US Immigration News

How the Pandemic Affected US Visa Processing Backlogs

4.75 minute read
"Last year, the onset of the global pandemic wrecked immigration systems all around the world. It was no different for United States Immigration. Both family sponsorship and all work visa programs suffered greatly in terms of visa processing times. Recently, the Department of State announced that consular services worldwide continue to be affected due to the pandemic. Based on the current processing time for the visas being issued every month, it seems unlikely that the visa backlog created due to the pandemic will be cleared any sooner than 2022."
Written by My Visa Source Team
Published on:  Jul 12, 2021
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Last year, the onset of the global pandemic wrecked immigration systems all around the world. It was no different for United States Immigration. Both family sponsorship and all work visa programs suffered greatly in terms of visa processing times. Recently, the Department of State announced that consular services worldwide continue to be affected due to the pandemic. Based on the current processing time for the visas being issued every month, it seems unlikely that the visa backlog created due to the pandemic will be cleared any sooner than 2022. 

Since March 2020, US Consulates and Embassies worldwide have been operating on reduced capacity. Even after a year, consulate operations have not returned to normal, with visa interviews being canceled or rescheduled or appointments being generally unavailable.

What Is the Current United States Immigration Visa Backlog?

One can easily see the current immigration visa backlog due to the closure of consular services by checking the number of applications in line for the next visa interview appointment. The National Visa Center that preprocesses the immigration visa application for the consulate has experienced an 800% increase in pending applications waiting for visa interview appointments. 

There were around 494,289 pending applications as of March 31, 2021. In 2019, there were an average of 60,0866 pending applications every month. For April, only 18,979 applicants received an appointment for a visa interview, hardly sufficient to reduce any pressure on the backlog of applications. 

What About the United States NonImmigrant Visa Backlogs?

It is not only the immigrant visas (permanent) that have been affected by the longer processing times. Nonimmigrant (temporary) visas like the E visas have also been affected, according to the E visa statistics published by the State Department. E-1 Visa and E-2 Visa are treaty trade investor visas for nonimmigrants who want to come to the US to establish their business. These visa programs are for international entrepreneurs. 

During 2020, less than 50% of the E-1 and E-2 visas were issued abroad. In 2019, around 48,712 E visas were issued to applicants from around the world, while between March 2020 and February 2021, only 22,995 E visas were issued. 

During the first four months of the pandemic, between March 2020 to July 2020, the issuance of E visas experienced a 92% decline compared to the same period last year. Even the recent data shows that E visas have still not recovered to their pre-pandemic levels. 

The top 10 US consulates around the world for E visas have also been affected by the pandemic. The US Consulate in Osaka-Kobe, Japan, and the US Embassy in Seoul, South Korea have made exemplary efforts to issue nearly as many E visas as before the pandemic began.

The US Embassy in London has seemed to suffer the most in terms of visa backlogs as it issued only 14% of the total E-visas issued last year. In the first four months of the pandemic, the embassy issued no E visas at all. Until March 2021, the embassy has managed to issue only 18% of the E visas compared to March 2019.

The US Embassy in Tokyo could issue only 2/3rd of the E visas compared to pre-pandemic levels, while the embassy in Frankfurt, Germany, Paris, Rome, and Madrid issued almost half the number of E visas compared to the previous year.

The US Embassy in Toronto managed to issue at least a quarter of the E visas issued pre-pandemic. Since the vaccination drive has already begun in several countries around the world, we can expect an uptick in visa issuance.

During the first four months of the pandemic, 4 locations issued 89% of all E visas issued in the first year of the pandemic:

  • Japan- 49%
  • Europe- 29%
  • South Korea- 10%
  • Canada- 6%

How Will the US Immigration Applications Be Prioritized?

The Department of State recently announced on April 30, 2021, that it will adopt a 4-tiered approach to prioritizing immigrant visa applications. 

  • Tier 1: Priority will be given to adoption visas, age-out cases, and certain special immigrant visas for Afghani and Iraqi nationals working for the US government
  • Tier 2: Priority will be given to immediate relatives of US citizens, fiance(e), and returning permanent residents with resident visas
  • Tier 3: Priority will be given to family preference visas and special immigrant visas for certain employees of the US government abroad
  • Tier 4: This includes all other immigrant visa applications, including employment-based and diversity lottery visas

For nonimmigrant visas, applications that require urgent processing, foreign diplomats, and mission-critical travelers who are assisting in the US government’s response to the pandemic or whose work is essential to food supply will be prioritized. After them, visa applications by students, exchange visitors, and other temporary employment visa applicants will be prioritized.

When Will US Visa Processing Times Return to Normal?

It is estimated that with the consulate and embassy closures, limited operations, and the recent policy changes introduced by the State Department, it will take up to a year for visa backlogs to be cleared.

Consulates are resuming operations post by post, depending on the local Covid-19 situation, lockdowns, travel restrictions, medical infrastructure, and vaccine situation.

Currently, the US, along with the UK and Israel is leading the world in its vaccination efforts. The US has fully vaccinated almost a third of its population, and over 50 million adults have received the first dose of the vaccine.

Countries like Europe are still in lockdown due to delays in vaccine procurement since there is no domestic production of the vaccine. Germany, despite being a leader in vaccination among EU countries, still has to impose lockdowns and curfews to keep the third wave of the pandemic under control.

Until vaccination efforts are increased collectively in different countries, it will be difficult for US embassies and consulates to resume full operations.

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