world, with some US consulates and embassies booking interviews more than a year ahead and others offering appointments within a few days or weeks

A new analysis from the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, shows that wait times for US visa processing have now reached their worst point since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Drawing on the latest US State Department data, Cato reports that wait times for student visa interviews are averaging 49 days as of July 2022 (five times the pre-pandemic average of ten days). Those applying for tourist or business travel visas will wait an astonishing 247 days on average (as compared to a benchmark of 17 days before COVID).

The issue is simply the backlog of visa files that accumulated in US consulates and embassies around the world during an extended processing closure during the pandemic. “You can’t just shut down an entire bureaucracy for more than a year and not expect to have a cascade of consequences,” says David Bier, the Institute’s associate director.

In one telling illustration of this cascading effect, a 25 July 2022 update from the US Embassy in Kenya explains:

“Due to COVID-19 health and safety measures, nonimmigrant visa interviews at US Embassy Nairobi ceased for over a year. The Embassy restarted interviews at full capacity in February 2022. As we work through the backlog of applications and address the high demand for services, we recognise that some applicants may face extended visa interview wait times. This is a worldwide problem that US embassies are diligently striving to address.”

“Currently, the first available dates for a visitor visa appointment in Nairobi are in June 2024.”

State Department data also shows that processing times vary widely, not only by visa class but also by diplomatic post, as we see in the table below.

As of July 2022, students applying via Dhaka (551 days), Istanbul (428 days), Abu Dhabi (310 days) will endure some of the longest delays for their visa interviews. In contrast, those applying via consulates or embassies such as Ho Chi Minh City (6 days), Bangkok (7 days), or Beijing (2 days) will encounter wait times below pre-pandemic averages.

“These statistics also do not include what amounts to a shadow backlog of applicants seeking to renew their temporary visas,” adds Mr Bier. “The State Department has waived the need to obtain an interview for most travellers who had previously held a visa in the last four years. But consulates are implementing this policy in very different ways. Some consulates simply allow renewal applicants to submit their paperwork via mail. Others require applicants to drop off in‐​person. Others often still require applicants to be interviewed regardless.”

Amid growing calls for the US administration to act to relieve visa processing times, the Cato report points out as well that there is precedent for executive intervention when wait times become excessive: “The last time visa wait times grew above a few months, then‐​President Obama ordered that 80% of all temporary visas be issued in less than 21 days. This executive order (and the knowledge that it was coming) promptly brought visa wait times down to a few days, but former President Trump rescinded the order, and President Biden has failed to re‐​issue it.”

As we have noted separately, the visa processing delays for US-bound applicants are hardly unique this year as most other major destinations are dealing with significant backlogs as well.

For additional background, please see:

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