The US Department of State has expanded the exceptions to in-person visa interview requirements for certain temporary visa applicants. The visa categories which benefit from these changes, effective December 23, 2021, include: H-1, H-3, H-4, L, O, P, and Q visas as well as F, M and academic J applicants.

As set forth below, the consular officers have discretion to waive standard interview requirements in these categories for individuals who have previously been issued visas in any category or traveled under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval. These changes, valid through December 31, 2022, are aimed at conserving limited consular resources and alleviating backlogs.

Employment-Based Interview Waiver: H-1, H-3, H-4, L, O, P and Q

The December 23 changes allow US consulates to waive the need for an in-person interview for H-1, H-3, H-4, L, O, P, and Q visa applicants, who:

  • Are applying in their country of nationality or residence;
  • Were previously issued a visa of any type or previously traveled to the United States under the VWP (ESTA) authorization;
  • Have not been previously refused a visa, unless the refusal was overcome or waived; and
  • Have no apparent ineligibility for the requested visa.

This is a change from the prior interview waiver policy, which—even under recent expansions—was limited to visa renewals in the same visa category within two years of expiration. This benefit is now potentially available to applicants in the listed categories who have held any prior US visa at any time, if the other conditions are met. This would mean, for example, a person applying for an H-1 or L-1 visa for the first time may not need an in-person interview if they previously held F-1 (student), B-1/B-2 (visitor) visas, or utilized the VWP (ESTA) option available to individuals from designated countries.

Student Eligibility for Interview Waiver: F, M and Academic J

Foreign nationals applying for F or M student visas or academic J-1 visas are also eligible for interview waivers under the same requirements set forth above, for the other listed categories. This is an extension of a policy which began in September 2021 for this prioritized group, with an important change. Under the current policy, applicants qualifying based upon their use of the  VWP (ESTA) must have traveled to the United States under that program. It is not sufficient to simply hold citizenship or nationality of a VWP country—as had been the case under the September 2021 policy.

Broad Interview Waiver for Agricultural and Non-Agricultural Workers: H-2

Temporary agricultural and non-agricultural H-2 workers were prioritized as essential to the US economy and food security at the outset of the COVID pandemic. As such, they have been broadly eligible for interview waivers, both for initial and renewal applications. This policy has been extended through December 31, 2022.

Application Requirements

Visa interview waiver eligibility means that applicants may not have to undergo a face-to-face interview at a consulate during the visa application process. Applicants must still complete all the other visa application components, including completion of the required DS-160 form, payment of applicable fees, submission of proof of eligibility, and, in some cases, updated biometrics. Many consular posts require appointments at drop-box locations for submission of documentation, even where an in-person consular interview is not required.

Location Specific Policies

Visa interview waivers are discretionary. There is no form or other manner in which an applicant requests an interview waiver—this is an internal decision. The frequency with which a particular location will opt to exercise this option is based upon location-specific considerations and practices. It is always necessary to check local requirements, as there are wide variations due to country conditions, COVID restrictions, and other issues.

Many consular posts continue to operate on a limited, emergency only basis. Others are less restrictive, but have very few visa appointments available, with long scheduling backlogs. The expansion and extension of options to waive in-person interviews is a positive step, which will provide some measure of relief to COVID-related visa appointment difficulties.

For more information about these and related developments, contact a member of Steptoe’s immigration practice group or the authors of this post, Elizabeth LaRocca and Dana Delott.