Many foreign nationals now have one less hurdle to clear when coming to the United States on certain nonimmigrant visas. The U.S. Department of State (DOS) expanded and extended a program authorizing consular offices to temporarily waive in-person interviews for applicants meeting certain conditions for a wide range of visas through December 31, 2022. The temporary ruling will speed up the onboarding process for many employers who hire foreign national workers.
Which Visas Are Impacted
The discretional interview waivers apply to certain nonimmigrant visa applicants who have a petition approved by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). On December 23, 2021, the DOS expanded the waiver authorization to include the following visa categories: H-1B visas for persons in specialty occupations; H-3 visas for trainee or special education visitors; H-4 visas for family members of other H visas; L visas for intracompany transferees; O visas for individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement; and P visas for athletes, artists and entertainers.
DOS also extended similar interview waiver policies that were already in place for H-2A and H-2B visas for certain temporary agricultural and non-agricultural workers, respectively, as well as F, M, and academic J visas for students, professors, research scholars, short-term scholars, and specialists meeting certain criteria.
In addition, the authorization to waive interviews for applicants renewing a visa in the same class within 48 months of the prior visa’s expiration has been extended indefinitely.
To qualify for a waiver, applicants must meet certain conditions, including that they must apply for their visa in their country of nationality or residence.
Applicants who have previously been issued any type of visa can be considered for an interview waiver as long as they have no apparent or potential ineligibility and have never been refused a visa (unless such refusal was overcome or waived).
For first-time visa applicants, the criteria are more stringent. They must be citizens or nationals of one of about 40 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program and they must have previously traveled to the United States using an authorization obtained via the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). They also cannot have any apparent or potential ineligibility.
Applicants should keep in mind that U.S. embassies and consulates have the discretion to require an in-person interview on a case-by-case basis and that they may choose to opt-out of the interview-waiver policies. It is advisable that you discuss your individual situation with an employment-based visa lawyer.
Reasons for the Waiver Policies
The pandemic has significantly reduced DOS’s ability to process visas. Many services have been provided sporadically over the last two years due to consular office closures and inadequate staffing levels during various time frames at different locations, causing a backlog of cases and increasing wait times for visas. Staffing remains limited at many locations as the pandemic continues. DOS stated its goal in expanding and extending the waiver program was “facilitating nonimmigrant travel and reducing visa wait times” in recognition of the “positive impact of temporary work visa holders on the U.S. economy.”
The websites of embassies and consulates will typically include instructions on who is eligible and how to apply to have your interview waived. If you are eligible for the waiver, you will likely be identified during the visa application process based on your answers to certain questions and receive instructions about how to proceed. To avoid surprises and errors that could delay your application, it is advisable that you discuss your application and eligibility for a waiver with an employment-based visa lawyer.