In a series of announcements during 2021, the U.S. Department of State (“USDOS”) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) have continued to show some flexibility in addressing the challenges presented to international students and other academics seeking entry to the U.S. under an F, M or academic J visa. This trend is consistent with the USDOS’ history of affording international students a priority because of the substantial contribution they make to the U.S. academic community by enhancing cultural understanding, advancing collaborative research and knowledge and furthering U.S. diplomacy.
In April 2021, the UHS’ Student and Exchange Visitor Program extended its March 2020 guidance without change to the current 2021-2022 academic year. During the continuing pandemic, this guidance allows U.S. academic institutions and their beginning and returning students to continue to engage, under certain circumstances, in distance learning (both outside and within the U.S.) in excess of the regulatory limits on distance learning for academic students on F-l visas and vocational students on M-l visas.
Similarly, in 2021 Secretary of State Anthony Blinken extended the National Interest Exception (“NIE”) under the Presidential Proclamation (that bans U.S. entry of foreign nationals present in one of the 33 countries subject to COVID-19 travel restrictions) to international students with F, M and J academic visas to enable them to be admitted to the U.S. to begin or continue their academic program in a timely matter. Therefore, international students present in one of the 33 countries subject to the travel ban who are otherwise qualified for an F-1 or M-1 visa are automatically considered eligible for an NIE and allowed to enter the U.S. no more than 30 days before the start of their academic program. Students and academics traveling on a J-1 visa, while also eligible for an NIE, will need to contact their local U.S. embassy or consulate before their trip to the U.S. in order to receive an NIE.
Due to the worldwide pandemic, the ability of U.S. embassies and consulates to prioritize competing services with the timely processing of nonimmigrant and immigrant visa applications has faltered, and visa application processing times have become increasingly variable and lengthy based on local conditions. Consequently, visa processing delays threaten to prevent international students, professors, research scholars, short-term scholars and specialists in need of F, M or academic J visas, from arriving at U.S. campuses in a timely manner for their academic pursuits. In an effort to ameliorate the growing log jam of visa applications for these foreign nationals, the U.S. DOS’ Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources, by virtue of authority from Secretary Blinken and after consultation with DHS, has authorized U.S. consular officers through the end of 2021 to increase the categories of F, M and academic J visa applicants whose nonimmigrant visa applications can be approved without the delay of requiring an in-person consular visa interview. Under this expanded authority, consular officers, pursuant to their discretion and local conditions, may now waive an in-person visa interview for the following:
- F, M and academic J visa applicants who (i) were previously issued any type of visa; (ii) have never been refused a visa unless such refusal was overturned or waived; and (iii) have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility for a visa; and
- Initial F, M and academic J visa applicants who (i) are citizens or nationals of a country that participates in the Visa Waiver Program; and (ii) have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility for a visa.
Eligible F, M and academic J visa applicants who wish to take advantage of this visa interview waiver before the end of 2021 should check the website of their local embassy or consulate for country eligibility and visa interview waiver procedures.