On October 17, 2023, the Department of State (DOS) took the first steps to implement stateside processing of nonimmigrant visas. The DOS notified the federal Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs that it will introduce a pilot stateside processing program on a limited basis in the first quarter of 2024. Those able to utilize stateside processing will not be required to travel to a consulate, providing significant savings of time and cost.
The term “stateside processing” refers to the renewal of nonimmigrant visas for foreign persons present in the United States. Currently, only U.S. consulates located outside the United States can issue visas.
Prior to 2004, the DOS had routinely accepted applications in the United States to renew visas for certain nonimmigrants. When the legal requirement to capture biometrics (i.e., fingerprints and digital photo) from applicants prior to issuing a visa was introduced in 2004, the DOS was left with no practical method to complete stateside processing and the procedure was suspended.
Three factors may have contributed to the reintroduction of stateside processing for the renewal of visas. First, digital technology allows the DOS to capture, store, and transmit biometrics, obviating the need for a nonimmigrant visa applicant to appear in person at a consular post abroad if biometrics already have been provided. This technology already is employed for the visa interview waiver procedures widely in use at U.S. consulates for those seeking to renew certain nonimmigrant visas and those who previously have traveled to the United States as a visitor after registering with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). The second factor is the backlog of visa applications accumulated during the suspension of routine visa processing at U.S. consulates during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although many consulates have returned to pre-pandemic processing times, others still struggle with backlogs. Finally, the DOS should enjoy significant savings from locating consular officers adjudicating visa applications stateside by avoiding expenses associated with relocation costs and security risks inherent in overseas assignments.
Earlier this year, the DOS signaled its intention to implement stateside processing for the H-1B, H-4, L-1, and L-2 nonimmigrant visa categories by the fourth quarter of 2023. That plan was postponed and scaled back.
Full details of the pilot program await publication of a proposed rule in the Federal Register. It is believed the program also will be limited to H-1B applicants from countries that are not required to pay a separate “reciprocity” fee prior to issuance of the visa. Further limitations similar to those applicable to participants in the Visa Waiver Program may be included. It is expected that, after ensuring the operability of the stateside processing program, the DOS will expand the program to include additional nonimmigrant visa categories.
Look for updates here as the stateside processing of nonimmigrant visa applications is introduced and expanded or contact your Jackson Lewis attorney.