There has been a tremendous amount of discussion and comment on President Trump’s executive order banning certain travelers from the seven countries; however, one provision of the executive order which has a significant impact on many visa holders from all countries is the suspension of the interview waiver program (commonly called “dropbox”) which allows visa stamp renewals to be processed as U.S. consulates abroad without having to appear for a personal interview. However, based on the exceptions in the executive order and in the Immigration and Nationality Act, at this time, a notable number of visa stamp applications are still eligible for interview waiver.
What is the Visa Interview Waiver Program (or “Dropbox”)
The Visa Interview Waiver program allows stamp applicants seeking a U.S. visa stamp in their passports (and who are deemed to meet certain criteria) to submit a visa stamp application without having to appear for a personal interview with a U.S. consular officer. The program is commonly called “dropbox” and has allowed U.S. consulates to prioritize and process certain visa stamp applications much faster which has resulted in much more efficient visa stamp processing across many other visa categories.
It should be noted that the Visa Interview Waiver program is different than the Visa Waiver program. The Visa Waiver program allows nationals of certain countries to travel to the U.S. without having to obtain a visa stamp in their passport. The Visa Interview Waiver program allows applicants who need a visa to obtain one without having to attend the interview with a consular officer.
President Trump’s Executive Order Suspends the Interview Visa Interview Waiver Program
Section 8 of the executive order (Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States) reads in relevant part that,
(a) The Secretary of State shall immediately suspend the Visa Interview Waiver Program and ensure compliance with section 222 of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1222, which requires that all individuals seeking a nonimmigrant visa undergo an in-person interview, subject to specific statutory exceptions.
The same section also calls for the increase of personnel who would be available to process visa applications (and interviews) in order to avoid increase in the visa interview wait times.
A Substantial Portion of Visa Stamp Applications Are Still Eligible for Visa Interview Waiver (or “Dropbox”)
Despite the broad call for immediate suspension of the Visa Interview Waiver program, the executive order allows for exceptions to this suspension, when permitted by law. We have been monitoring closely the actual implementation of this provision across U.S. consulates around the world and our experience – based on reports from clients and based on our contacts with the government – has been that notable portions of the Visa Interview Waiver program are still operational.
First, it is important to note that the executive order specifically states that there are specific statutory exceptions. On February 1, 2017, the Department of State’s Visa Office confirmed that the majority of Visa Interview Waiver program cases are still eligible to process under the program without an interview. Specifically, cases covered by Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) section 222(h)(1)(A) and 222(h)(1)(B) are still eligible.
222(h)(1)(A): Includes foreign nationals who are: “(i) within that class of nonimmigrants enumerated in subparagraph (A) or (G) of section 101(a)(15) [diplomatic visas]; (ii) within the NATO visa category; (iii) within that class of nonimmigrants enumerated in section 101(a)(15)(C)(iii) (referred to as the `C-3 visa’ category) [transit visas]; or (iv) granted a diplomatic or official visa on a diplomatic or official passport or on the equivalent thereof.”
222(h)(1)(B): Includes foreign nationals who are applying for a visa: “(i) not more than 12 months after the date on which such alien’s prior visa expired; (ii) for the visa classification for which such prior visa was issued; (iii) from the consular post located in the country of such alien’s usual residence, unless otherwise prescribed in regulations that require an applicant to apply for a visa in the country of which such applicant is a national; and (iv) the consular officer has no indication that such alien has not complied with the immigration laws and regulations of the United States.”
What this means that, in addition to the enumerated visa categories in section 222(h)(1)(A) (mostly diplomatic-type visas), the “dropbox” Visa Interview Waiver program continues to apply and be in force and effect for visa renewals where the existing visa has expired within the last 12 months or less and where the applicant is applying in their country of usual residence.
Our office has been in contact with various agencies and applicants over the past several days and our experience confirms that as of the date of this article, the Visa Interview Waiver program is still operations and available to many applicants, especially those renewing their visa stamps. However, we caution anyone who is planning to travel abroad and appear for a visa stamp at a U.S. Consulate to carefully consider the most recent reports from the specific consulate and be prepared for sudden changes to the process.
Visa Stamp Processing Times Likely to Increase
We expect that as a result of the suspension of the Visa Interview Waiver program, at least as it pertains to some candidates, the wait times for an interview and for visa stamp processing will increase. The executive order calls for hiring additional staff in order to handle such increase in volume in interviews; however, we urge visa stamp applicants, even those who are still eligible for the Visa Interview Waiver program, to plan carefully ahead of time and be prepared for longer processing visa stamp times.
There has been a substantial amount of confusion over the last few days over all of the provisions of the executive order. The situation remains fluid and we caution our clients and readers to carefully consider and possible risks of traveling abroad and/or going for stamping. However, our recent reports and intelligence suggests that as of the date of this article, at least major portions of the Visa Interview Waiver program remain valid and in effect.
Our office will continue to monitor developments related to immigration executive orders or congressional legislation efforts and we will be providing updates as soon as they are available. Please do not hesitate to contact us if we can review your case, answer any questions or schedule a consultation. We also invite you to subscribe to our free weekly immigration newsletter to receive timely updates on this and related topics.