As the United States announced the opening of interview slots for new visa applications on Tuesday, after a two year hiatus, the significant waiting period — over two years for some categories — baffled students, professionals and visitors who had planned to travel to the country.
In comparison, the waiting period in Beijing was two days. Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs, Don Heflin, cited a high demand, staff shortages and pandemic-related disruptions as issues leading to the prolonged delay.
Addressing the delay concerns, Heflin said the embassy was working towards increasing their staff, adding that for the H and L worker visa categories 1 lakh appointments will be opened within the next few weeks. Meanwhile, Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar reportedly raised the issue with the US secretary of state earlier this week and said India was ready to offer any help needed to ease the issue.
Uncertainty, however, remains over the long wait periods — which vary across categories and states — and when and how the issue will be resolved. News18 took a deep dive into the issue to answer all the questions you may have about the wait period and its impact. Read on.
IS THE WAITING PERIOD TWO YEARS FOR EVERYONE?
The wait period for the visa appointments varies across cities and also categories. While the wait period for visitor visas is 833 days in New Delhi and 848 days in Mumbai, student and exchange visitor visa applications have a 430-day waiting time in New Delhi and 430 days in Mumbai. Meanwhile, other non-immigrant visa applicants will have to wait 392 days for appointments as per Moneycontrol. At the same time, Chennai has a significantly lower wait time with just 29 days for student/ exchange visitor visas, Mint reported.
Wait times in Beijing and Islamabad, meanwhile, are one to two days, for student visas. For a Canada visa, the wait time for an Indian applicant applying for a student visa is 13 weeks and there is not much wait difference when applicants from India and Pakistan, as per Mint.
There are exceptions in place for emergency cases, where the wait time might be expedited. These include medical issues for which treatment is only available in the States, a family casualty or work travel which benefits a US company, as per Moneycontrol. For student visas and renewal cases, the embassy may even waive in-person interview requirements.
WHY THE DELAY?
The US state department says that the estimated wait time to receive an interview appointment at a US embassy is based on the incoming workload and staffing. Owing to high-demand in India and pandemic-related disruptions, the delays have been exacerbated. “Because of high demand, wait times remain significant,” the US Embassy India tweeted.
Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs, Don Heflin, explained the long waiting time, referring to the low number of staff at the visa centres. “I know some of you have some real concerns about wait times. I’m going to be honest with you. There’s a long wait time. The good news is our recovery from Covid and post the pandemic, the staffing problem is being handled. At the height of Covid and for a while after, we only had about 50 per cent [staff] in the visa consulates,” he said.
WHAT IS BEING DONE ABOUT THE ISSUE?
Heflin said that staffing at US consulates will return to pre-Covid levels in less than a year and for the time being temporary staff and drop boxes are being set up to reduce the long wait times, the Times of India reported.
He also said for the H and L worker visa categories 1 lakh appointments will be opened within the next few weeks. Heflin said at the height of the pandemic the US consulates and embassies had about 50 percent of the (visa staffing) than it normally has and currently 70 percent staffers are available. He said 100 percent staffing will be achieved around this time the next year or slightly earlier, at which point the embassies and consulates will have the manpower to handle the volume of applications.
Meanwhile, Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar raised the matter with US secretary of state Antony Blinken, adding that India is ready to cooperate with the US in every way possible to help ease the problem, as reported by Wion.
“I suggested [to] US state secretary Blinken that if there was something that the Indian government could do to help the US government deal with this issue in a better way, we would be very open to doing it. But, this is an issue where it’s mainly for the US to do, we’ll be supportive,” he told reporters.
“In India, there are families unable to meet, students waiting for a long time. So it’s a serious problem. But I’m confident, with the sincerity Blinken showed, I hope they’d address this and with any support that we can provide, we hope things will improve,” Jaishankar added.
Attributing the problem to Covid, Blinken said he was ‘extremely sensitive’ to the issue. “It is a product largely of the pandemic. Our ability to issue visas dropped dramatically during Covid. This is a self-financing part of the state department…When Covid hit, the demand for visas fell..the system as a whole suffered,” he was quoted as saying in a Wion report.
WHY IS THERE SUCH A HIGH DEMAND?
According to a UN report in 2021, India has one of the highest diaspora populations in the world, with 18 million Indians living outside the country in 2020. Out of these, 2.7 million live in the United States.
The ‘American Dream’ has for long been a calling for workers, professionals and students in India. Indians today make up a large proportion of the recipients of H-1B and other work visas granted by the US government to skilled foreign workers, many in the tech industry, Moneycontrol said. The H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa that allows US companies to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations that require theoretical or technical expertise.
The US is also a preferred destination for Indian students. The United States issued a record 82,000 student visas to Indians in 2022, higher than any country, the US Embassy in India said earlier in September.
Speaking about the high number of visas issued, Patricia Lacina, Charge d’affaires of US Embassy in India said, “this shows that the United States remains for most Indian families the most sought-after country for higher education,” as per Times Now.
WHAT OTHER COUNTRIES ARE POPULAR WITH INDIANS?
UAE had the highest number of Indian migrants in 2020, at 3.5 million, as per the UN report. UAE became the third-largest host of Indian emigrants in 2005, after the US and Pakistan. However, between 1990 and 2020, its share of the Indian population grew by 657 per cent and it has been hosting the largest proportion of Indian emigrants since 2010, The Hindu Business Line reported.
Currently, India-UAE is the world’s third-largest international migration country-to-country corridor, after Mexico-US and the Syria-Turkey corridor. Saudi Arabia is also a preferred destination, with the third-largest Indian migrant population at 25 lakhs. While Pakistan was also a favoured destination between 1990 and 2005, the number has been steadily declining, with a 16 lakh population in 2020.
Indian students are preferring Canada as an alternative to the US, with News18.com reporting in 2021 that more Indians were applying to Canada due to the USA’s outdated immigration policies. Immigration and policy experts have testified before a panel of US lawmakers that the per-country quota on issuing the green cards is driving Indian talent away from the United States, the report said.
Canada and other countries like New Zealand are seeing more and more students apply there due to lucrative job opportunities, lower student fees, and easier application process. In 2019, Indians were the largest group by ‘country of origin’ to be granted express entry and other categories of skilled immigrant visas for Canada.
In 2022, Canada admitted 108,000 Indians in its first quarter as per Economic Times, making them the top immigrant group to take residence in the country.