In a major step taken by the Biden administration, the wait time for a US visitor's visa interview in India has been reduced by 60 per cent this year along with opening more diplomatic missions in India and abroad to process these applications, an official informed on Wednesday.
India was one of the very few countries where applications for US visas saw a major upswing after coronavirus-related travel restrictions were lifted. There have been growing concerns in India over the long waiting period for first-time visa applicants, especially for those applying under B1 (business) and B2 (tourist) categories. The waiting period for first-time B1/B2 visa applicants in India was close to 1,000 days in October last year.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Visa Services Julie Stufft told PTI that the goal of the State Department is to get to 1 million visas issued this year, which would be above the pre-pandemic number. "We have increased the number of officers going to India. We have set up arrangements, which is unprecedented, with other embassies in the world like Bangkok to take Indians who are seeking visas. We are opening a new consulate in Hyderabad...and we're just focused on making sure that we can bring the wait time down in India," she said.
Stufft noted that Frankfurt, London and Abu Dhabi have taken a lot of Indian citizens who are seeking visas. "We have asked these missions to take Indians as if they were from their own host country.
Especially in places like Bangkok where there is no visa required for Indians and it is a relatively short flight. Obviously, this is not ideal. We want Indians to be able to apply in India, and that's where we'll get to," she said.
More than 100 US diplomatic missions have been issuing visas to Indians. "As a result of all of these efforts, the visitor visa interview wait time has decreased by 60 per cent just in the last couple of months. This is a result of all the work that we've put into making sure that Indians who wish to travel to the US can do so," she explained. The US Embassy in India has said that with the lifting of Covid-related travel restrictions, the mission has made it a priority to facilitate legitimate travel and adjudicated over 8,00,000 non-immigrant visas in 2022, including record numbers of both student and employment visas.
"In every other visa category, interview wait times in India are at pre-pandemic levels or lower," the embassy said in a statement in January this year. Stufft said that currently "visa production in India is 40 per cent higher than what it was before the pandemic", asserting that the State Department was working hard to bring down the wait time.
In February, the US had the highest on-record production of visas in India. "Our team there is working very hard and they're well on their way to accomplishing the 1 million visa goal," Stufft said. In addition to the visitor's visa, the State Department official said they are working on other types of visas including student visas. "Because we have been able to expand interview waivers, meaning fewer Indians need to come to the embassy or consulate for an interview, we can process that without seeing the applicant. That has helped us tremendously because we have had consular officers in dozens of countries who are actually remotely processing these Indian visas," Stufft said.
This has made it possible for people who don't need an interview and those who have travelled to the US before to get their visa in a record time of fewer than two weeks, she said. "It really is a global effort. Because we have such strong ties with India and the relationship between our two countries means that the categories of visas are the highest in India.. students, tech workers, and crew members. It's a high cultural, educational and work relationship between our countries," Stufft said.
She said anyone who has to travel to the US urgently for any sort of humanitarian matter, those cases will also be expedited. "But make your appointment, find the place that you can go in India or outside of India where it's possible. And bear with us as we bring these wait times down. We're very happy to be hitting records every month with the number of visas that we're issuing in India," she said. Stufft also said that the State Department is excited about launching a pilot project on the domestic renewal of visas soon.
Under this scheme, holders of certain work visa categories who are living in the US can apply for visa renewal without leaving the country. "What this means in particular for a large number of tech workers from India is that people would not have to go back to India or another part of the world to apply for their visa," Stufft said. "That's very exciting for all of us. It will take time. We're building up that operation from zero. That's something that we have not done for several decades at this point. This will have big benefits for Indians who are living and working in America," she added.
In January, Stufft said the wait time for an interview for work visas - such as H-1B and L1 visas -- has gone down from 18 months to about 60 days. The H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa that allows US companies to employ foreign workers in speciality occupations that require theoretical or technical expertise. Indians make up a large proportion of the recipients of H-1B and other work visas granted to skilled foreign workers, many in the tech industry.
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