During a recent interview with Bloomberg Law, Julie Stufft, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, announced that the U.S. Department of State will launch a pilot program later in 2023 offering visa stamping renewal options domestically for H and L visa beneficiaries and other temporary visa holders.1 The State Department has not yet announced the mechanism or process to renew visa stamps under this pilot program.
Visa stamping is a crucial process that authorizes foreign nationals to travel to the United States for a specified period. According to Ms. Stufft, restoring stateside visa renewals will save foreign nationals from having to leave the country, and will reduce the workload of consular officers abroad.2 Stateside visa renewals were discontinued in 2004. Until then, domestic renewals of C, E, H, I, L, O and P visa classifications were allowed. The program was discontinued, principally, because the State Department did not have the biometric identifiers in the United States to comply with Section 303 of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act (Pub. L. 107-173, 116 Stat. 543), which requires that U.S. visas issued after October 26, 2004, include biometric identifiers.
Consular appointment backlogs have resulted from a combination of factors, including reduced staffing, social distancing requirements, and health and safety concerns. The backlog has affected various types of visas, including employment-based visas, tourist visas, and family-based visas. In many cases, the wait times for visa appointments increased from a few weeks to several months, depending on the consulate or embassy. The COVID-19 pandemic also had an enormous effect on foreign nationals attempting to renew their visas, especially those needing to travel abroad to renew their visa stamps. During the pandemic, U.S. consulates and embassies were fully or partially closed for anything other than emergency nonimmigrant visa appointments, forcing foreign nationals to remain abroad or to wait a long period of time for a consular appointment.
The H-1B visa (a principal beneficiary of the change), which is especially popular in the tech industry, allows U.S. companies to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations generally defined as those requiring theoretical or technical expertise. Foreign nationals who are in the United States in H-1B status with a visa stamp that expired or is about to expire generally must return to their home country, secure an appointment at a U.S. consulate, and wait for their documents to be returned. Due to consular appointment backlogs, this is a daunting process that not only jeopardizes employment opportunities, but also can create disruption to the employee’s or job candidate’s personal lives. For example, according to the State Department, the average waiting time (approximately at the time of this ASAP) for an “Interview Waiver Petition-Based Temporary Workers (H, L, O, P, Q)” is 171 calendar days in Mumbai, and 198 calendar days in Hyderabad, India.
Note that a visa stamp does not determine or guarantee entry or length of authorized stay within the United States; entry and the length of authorized stay within the United States are determined by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Officer at the port-of-entry each time a foreign national enters the country.
Although the State Department has taken various steps to address the backlog, this program, when implemented, is an additional welcome solution to reduce the timeframe for consular visa appointment backlogs.