Biden Administration Eases Student Visa Application Process

In the wake of a steep decline in international enrollments, the policy change may allow more students to gain a student visa.
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  • Visa applicants will no longer have to go to great lengths to prove non-immigrant intent.
  • The Biden administration's guidance reverses a Trump-era direction for consulate officers.
  • Advocates still hope to eventually make student visas dual intent eligible.

The student visa application process just got a little bit easier for international students looking to study in the U.S.

President Joe Biden's administration updated its guidance for consulate officers examining student visa applications late last year. Officers now only need to look at a potential student's intent to not immigrate to the U.S. at the moment they are applying for a visa, rather than whether those plans are likely to change upon graduation.

Currently, applicants must do much more to prove non-immigrant intent in order to receive a student visa. This change, however, provides more flexibility and less burden of proof.

Sarah Spreitzer, director of government relations at the American Council on Education, said this rule reversal sends a more positive message to international students interested in studying in the U.S.

Quotation mark

Sarah Spreitzer, director of government relations at the American Council on Education, said this rule reversal sends a more positive message to international students interested in studying in the U.S.

"One of the things that we had asked the Biden administration back in January [2021] was we wanted to see him offer a more welcoming message to international students," she said. "This is them delivering on that message."

Bush-Era Student Visa Guidelines Revived

The change in guidance may also help alleviate backlog problems America's immigration offices are facing, Spreitzer said.

At present, potential students need to prove non-immigrant intent. They must also provide additional documentation, including proof that they own property in their home country and a list of family members in their home country they can return to after graduating. That burden of proof often leads to longer approval times.

"While students may not be able to demonstrate the same strong 'ties,' present in other classes of applicants, their typical youth often conveys a countervailing major advantage in establishing their bona fides: they are not expected to, or do not necessarily have a long-range plan, and may legitimately not be able to fully explain their plans at the conclusion of their studies," the Department of State's guidance states.

It adds that consulate officers should not take into account whether an applicant's intention to leave the U.S. after graduation is subject to change, or even likely to change, when deciding whether to grant or deny a visa.

A student must still, however, state that they do not intend to immigrate to the U.S., Spreitzer said. If they do plan to stay, they should apply for another form of immigration.

This guidance for student visas isn't new, she added.

Consulate officers began using this guideline in 2005 under the leadership of then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, which is why it became known as the Rice cable, Spreitzer said. That guidance was overturned during President Donald Trump's administration.

International Students Wanted

The American Council on Education campaigned for Biden to further open up student immigration. The organization penned a letter two days after Biden's inauguration urging him to not only reinstate the Rice cable but also to push Congress to enact legislation that would allow for "dual intent" when international students apply for a student visa.

This would allow a student to explicitly state they plan to immigrate to the U.S. after graduating without their application being denied.

Spreitzer said this change would have to be done through Congress, as it's not within the president's power to do so through executive action.

In addition to reinstating the Rice cable, the federal government also focused on two other key changes that affect student visas.

First, it proposed plans to increase the fee for non-immigrant visas from $160 to $245. Second, it extended the in-person interview waiver until the end of 2022, meaning student visa applicants from certain countries won't need to take part in an in-person interview to be approved.

U.S. colleges and universities are in need of international students.

The number of international students enrolled at U.S. schools dropped 15% during the 2020-2021 academic year, according to the Open Doors 2021 report from the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Enrollment has been decreasing over the past five years.

However, a fall snapshot of international enrollment suggests things could be trending upward. The November report of the fall semester found the total number of international students rose 8% this most recent semester, compared to fall 2020.