U.S. expanding non-immigrant visa interview waiver into 2024

The program will continue indefinitely, subject to periodic reviews

visa processing
The State Department has indefinitely extended a program allowing consular offices to waive in-person interviews for low-risk non-immigrant visa applicants who apply within 48 months of their most recent visa's expiration. The anticipated result is a substantial increase in the pool of applicants eligible for interview waivers, expected to at least double.

THE U.S. STATE Department has indefinitely extended a program allowing consular offices to waive in-person interviews for low-risk non-immigrant visa applicants who apply within 48 months of their most recent visa’s expiration. Initially scheduled to conclude on Dec. 31, the program will now persist without a specified end date, undergoing regular reviews. This policy applies to consular offices globally.

Under the updated program rules, the State Department anticipates the pool of applicants eligible for an interview waiver will at least double, the U.S. Department of State said in a statement. From October 2022 to September 2023, the State Department issued a near-record 10.4 million non-immigrant visas worldwide, partly attributed to interview waiver authority.

“Interview waiver authorities have significantly reduced visa appointment wait times at embassies and consulates,” the State Department said. “In Fiscal Year 2022, almost half of the nearly seven million non-immigrant visas issued by the Department were processed without an in-person interview. This success in reducing global visa wait times, particularly post-pandemic closures, is ongoing, with continued efforts to swiftly minimize wait times, including for first-time tourist visa applicants.”

Starting Jan. 1, consular offices will have the authority to waive interviews for first-time H-2 visa applicants (temporary agricultural and non-agricultural workers). Also, other non-immigrant visa applicants applying for any non-immigrant visa classification who were previously issued a non-immigrant visa in any classification, unless the only prior issued visa was a B visa and are applying within 48 months of their most recent non-immigrant visa’s expiration date.

As a reminder, applicants renewing a non-immigrant visa in the same classification within 48 months of the prior visa’s expiration date continue to be eligible for interview waiver until further notice.

To qualify for an interview waiver, applicants must also meet specific criteria, including that they:

  • Apply in their country of nationality or residence.
  • Have never been refused a visa (unless such refusal was overcome or waived).
  • Have no apparent or potential ineligibility.

USTA applauds Biden administration

The U.S. Travel Association advocated for the extension in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas last month. By extending the visa waiver authority, the Biden administration prevented a loss of 64 million visitors and $215 billion in spending over the next 10 years, according to USTA. In 2024 alone, the U.S. will retain an additional 2.2 million visitors and $5.9 billion in traveler spending that would have been lost without the extension.

“Visa interview waivers for low-risk travelers are critical to protecting the American economy and reducing the pandemic-era visa backlog that has hindered the growth of international inbound travel to the United States,” said Geoff Freeman, USTA president and CEO. “Even nearly four years after the pandemic began, the United States is welcoming 13 million fewer visitors than it did in 2019. Much of that decline is the direct result of stubbornly high visa interview wait times—currently averaging more than 400 days in top source markets. Extending visa interview waiver authority is a major step in increasing global competitiveness and promoting a more seamless, secure travel experience.”

Visa wait times averaged 130 days during the State Department’s fiscal 2023, which ended in October. That was down from post-pandemic highs but still much longer than the 30-day maximum achieved during the Obama administration. U.S. Travel says visa interview wait times still average more than 400 days in some source markets.

The trade group said that failing to extend the waiver authority would have significantly increased wait times for 40 percent of visa applicants, costing the U.S. economy billions of dollars in lost traveler spending.

“Embassies and consulates may still require an in-person interview on a case-by-case basis and dependent upon local conditions,” the State Department said. “We encourage applicants to check embassy and consulate websites for more detailed information about this development, as well as current operating status and services.”

In November, the Department of Homeland Security announced the release of over 64,000 supplemental H-2B visas for fiscal year 2024, surpassing the congressionally authorized discretionary cap for the second consecutive year. AHLA applauded this federal initiative as a positive step toward addressing the labor shortage challenges faced by the hotel industry.