A blog about U.S. immigration matters by Paul Szeto, a former INS attorney and an experienced immigration attorney and counsel. Contact Info: 732-632-9888, http://www.1visa1.com/ (All information is not legal advice and is subject to change without prior notice.)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Visa Interview Waiver Program Becomes Permanent

To improve the efficiency of the non-immigrant visa (NIV) application process, and to foster economic activities, the U.S. government introduced a two-year pilot program in January 2012 to waive interviews for certain types of NIV applications.  The program has been made permanent recently by the Department of State, as reported by AILA.  

Under this interview waiver program, consular officers can waive the interview for visa applicants whose previous visas in the same classification expired within the last 12 months.  Applicants must apply for their new visas in the district of their residence.  Further, interviews can also waived for applicants whose previous visas expired between 12 and 48 months ago, unless they are applying for E, H, L, P or R visas.

For example, a foreigner whose B-1 business visa expired one year ago may apply for a new B1 visa in his country of residence without interviews.  However, if the same person decides to apply for an H-1B employment visa, then he will be interviewed.

First time Brazilian visa applicants who are either younger than 16 or older than 65 are also eligible for interview waivers.

American consulates in India further expanded the program to include children applying before their 14th birthday traveling on any visa class; students returning to the U.S. to attend the same school and same program; applicants of H-1B visa applicants; and individual applicants of L1-A or L1-B visas.

In China, where economic development is red-hot, the interview waiver program has also been adopted to facilitate travel of Chinese nationals to the United States.  Consular officers in China may waive interviews for previous holders of B (business/pleasure), C1 (transit), D (crewmembers), F (students), J (exchange visitors), M (nonacademic students), and O (visitors with extraordinary ability) visas when they apply for visa renewals if their previous visas expired with the last 48 months.

In 2011, more than one million non-immigrant visa applications were processed in mainland China with more than 880,000 visas issued.  In 2012, about 1.2 million non-immigrant visas were issued in China, with about 475K visas issued in Beijing, 391K issued in Shanghai, 224K in Guangzhou, 59K in Shenyang, and 54K in Chengdu.  The substantial increase in visa approvals from 2011 to 2012 can be attributed largely to the interview waiver program.

The interview waiver program improves the efficiency of the consulate offices by freeing up visa appointments for first-time visa applicants. For example, the interview waiver program in China was used to free up about 100,000 appointment slots for first-time travelers.  As China's economy takes off, more Chinese citizens are expected to visit foreign countries for personal and business reasons.

Unlike first-time visa applicants, frequent travelers are less likely to overstay their visa status or otherwise violate the U.S.  immigration laws.  Most of them are business travelers or tourists whose presence in the U.S. is crucial to promote the cultural and economic interests of both countries.  Hence, it is reasonable to waive interviews for them.

In spite of the permanency of the interview waiver program, the State Department also makes it clear that consular officers are still obligated to interview applicants for national security reasons or quality control purposes.  Therefore, foreign visitors must always be ready to produce evidence to prove the legitimacy of their travel, and, whenever appropriate, their lack of immigrant intent.

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