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Applying for a US visa? The earliest appointment you can get is February 2023 or 17 months from now

By Tanya Lara Published Sep 30, 2021 2:59 pm Updated Sep 30, 2021 11:19 pm

1201 Roxas Boulevard in Manila is almost never without people waiting outside. Except in these pandemic times when, like all offices, the US Embassy’s operations have been reduced by the COVID lockdowns.

Unlike most European embassies in Manila, the US Embassy has not outsourced its online appointment system or submission of documents. Since it is operating with “reduced staffing,” the backlog or waiting time for an appointment for a new visa is now 17 months; renewal of visas, however, can still be done through dropbox.

“The Embassy cannot predict when the resumption of full visa services or processing of a specific category of visa will occur,” the US Embassy said on its website.

“The Embassy cannot predict when the resumption of full visa services or processing of a specific category of visa will occur,” it said on its website. “As conditions surrounding the COVID-19 situation improve, the Embassy will provide additional services, culminating eventually in a complete resumption of routine visa services.”

In an interview with PhilSTAR L!fe, Greenways Travel and Tours president Vangie Espino says, “The wait for new visa application appointment pre-pandemic was only weeks. When the COVID pandemic began and the embassy closed, it became a year and now it’s longer. We submitted a client’s application last Friday, Sept. 24, and the first available appointment we got for her was Jan. 23, 2023.”

Another travel agency showed us the appointment they got for a client on Sept. 29—it was for Feb. 16, 2023.

Espino, whose travel agency Greenways offers visa services for the US, Europe and other countries, explains that one must get an appointment for interview if it’s your first time applying for a visa (non-immigrant and immigrant). An interview appointment is also required for those whose previous visas have expired beyond 48 months; visa validity of below 10 years; and immigrant visa or change of status (say, from tourist to fiancé).

She adds, “The US Embassy is now more lenient with the renewal of tourist visas. What before was only one year or 12 months to qualify for a dropbox renewal was extended to a year when the pandemic began, and now it’s 48 months.”

“Dropbox” renewal means the applicant does not have to appear at the US Embassy to be interviewed. Because the interview is waived and no appointment is necessary, applicants can DIY the process but most course it through a travel agency for convenience.

The visa fee is $160 whether it’s a new one or for renewal.

Those who are eligible for dropbox renewal are:

  • People with B1/B2 visa (a temporary, non-immigrant visa that allows the holder to travel to the United States for either business or tourism purposes).
  • The prior visa was valid for 10 years.
  • The prior visa is valid or expired within the last 48 months.
  • The applicant has the expired passport on which the previous US visa is affixed.
  • The applicant has not requested an extension or change of status through the USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services).

Espino says that children under 14 may now renew their visas through dropbox too, which wasn’t allowed before. She adds that the waiting period from the time a travel agency sends the passport to the US Embassy for renewal through a courier (2Go) is between four and eight working days.

“Be sure to submit a new picture or the embassy will send it back for the applicant to change, then we send it back again through the courier for processing. The courier charges P500 to deliver your passport after the processing,” she advises.

Eligibility for B1/B2 dropbox renewal is extended to 48 months from time of expiry. This applies only for 10-year visa validity.

She adds, If you’re renewing your visa with your maiden name and your passport is now with your married name, you need to submit your marriage certificate issued by the PSA (Philippines Statistics Authority).”

Priorities: Non-immigrant/immigrant visas

The US Embassy, however, may cut the waiting time for an appointment if you belong to its priority list of travelers with urgent needs (“a matter of life and death”), foreign diplomats, and certain mission-critical categories of travelers, such as students and exchange visitors (F-1, M-1, and J-1) and temporary employment visas (H-1B, H-2B, and L non-immigrants). 

“Visa appointments and processing for B1/B2 (Business/Tourist) remain suspended, with the exception of interview waiver renewals,” according to the embassy website.

For immigrant visas, the embassy is using a “tiered approach to triage immigrant visa applications, based on the category of immigrant visa, as we resume and expand processing.”

While it schedules limited appointments within all four priority tiers every month, the following lists the main categories of immigrant visas in priority order:

  • Tier One: Immediate relative intercountry adoption visas, age-out cases (cases where the applicant will soon no longer qualify due to their age), and certain Special Immigrant Visas (SQ and SI for Afghan and Iraqi nationals working with the U.S. government).
  • Tier Two: Immediate relative visas; fiancé(e) visas; and returning resident visas.
  • Tier Three: Family preference immigrant visas and SE Special Immigrant Visas for certain employees of the U.S. government abroad.
  • Tier Four: All other immigrant visas, including employment preference and Diversity Visas.