A September 14, 2021 announcement states that the Department of State "has authorized consular officers through the end of 2021 to expand the categories of F, M, and “academic J visa applicants” (students, professors, research scholars, short-term scholars, or specialists) whose applications can be adjudicated without an in-person interview in their consular district of residence, with certain exceptions.  Consular officers may, if they so choose, and pursuant to local conditions, now waive the visa interview requirement for:"

  • "F, M, and academic J visa applicants who were previously issued any type of visa, and who have never been refused a visa unless such refusal was overcome or waived, and who have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility; or
  • "first-time F, M, and academic J visa applicants who are citizens or nationals of a country that participates in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), provided they have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility.  This applies only to non-U.S. citizens who are nationals of eligible countries... Applicants from non VWP countries whose prior visa was issued when they were less than 14 years of age, may need to submit biometric fingerprints, but can still be approved for an interview waiver."

"...Details about country eligibility and necessary procedures will be available on the website of the relevant embassy or consulate..."

The Department of State (DOS) previously had announced a temporary expansion of statutory and regulatory provisions that allowed consular officers to waive the in-person interview requirement for individuals applying to renew a visa in the same nonimmigrant visa classification and category if not more than 48 months have passed since the prior visa expired. The expansion of this authority lasts until December 31, 2021, although the September 14, 2021 policy appears to override both the requirement that the visa be in the same classification as an expired visa, as well as the 48-month limit.

The DOS Notices

The September 14, 2021 announcement reads:

Last Updated: September 14, 2021

International students are now and always have been among the Department of State’s highest priorities.  The Department recognizes the important contributions these students make to our college and university campuses; the positive impact they have on U.S. communities; and the rich benefits of academic cooperation in increasing cultural understanding, furthering research, knowledge, and supporting U.S. diplomacy.  The Department is committed to supporting the U.S. academic community, while administering U.S. law.  The Department also recognizes this is a critical period of time for students seeking to begin their studies at academic institutions across the United States.

To that end, the Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources, under the authority delegated to him by the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security, has authorized consular officers through the end of 2021 to expand the categories of F, M, and “academic J visa applicants” (students, professors, research scholars, short-term scholars, or specialists) whose applications can be adjudicated without an in-person interview in their consular district of residence, with certain exceptions.  Consular officers may, if they so choose, and pursuant to local conditions, now waive the visa interview requirement for F, M, and academic J visa applicants who were previously issued any type of visa, and who have never been refused a visa unless such refusal was overcome or waived, and who have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility; or first-time F, M, and academic J visa applicants who are citizens or nationals of a country that participates in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), provided they have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility.  This applies only to non-U.S. citizens who are nationals of eligible countries.  Details about country eligibility and necessary procedures will be available on the website of the relevant embassy or consulate.  Applicants from non VWP countries whose prior visa was issued when they were less than 14 years of age, may need to submit biometric fingerprints, but can still be approved for an interview waiver.  

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has previously found F, M, and academic J visa applicants eligible for National Interest Exceptions (NIEs) under Presidential Proclamations that suspend entry of individuals present in one of the 33 countries subject to COVID-19 travel restrictions (see https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/covid-19-travel-restrictions-and-exceptions.html).  Students seeking to apply for a new F-1 or M-1 visa should check the status of visa services at the nearest embassy or consulate; those applicants who are found to be otherwise qualified for an F-1 or M-1 visa will automatically be considered for an NIE to travel.  Students and academics traveling on J-1 visas must contact the nearest embassy or consulate prior to travel to receive an NIE.

Consular resources and local government restrictions vary widely, and each consular section is continuously reviewing its capacity to adjudicate visa applications during this worldwide pandemic and as we address global issues and competing priorities.  We encourage applicants to check the website of the relevant U.S. embassy or consulate to confirm the level of services currently offered and to find guidelines for applying for a visa without an interview. 

The March 11, 2021 DOS news item reads:

Expansion of Interview Waiver Eligibility

Last Updated: March 11, 2021

Secretary Blinken, in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security, has temporarily expanded the ability of consular officers to waive the in-person interview requirement for individuals applying for a nonimmigrant visa in the same classification.  Previously, only those applicants whose nonimmigrant visa expired within 24 months were eligible for an interview waiver.  The Secretary has temporarily extended the expiration period to 48 months.  This policy is in effect until December 31, 2021.  This change will allow consular officers to continue processing certain nonimmigrant visa applications while limiting the number of applicants who must appear at a consular section, thereby reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission to other applicants and consular staff.  Travelers are encouraged to review the website of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for detailed information on what services are currently available as well as eligibility information and instructions on applying for a visa without an interview. 

Essential Background

The Immigration and Nationality Act at INA 222(h) [8 USC 1202(h)] and DOS regulations at 22 CFR 41.102(b)(3) normally allow an interview waiver if no more than 12 months have passed since the prior visa expired. The Trump administration had originally expanded the authority to waive the in-person interview requirement for individuals applying to renew a visa in the same nonimmigrant visa classification and category if not more than 24 months had passed since the prior visa expired. That expansion was scheduled to end on March 31, 2021. With its March 11, 2021 announcement, the Biden administration expanded this to 48 months since the prior visa expired, through December 31, 2021. The September 14, 2021 policy appears to override both the requirement that the visa be in the same classification as an expired visa, as well as the 48-month limit

To qualify for the visa renewal interview waiver under INA 222(h) [8 USC 1202(h)] and 22 CFR 41.102(b)(3) and the temporary expansion, the applicant must:

  • Apply to renew his or her visa not more than (24) months after after the previous visa's expiration;
  • Be seeking renewal of the visa in the same nonimmigrant visa classification (i.e., same visa class and same category of applicant within that visa class (principal or derivative) - For example, an H-1B visa holder applying for an F-1 visa, or an F-2 visa holder applying for an F-1 visa, would not qualify for an interview waiver under, since the new visa class or visa category differs from the expired visa class or category;
  • Be applying for the visa renewal in the consular district of his or her normal residence;
  • Be "an applicant for whom the consular officer has no indication of visa ineligibility or of noncompliance with U.S. immigration laws and regulations;" and
  • Have been subjected to all appropriate biometric visa requirements.

The DOS Foreign Affairs Manual instructs consular officers, however, that they can waive the interview requirement for F, M, and J nonimmigrants who meet the above conditions only when the following additional requirements are met:

  • The F, M, or J "applicant's SEVIS record indicates a SEVIS status of 'initial' or 'active'"
  • For F and M student visa applicants, the applicant is renewing the F or M visa to "(a) continue participation in the same major course of study even if at a different institution; or (b) attend the same institution even if in a different major course of study;" and
  • For J exchange visitor visa applicants, the J visa may be renewed only "if the exchange visitor will continue participation in the same exchange visitor program, with the same Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) number from the previously issued visa"
  • Consular officers are also instructed, that they "should request an interview if you identify any discrepancies between the current and previous visa applications, or wish to interview the applicant for any other reason"

Sources of authority