The Department of State (DOS), in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has authorized consular officers until December 31, 2022 to waive, in their discretion, the in-person interview requirement for the following individuals as described in the DOS Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) at 9 FAM 403.5-4(A)(1)(a)(5)-(6):

"(5)  (U) F, M, and Academic J Visa Holders:

(a)  (U) Until December 31, 2022, an applicant for an F; M; or academic J (secondary and university students, professors, research scholars, short-term scholars, or specialists,) excluding nationals of the People's Republic of China, in one of the following categories:

(i)     (U) Applicants who were previously issued any type of visa; who have never been refused a visa, unless that refusal was subsequently overcome or a waiver of ineligibility was obtained; and for whom there is no indication of potential visa misuse or ineligibility; or

(ii)    (U) First-time F, M, and academic J visa applicants who are citizens or nationals of Visa Waiver Program (VWP) participating countries; and who have no prior ESTA denials; who have previously traveled to the United States on ESTA; and whose visa applications reveal no derogatory or potentially derogatory information; and who have no indication of potential visa misuse or ineligibility.

(b)  (U) You must verify that the applicant's SEVIS record indicates a SEVIS status of "initial" or "active," and 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.

(6)  (U) Individual Petition-Based H, L, O, P, and Q Visa Holders:

(a)  (U) until December 31, 2022, an applicant for an H-1, H-3, H-4, L, O, P, or Q visa in one of the following categories:

(i)     (U) Applicants who were previously issued any type of visa; who have never been refused a visa, unless that refusal was subsequently overcome or a waiver of ineligibility was obtained; and for whom there is no indication of potential visa misuse or ineligibility; or

(ii)    (U) First-time individual petition-based H-1, H-3, H-4, L, O, P, and Q visa applicants who are citizens or nationals of Visa Waiver Program (VWP) participating countries; who have no prior ESTA denials; who have previously traveled to the United States on ESTA; and whose visa applications reveal no derogatory or potentially derogatory information; and who have no indication of potential visa misuse or ineligibility."

DOS first communicated the expansion of these discretionary visa interview waivers in a December 23, 2021 announcement. That announcement states that to benefit from the above in-person interview waivers, applicants must be applying for a visa at a U.S. consular office "in their country of nationality or residence," i.e., visa interview waivers would not be available to third-country nationals applying for a visa at a consulate that is not in their country of nationality or residence.

The December 23, 2021 announcement also noted that: "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."

Unlike the December 23 announcement, the FAM provision states that the special interview waiver for F, M, and academic J applicants is not available to PRC nationals (it says “excluding nationals of the People's Republic of China.”) The expansion to H, L, O, P, and Q visas does not contain the PRC exclusion. The way the whole FAM provision is worded, it does seem that PRC F, M, and J applicants remain eligible for the standard visa interview wavier for renewing in the same category if their visa has not expired more than 48 months ago, just not the special visa interview waiver policy allowing applicants to benefit as long as they were previously issued any type of visa in the past.

Other nonimmigrant categories. 22 CFR 102(b)(3) allows consular officers to waive the in-person interview requirement for individuals applying to renew a visa in the same visa classification and category if not more than 12 months have passed since the prior visa expired. The December 23, 2021 announcement as well as the FAM continue the temporary expansion of that period to 48 months for renewals in the same category of any visa other than the listed categories.

Here is the wording of the December 23, 2021 announcement:

"Important Announcement on Waivers of the Interview Requirement for Certain Nonimmigrant Visas

Last Updated: December 23, 2021

The Secretary of State, in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security, has authorized consular officers through the end of 2022 to waive the in-person interview requirement for certain temporary employment nonimmigrant visa applicants who have a petition approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.   This new authorization applies to temporary workers applying for H-1, H-3, H-4, L, O, P, and Q visas who meet certain conditions, including that they are applying for a visa in their country of nationality or residence.  Under this authority, consular officers have discretion to waive the visa interview requirement for individual petition-based H-1, H-3, H-4, L, O, P, and Q 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 individual petition-based H-1, H-3, H-4, L, O, P, and Q 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 and have previously traveled to the United States using an authorization obtained via the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) .

In addition, the Secretary extended previously approved policies to waive the visa interview for certain students, professors, research scholars, short-term scholars, or specialists (F, M, and academic J visa applicants) through the end of 2022.  One change to the previous policy is that applicants eligible for the waiver authority because they are citizens or nationals of a VWP participating country must have previously traveled to the United States using an authorization obtained via ESTA to qualify.  Applicants must apply for a visa in their country of nationality or residence.  Like the policy for certain individual petition-based visa applicants, consular officers have discretion to waive the interview 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 VWP and who have previously traveled to the United States via an ESTA authorization, provided they have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility.  

The previous authority allowing for waiver of interview of certain H-2 (temporary agricultural and non-agricultural workers) applicants has also been extended through the end of 2022.  Applicants renewing any visa within 48 months of expiration are also eligible for interview waiver.

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."

Essential Background

The Immigration and Nationality Act at INA 222(h) [8 USC 1202(h)] and DOS regulations at 22 CFR 41.102 govern eligibility for waivers of the visa interview requirement.

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

  • Be applying for the visa renewal in the consular district of his or her normal residence;
  • Have "no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility;" and
  • Have been subjected to all appropriate biometric visa requirements.

The statute at INA 222(h) [8 USC 1202(h)] also limits DOS authority to waiver the interview requirement. That provision generally does not allow an interview waiver for an applicant who:

  • is not a national or resident of the country in which the applicant is applying for a visa;
  • was previously refused a visa, unless such refusal was overcome or a waiver of ineligibility has been obtained;
  • is listed in the Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS);
  • is a national of a country officially designated by the Secretary of State as a state sponsor of terrorism, except such nationals who possess nationalities of countries that are not designated as state sponsors of terrorism;
  • requires a security advisory opinion or other Department of State clearance.

Although the December 23, 2021 announcement is broadly worded, applicants who are subject to one of these standard obstacles to a visa interview waiver should contact the consular office where they plan to apply, to inquire whether an interview waiver is available to them. Applicants needing legal advice should contact an experienced immigraiton laywer.

Sources of authority