Large numbers of US consulates around the world are not processing visas, leading to serious concerns from stakeholders that international students won’t be able to reach campuses for the fall 2021 semester.
A dataset seen by The PIE News shows that out of 265 US embassies and consulates around the world 123 are either closed, temporarily closed or only offering emergency appointments.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in profound reductions in the Department’s visa processing capacity”
This “profound” reduction in US visa processing capacity is proving to be a “roadblock for prospective international students” according to stakeholders. They warned that if the situation does not improve institutions will face serious financial difficulties.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in profound reductions in the department’s visa processing capacity,” a state department official told The PIE News.
“Additionally, a range of presidential proclamations restricting travel in response to the pandemic have resulted in further constraints on visa issuances worldwide.”
A dataset that was put together by a group of recruiters, shows visa waiting times as displayed on the websites of US consulates from around the world.
It lists 265 US consulates. At present there are 60 consulates that are showing a student visa wait time of 14 days or less.
There are a further 20 consulates where the wait time is between 15 and 60 days and 13 consulates where the waiting time is between 65 and 256 days.
The remaining 172 consulates are either closed, temporarily closed, not showing wait time results, or are only offering emergency appointments.
“The department is continuously seeking ways to efficiently process visa applications around the world”
“As the global situation continues to evolve, the department is continuously seeking ways to efficiently process visa applications around the world, consistent with both guidance from health authorities and with the US travel restrictions currently in place,” the state department official told The PIE.
“Throughout the pandemic, our US embassies and consulates have prioritised services to US citizens overseas, as well as urgent and mission-critical visa services (such as for those coming to assist with the US response to the pandemic).”
Other posts that can provide additional services are prioritising immigrant visas for immediate family members of US citizens, inter-country adoptions, and fiancé(e)s, as well as certain special immigrant visas, they added.
The official said posts that are also able to process nonimmigrant visas are prioritising “urgent or mission-critical travellers and foreign diplomats”, followed by students, exchange visitors, and temporary employment visas.
The potential harm caused by the visa processing issues are significant according to key US stakeholders.
“We need the US government to address the visa processes for international students immediately to make it possible for as many students as possible to arrive for Fall 2021,” said executive director of the American International Recruitment Council, Brian Whalen.
“International students contribute significantly to our economy and to the diversity of our institutions and communities.”
Whalen explained that AIRC recently surveyed their certified educational agencies to gather “on the ground information” about visa processing at US consulates around the world.
“This data revealed that there are extreme delays in visa appointments in many parts of the world. It also revealed that there are US Consulates in some countries that have appointment waiting times of only a few days or weeks,” he said.
“Some students are even traveling to a third country to apply for the non-immigrant study visa”
Concerns about the limited processing capacity of US consulates around the world was echoed by Terry Brown, vice president for academic innovation and transformation at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, in an AASCU newsletter.
“AASCU has advocated strenuously for federal policies that promote rather than inhibit the internationalisation of our campuses… We joined the American Council on Education to urge the secretaries of state and homeland security to take actions that will allow for our international students to return to our campuses and our institutions,” she added.
Students travelling to consulates
AIRC’s Whalen explained that in cases where students are unable to access visa services in their own country they are not being deterred.
“Some students are even traveling to a third country to apply for the non-immigrant study visa. This is a financial burden for these students, and it underscores their strong commitment and desire to study in the United States,” Whalen told The PIE.
The State Department official told The PIE that visa applicants “may generally apply at any US embassy or consulate where they are physically present”.
“We advise applicants to check with the relevant embassies or consulates to determine whether those posts have capacity to serve them,” they added.
Impact on US institutions
Whalen warned that the issues around visa processing will have an impact on institutions as well as students.
“The institutions at greatest risk are those that have less financial flexibility and higher numbers of enrolled international students”
He said that universities who enrol large numbers of international students and are dependent on their tuition payments as a primary source of revenue are the most vulnerable.
“The institutions at greatest risk are those that have less financial flexibility and higher numbers of enrolled international students.
“A decrease in the number of enrolled international students not only impacts tuition income, but also affects institutional positions in academic departments and staff positions in areas such as international student services, admissions and enrolment management,” he added.