The Biden administration has proposed raising the fees on almost all nonimmigrant visas. While US officials say the move is needed to better align visa prices with what it costs to provide them, critics worry that if the administration does not address visa wait times, the cost increase could mean even fewer travellers and students coming to the United States.
According to a Federal Register notice, the State Department expects the new prices to go into effect by September, and it is accepting comments on the proposed increases until February 28.
“All of the fee increases are happening at a time when tourism and travel to the United States is already at an all-time low, and the State Department is imposing waits of six months to a year in many places for a tourist- or business-travel visa,” David Bier, an immigration policy expert at the Cato Institute, told VOA.
State Department figures show the visas with the highest numbers of applications are tourism, business, and study.
A nonimmigrant visa allows the holder to travel as a tourist or live, work or study temporarily in the US under certain conditions. Visa applications for tourism, B1 and B2, and student visas, F, M, J, will increase from $160 to $245, a 54% increase. While employment-based visas, H, L, O, P, Q and R, are going from $190 to $310, a 63% increase.
“The most important thing is whether visas are issued promptly. If the administration increases costs, but there’s not a vast improvement in service from the State Department, then the result will be far fewer travellers,” Bier added.
US airport traffic has fallen in recent years, counting both domestic and international travellers. According to the Transportation Security Administration, it screened a total of 1.1 million people on January 26. On the same date in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, that number was more than 2 million.
Effect on students and workers
A State spokesperson explained that the department’s consular operations are largely funded by fees for services and the proposed fee increase is to ensure the agency is fully recovering the costs of providing these services.
“Visa fees charged by the Department are generally based on the cost of providing visa services and are determined after conducting a study of the cost of such service,” the spokesperson told VOA by email. “The assessment of the actual cost of service in combination with demand projections over many years determined the fees published in the proposed fee schedule.”
Increased fees need to translate into better service, especially shorter wait times, which is particularly important for students, said Jill Welch, senior policy adviser to the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.
“We’re still evaluating the potential impact of the proposed rule on international student flows to the United States. …it’s important for [the State Department] to have adequate resources to process visa applications, particularly for those students and scholars who are on tight timelines for obtaining their visas in order to arrive on time for the academic term,” Welch said.
International students at U.S. colleges and universities contributed nearly $41 billion to the U.S. economy and supported 458,290 jobs in the 2018-19 academic year, according to a study by NAFSA: Association of International Educators. In the 2020-21 academic year, international students contributed $28.4 billion to the U.S. economy, a decline of nearly 27%, or $10.3 billion, largely because of the pandemic.
But not everyone believes higher visa costs will have a big impact.
Marcelo Barros, an international student career expert in Washington, told VOA that although the fee increase was “unfortunate,” it wouldn’t stop people from coming to the US.
“This is not going to have any meaningful impact on [student] enrollment or on [employment-based visas]. This will not have any meaningful impact on the desire of companies to hire talent outside the US,” he said, adding that if travellers, students or high-skill workers want to come to the United States, they will pay the new fee.