It generally has not been a practical option to obtain a visa in India across a range of categories, according to attorneys and employers. Wait times to receive a visa interview appointment can exceed a year or more, according to a recent National Foundation for American Policy analysis. As a result, professionals, families and companies have been left with few acceptable choices.
“Obtaining a visa stamp in India remains exceptionally difficult right now,” according to Kevin Miner, a partner with Fragomen. “The wait times you are seeing for interview cases are relatively the same across all of the posts in India. For cases where the interview is waived, you still need an appointment to go to the application support center to submit your documents for the visa renewal, and those currently are not available at all. In the few instances one has become available, it is at least months away, if not more than a year.”
At the U.S. consulate in Chennai, the current wait time for visa interview appointments (as of October 4, 2022) are 780 calendar days for visitor visas, 29 calendar days for student/exchange visitor visas, and 415 calendar days for all other nonimmigrant visas. The wait times for interview appointments are similar at U.S. consulates in Hyderabad and Kolkata.
In Mumbai, the current wait time for visa interview appointments are 825 calendar days for visitor visas, 430 calendar days for student/exchange visitor visas, but changed from 392 calendar days for all other nonimmigrant visas on September 28, 2022, to 31 calendar days as of October 4, 2022, due to the opening up of new appointment slots. (See below.)
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“In practice, this has meant that obtaining a visa in India just hasn’t been a practical option,” said Miner via email. “Some Indian nationals have been able to find an appointment at a U.S. consulate in another country that will process them, but the options are limited because Indian citizens need a visitor visa to enter most other countries.
“We have seen some success getting appointments at the U.S. Consulate in Oman, as well as the U.S. Consulate in Malaysia, but this changes frequently. Indian nationals who are in the U.S. are generally not traveling if they need a visa, which is certainly disruptive to businesses and is causing a lot of distress for families. Leaving the U.S. to visit a sick parent or other relative in India can mean being unable to return to the U.S. for more than a year if the individual needs a visa stamp. It is a situation that needs a solution.”
To better understand the impact of the visa problems on businesses and their employees, I interviewed Cher Whee Sim, vice president for global talent acquisition & mobility at Micron Technology, one of America’s leading semiconductor companies, who responded in writing.
“Visa wait times have a significant impact on our business,” according to Cher Whee Sim. “First, many of our employees who require visas choose not to travel to visit their families. These employees have not seen their families in years. Many missed family milestones, including joyous occasions like marriages and somber moments like deaths. They cannot visit a grandparent. They miss out on traveling home to help during family emergencies. I hear it all the time and get asked what can we do to fix this? Their inability to travel has an impact on their well-being, and that is of importance to Micron.
“Second, those who go ahead and travel home to India often can't return because they can only secure a visa appointment that is months (even into 2023) away. As a business, we have to look at various options. Does the employee have enough time off to bridge the gap? Can we switch the employee’s employment to our India entity if their role supports the arrangement. If their role doesn't support this arrangement, it is a huge disruption to our business in the U.S., as we have to place the employee on a leave of absence until the visa is secured.”
The State Department is under pressure to fix the problem. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was asked about visa wait times following his meeting on September 27, 2022, with Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.
In a Facebook Live event (September 29, 2022), Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs Don Heflin, who heads visa operations for the five posts in India, said he expects the wait times for H and L visas to go down after the U.S. consulates in India open approximately 100,000 appointments for 2023 in the H and L categories in the first two to three weeks of October 2022. He said the mission is “attacking” the wait times for H and L drop box cases. He recommends people check for appointments every two to three hours, but not more than that to avoid being locked out. He said staffing levels at U.S. consulates in India are expected to return to pre-Covid levels before next summer, which he believes should improve wait times.
In response to a request for a statement on the visa delays in India, a State Department official responded on background:
“We are reducing appointment wait times in all visa classes as quickly as possible, worldwide. In fact, visa processing is rebounding faster than projected, after a near-complete shutdown and freezing of resources during the pandemic.
“This summer, Mission India issued more student visas than in any prior summer: 82,000 student visas from June to August.
“In addition, in FY 2022, the Mission is on pace to exceed FY 2019 adjudication levels in H-1B and L visas.
“In India specifically, appointment demand is high across all visa categories and wait times may be lengthy for most routine nonimmigrant visa appointments due to reduced staffing and numerous pandemic-related disruptions to our operations since March 2020. We note that cases that do not require an in-person interview move more quickly but are not reflected in the published wait times.
“To increase visa processing, in 2021 we coordinated with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to authorize expansions of interview waiver (IW) authorities through the end of 2022, while maintaining national security as our highest priority. This expansion has allowed consular officers to waive in-person interviews for a number of visa categories, including temporary workers, and for certain students and academic exchange visitors.
“In addition, applicants renewing nonimmigrant visas in the same classification within 48 months of the prior visa’s expiration may also be eligible for IW.
“These IW authorities have already reduced wait times at many embassies and consulates. We estimate 30 percent of worldwide nonimmigrant visa applicants may benefit from IW, freeing in-person interview appointments for other applicants.
“We estimate over 26,000 Indians have benefited from expanded IW authorities to date.”
The State Department says it has doubled consular hiring of U.S. direct hires in FY 2022 over FY 2021, has newly trained employees heading to overseas consular adjudicator positions and expanded the hiring of eligible family members to fill consular positions overseas and in the United States.
Companies like Micron Technology remain concerned about the impact of visa problems on employees. “The inability to secure visa appointments in a timely manner also impacts our ability to transfer talent from India to the U.S.,” according to Micron’s Cher Whee Sim. “This is for internal talent, employees who have been with us for at least a year that we need to leverage to fill a skills gap in the U.S. We often transfer them for short-term employment (to fill a gap), and we can’t even get the visa appointment until 2023. We had one transfer that his visa appointment was for October 2023 for a three-month transfer end of 2022. We know that we have the option of applying for emergency appointments, but most are denied.
“We try to avoid 3rd country stamping since the world is still impacted by Covid,” said Sim. “We don’t want our employees stranded in a country with no family, and no business reason to be there. This leaves us completely at the mercy of the U.S. consulates in India.”