Divyank Talreja, 21, a student from Mumbai who has secured provisional admission to a computer science programme in Atlanta, United States, is waiting for his student visa slot.
While he is aware of the rush to secure the F-1 student visa, his classes begin in the third week of August and he wants to make it on time.
“I understand that there is a rush and slots are limited. But I feel that this should have been planned better,” said Talreja.
The US government has kept most non-immigrant international travel from India suspended since April 30. International students are, however, exempt from this travel ban owing to US President Joe Biden's National Interest Exception rule, which ensures that they are screened on an individual basis.
This means that students seeking entry through the F-1 student visa route are finding it difficult to get appointment slots for their visas.
Higher educational institutions will reopen for the Fall season from the last week of August 2021 onwards.
Here, students who don’t get their visas on time would have to miss a few classes. While admission officials from US universities told Moneycontrol that a few-week delays would be considered, they wouldn’t be able to provide any further assistance beyond that time frame.
"Students beginning a new program with a program start date on or after August 1 may travel to the United States up to 30 days prior to the program start date and do not need a National Interest Exception," the US Embassy says on its website.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also requires all persons entering the US to furnish a negative COVID-19 report, based on a test taken within 72 hours of departure.
The United States is the most popular higher education destination for Indian students.
As per the Open Doors Report for 2019-20 academic year (September 2019 to August 2020), there were 1,93,124 Indian students who were studying at various higher education programmes in the US, down 4.4 percent from the previous year.
India’s share on the 2019-20 international students list was second with 18 percent originating from here. China took the top spot with a 34.6 percent share of the 1,075,496 international students during the year.
Limited slot opened up
For the academic session for Fall 2021 that begins from the last week of August to the first week of September onwards, the student visa interview slots were opened from June 14.
During the initial weeks, there was a big rush. Students complained about technical glitches, including the US government site frequently crashing and candidates being locked out, in some cases.
Alisha Lobo, an 18-year-old candidate from Delhi told Moneycontrol that she was locked out of her account for 72 hours after she refreshed the page multiple times.
“I was shocked when I was locked out for three days citing ‘suspicious activity’. Imagine my anxiety,” she added.
While Lobo still hasn’t managed a visa appointment, she has been informed by her education consultant that there is no need to worry since more slots are being added in July 2021.
Sumeet Jain, co-founder and higher education expert at study abroad platform Yocket, said that students can certainly defer their admits and that such candidates can have conversations on this matter.
“This will depend on the university if they allow it or not but fortunately most of them are. US consulates are now considering student visas as a priority. Most of the visas they are processing are student visas. There is a provision for emergency appointments but currently that is not open for students. My advice to students is to stay calm as the consulates are adding new slots every day,” added Jain.
While the US embassy had announced in late June that it would open additional visa slots for students in July, there was a sudden rush among applicants. Due to this, the few slots added could not cope with the deluge of applications leading to the Embassy having to come out with a clarification.
"We expected a heavy flow, but the number of applications far exceeded our calculations from the moment the slots went live on June 25. We are in the process of adding more slots, preferably across all mission posts in India, but definitely in Delhi and Mumbai," an Embassy official said.
As of July 5 morning, while the US Embassy in New Delhi and the consulate in Mumbai are only offering appointments on an 'emergency basis', the US consulates in Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad remain temporarily closed for visa processing.
While earlier there were fixed time-frames for receiving student visas, visitor visas and all other non-immigrant visas earlier, now appointments for these are being granted on an emergency basis and that too at only two missions, the official US State Department portal on visa appointment times showed.
What about the glitches?
With regards to glitches plaguing the website for visa appointments, people in the know said the issue has been sorted out.
All international students who apply for the F-1 education visa based on securing admission at an US institute, need to schedule an interview. The student visa processing time varies, based on each application.
Last week, there were a slew of complaints from many Indian students trying to book a slot through the US government's official portal for setting up visa appointment slots.
The website is maintained by the US Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs and is a global portal.
In an earlier interview, Don Heflin, Minister Counselor, Consular Affairs at the US Embassy, told CNBC TV18 that their goal is to interview as many people as they did in 2019, which was a normal year.
“While we started on June 14, we will start really well on July 1. Students have faced a lot of technical difficulties. Thousands of students have appointments for July and August. We will release more appointments next week," he had said.
What can students do at this stage?
Individual institutes need to be informed in advance about the possible delays in visas. The Admissions Director at a New York-based university told Moneycontrol that not all cases are approved.
“We take a decision on a case-to-case basis, depending on the nature of the issue and how genuine it is. But yes, we are being considerate during the COVID-19 phase,” he added.
Recounting a recent incident, he said that an Indian student from Bengaluru who was to join a Psychology programme was down with COVID-19 in June and hence had to cancel the student visa appointments.
“The student was told that she has two options. She could either opt for online classes for Fall and join us in Spring 2022 or can apply for a delayed joining by October after Fall Break. She has opted for the latter,” he added.
Mayank Trivedi, an aspirant from Meerut who will be joining a Public Policy course in the US from the Fall session, said that online interviews should also be scheduled considering COVID-19. He added that this will help more students to get their F-1 visas on time.
However, considering that the pandemic-linked delays have been unprecedented, there won't be a major impact on aspirants.
The exact number of student slots available are not disclosed by the US authorities.
Akshay Chaturvedi, Founder and CEO of study abroad platform Leverage Edu, said that the US embassy in India recognised the problem of the spike in student visa applications and has advised aspirants to stay in close touch with their universities for flexible start dates or deferrals.
“However, we don't expect this to affect most students as universities are doing everything they can to ensure students land in the country and reach campuses to convene their studies on time. We have seen such adversities come up before and policymakers as well as universities have always decided in the favour of students," he added.
No priorities are offered to students. This means that even if a candidate’s visa appointment slot was cancelled earlier, he/she would not get priority in the future.
“Slots are available on a first-come-first-serve basis and students who have slots later than their course start dates (however rare) are being requested to discuss options with their respective universities,” said Chaturvedi.
Are delays and deferrals feasible?
An US Embassy official said that decisions to delay admissions or change the structure of a course must be decided between the student and the college with the US government not being involved.
Similarly, while student visa appointment slots are being officially prioritized, the US Embassy is not considering letters from US universities attached by students seeking an emergency slot.
"The priority level of an application is decided by the I-20 program start date," he added.
The I-20 is a multi-purpose document issued by a US government-approved educational institution, certifying that a student has been admitted to a full-time study programme and has demonstrated sufficient financial resources to stay in the United States.
All international students, whether applying to college, university, or high school (visa category F) or applying for a vocational course and studying at a recognized non-academic institution (visa category M), are issued one.