After the first lockdown disrupted students’ travel plans ahead of the fall semester in 2020, US visas issued in India ahead of the spring semester 2021 nearly doubled compared to previous years.

Indian nationals arriving at Bengaluru airport amid coronavirus pandemicImage for representation/PTI
Coronavirus Education Friday, May 21, 2021 - 18:28

The second wave of COVID-19, like the first one, arrived at a time when the academic year is concluding for high school and undergraduate students in India, adding uncertainty to their future plans. Amid the lockdown and travel restrictions, the situation has been particularly difficult for students planning to study abroad. Last year, many students were forced to withdraw or defer their admissions, while some had continued with online classes until the travel restrictions were lifted. With the onset of the second wave of the pandemic in India, several countries, including the US and Australia, have once again restricted travel from India. Here’s a look at how the first wave of the pandemic in 2020 and the resulting travel restrictions affected Indian students’ travel plans to study in the US, based on the number of student visas issued.  

India went into its first lockdown in late March 2020, and the US Embassy in New Delhi and US consulates in Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Mumbai, had to suspend routine visa services, like in other parts of the world, allowing only mission-critical and emergency services. Every year, the highest number of student visas are typically issued in the months of June and July (around 10,000 to 15,000 visas per month in the preceding years), ahead of the admissions intake in US universities for the fall semester that begins in August-September. With routine visa services suspended through April, May and June, only 15 F1 visas (for students enrolled in academic programmes) could be issued in total, while zero M1 visas (for students pursuing vocational studies) were issued in this period.  

This is reflected in the annual visa statistics report for the fiscal year 2020 (October 2019 to September 2020). The number of F visas issued in India during FY 2020 was only 16,717, compared to 46,021 F visas issued in FY 2019, and 45,244 issued in FY 2018.  

Usually, from May to July around 25,000 US student visas are issued, but in 2020 many students were likely forced to defer or withdraw from the course or continue with online classes. However, the annual report does not fully reflect the eventual surge in visas issued, once routine services were resumed in July 2020. While only 110 F1 visas were issued in July, the months of August, September and even October saw a rise in student visas issued compared to previous years. 

 

The month-wise numbers from 2020 cannot be directly compared to the previous years’, as the reporting methodology had been changed since October 2019. However, the surge in numbers coincides with the resuming of visa services, possibly reflecting pending applications and deferred plans amid the first wave of the pandemic. The months of November, December and January again saw the usual increase preceding the spring semester intake. Moreover, the monthly numbers were nearly doubled compared to previous years, suggesting a further surge to compensate for the fall in numbers during the lockdown months.  

On April 30, US President Joe Biden restricted entry into the US of foreign national immigrants who have been present in India within the 14 days prior to their entry into the US, based on guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).   However, the exemptions to the travel restriction includes certain categories of students, including those seeking to commence studies in the fall semester.  

For now, all visa appointments at the US Embassy New Delhi and the consulates in Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Mumbai are cancelled. However, based on National Interest Exception, students who have already qualified to programs starting on or after August 2021, and already have a valid F1 or M1 visa, are still allowed to travel, entering the US no earlier than 30 days before their academic program begins. 

A spokesperson for the US Consulate General, Chennai, said that most US universities have resumed in-person classes, while also continuing to have a combination of online and in-person classes with COVID-19 protocols.  Last year, the US government issued guidance that allowed international students to take more online or distance learning courses than normally permitted by Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) regulations.  On April 26, 2021, it was announced that this SEVP guidance is extended for the academic year 2021-2022 as well. 

The spokesperson added that the US continues to welcome international students to its campuses, and that EducationUSA officers in Chennai and Bengaluru reported a continued high level of interest from students seeking to study in the US. 

India is among the top countries when it comes to the number of international students. According to the 2020 Open Doors Report — an annual survey of foreign students in the US, funded by the US government — there were over 1,93,000 Indian students studying at American higher education institutions, the second-highest number of foreign students globally. However, the report reflects data captured before the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the spokesperson. Over the past ten years, the number of Indian students in the US has roughly doubled, despite year-wise fluctuations in the number of student visas issued, they said.   

Read: Deferral, online classes or withdrawal? Students going abroad face tough dilemma

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