Due to the limited capacity to adjudicate visa applications during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of State (DOS) announced the extension and expansion of its nonimmigrant visa interview waiver program through Dec. 31, 2022. Currently, U.S. consular officers may waive the in-person interview requirement for applicants who are renewing any type of nonimmigrant visa in the same visa category within 48 months of its expiration. That authorization has now been extended indefinitely.

On Dec. 23, 2021, DOS, in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security, granted consular officers through the end of 2022, the authority to waive the in-person interview requirement for certain nonimmigrant visa applicants and their qualifying derivatives who have a petition approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The expanded authority applies to H-1, H-3, H-4, L, O, P and Q applicants, provided the applicants meet certain conditions.

In addition, the DOS extended through the end of 2022 the previously approved policies to waive the in-person interview for other select visa types, including F, M, and academic J visas. Certain H-2 applicants (temporary agricultural and non-agricultural workers) may also bypass the in-person interview requirement.

This new authorization applies to temporary workers who were previously issued any type of visa and first-time visa applicants who meet the specific criteria stated below. The standard eligibility criteria for all applicants is to apply for a visa in their country of nationality or residence.

Eligibility criteria for applicants who were previously granted a visa

  • Applicants have previously been issued any type of visa;
  • Applicants have never been refused a visa unless such refusal was overcome or waived; and
  • Applicants have no apparent or potential ineligibility to receive a visa.

 Eligibility criteria for applicants applying for an initial visa

 Applicants are citizens or nationals of a country that participates in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP);

  • Applicants have no apparent or potential ineligibility to receive a visa; and
  • Applicants have previously traveled to the U.S. using an authorization obtained via the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).

Implementation of the interview waiver policies is discretionary

U.S. embassies and consulates can choose not to implement the interview waiver policies; thus, consular officers have the discretion to require an in-person interview on a case-by-case basis. Therefore, visa applicants are encouraged to check the U.S. embassy or consulate’s websites to confirm the level of services offered and to find guidelines for applying for a visa without an interview.  These policies only extend and expand the eligibility for a waiver of the in-person interview associated with the visa application process at a Consulate outside the United States.  Applicants must still be present in the relevant country to process their visa application.  Given the references to “nationality and residence,” it is unlikely third-country nationals, visiting a given country, will be eligible for an interview waiver under these new policies.  However, DOS could issue further guidance or modifications to these requirements.

Rescission of COVID-related Travel Restrictions on South Africa and Surrounding Countries

On December 29, 2021, President Biden issued a presidential proclamation revoking the COVID-19 related travel restriction imposed last month on the eight southern African nations, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, due to the spread of coronavirus variant Omicron. The revocation and lifting of this travel ban will be effective at 12:01 am EST on December 31, 2021.

Please keep in mind, global vaccination and COVID testing requirements remain in place for US-bound travelers.  Further details about these requirements, including the exceptions and waivers due to humanitarian concerns, is available at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Squire Patton Boggs will continue to monitor and provide updates on these fast-moving developments.