International students face visa challenges as U.S. embassies remain closed

Thousands of students will need I-20 visas to return to U.S. university campuses as they move back to in-person classes, but many are unsure that they will be able to acquire the visas on time.

Not all college students will have the decision of returning to campus this fall. Some international students are facing challenges in getting their visas or passports on time to start the fall semester in person.

Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions imposed around the world, some countries such as China have not yet lifted the travel restriction with the United States, which is tied to visa services. Currently, appointments for student/exchange visitor visas and all other Chinese nonimmigrant visas are showing “emergency appointment only.”

Zongqi Yu, an incoming freshman from China planning to study economics and math, said he expects the visa appointment policy to be updated in time so he can start the fall semester in person.

All international students that study in the United States need an I-20 form — the “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status” — for their visa interviews. USC began issuing I-20s to committed undergraduate fall admits in March.

Zongqi is hoping to see the policy change mid-May, though he is still planning to go to another country to apply for a U.S. visa. It is possible to apply for a U.S. visa in a country other than China, where he holds his passport from. This is called applying as a “Third Country National.” His ideal choices include Singapore, UAE and Cambodia.

“Now, not many students have gone to Singapore for U.S. student visas,” said Angela Tang, an overseas education counselor explained, according to her experience. Tang explained that the cost to obtain a visa in a third country like Singapore is insurmountable for most students. She estimates getting a visa in Singapore would require a stay of around 20 days.

“As far as I know, many returning students are eager to go back to campuses to study,” she said. “Many first-year students and their parents do not want to take the risk. Many students even abandon their plans to study in the U.S. and consider studying in the U.K. or other Asian countries instead.”

Elva Liu, a freshman studying communication, described the visa application process as “the greatest concern for [her] and [her] parents ever since [she] committed to USC.” But she does not want to go to a third country because the process is costly and time-consuming.

USC is imploring the U.S. government to address the international students’ visa delays.

“Along with the American Association of Universities and other higher education associations, USC is urging the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to immediately prioritize visa applications and to ease travel restrictions for international students,” said the Office of International Services (OIS) in a statement.

Students should continue to expect OIS to share updates and advice to students who are experiencing visa delays. USC is also working on options for students who may be unable to be physically present on campus in the fall.

In the Global Education Alliance’s U.S. Visa update on April 19, the organization said the U.S. Embassy in China released visa appointments for May. Ker Gibbs, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, also expected that the U.S. Embassy in China will open in the next few weeks.

Ruiyang Wu, a sophomore and spring admit, is currently taking online classes at home in Suzhou, China.

She believes that the embassy will soon be back to normal operation so she is not planning to go to a third country. “I am not familiar with the processes of applying for a visa in third countries. I find it a bit risky,” she said.

Facing this situation, Tang expressed concern that the U.S. embassy would be overwhelmed by the number of applicants. “It is just that once China opens the U.S. visa application, there will be a large number of students who need to apply for the visa,” she said. “The space for visa appointments is limited, and it won’t be easy to guarantee that all students can get the opportunity to apply for the visa.”