Students in India are struggling to secure US visa appointments as companies buy interview appointment slots to sell on at higher prices.
Companies, often operating on social media, offer to book appointments on behalf of individuals who want to study in the US. In a Facebook group dedicated to f1 student visas, one wrote: “If anyone really looking for a F1 visa slots message me (Freshers and refused), we are monitoring 24/7. Payment after slot confirmation only.”
The companies ask students for their registration details and monitor appointment availability. When new slots become available, they book these on behalf of their customers, leaving those who haven’t paid for the service struggling to secure their own spaces. In some cases, scalpers appear to bulk book appointment slots for general sale at a later date, rather than reserving them for specific customers.
Sushil Sukhwani, founder and director of Edwise, said purchasing visa slots through companies in India had become a “common practice” since fall 2020, when the shortage of appointments began. Edwise does not book appointments on behalf of students.
Agents said that legitimate education agents do not offer these services, but some travel agents may. Often the companies provide these services for multiple visa types, not just student ones.
“These agents promise that they will get an earlier visa appointment,” Sukhwani said. “They also claim that they have ties with the consular officers in multiple US consulates and that they work with them to get an earlier visa appointment.
“Students do not realise that agents do not have any special powers. They, the students and the travel agents, need to follow the same process and procedure for booking the slot.”
“This practice does seriously affect us”
According to sources, students can shell out anywhere between $100 and $1,000 for this service, on top of their normal application fees.
“This practice does seriously affect us and results in students not meeting their program start deadlines and also creates anxiety with these students as well as their parents, as we, as an agency of repute, refuse to engage in, or support such activity,” said Sukhwani.
“This results in us being considered as non-supportive and also results in reduction in enrolments due to lack of visa slots. Our enrolment targets and revenue is affected.”
Last year, the US consulate in India acknowledged that this practice had become a “real problem”.
Speaking in April 2022, Don Heflin, minister counselor for consular affairs, said, “We’re trying to defeat these fellows who book a lot of appointments and then sell them for more money.
“That’s been a real problem for us”
“That’s been a real problem for us because not all of the appointments that they book result in people showing up, so we’ll think we’re going to do so many interviews in a week and it turns out we’re doing five, ten, twenty percent less than that. Those are slots that could have gone to good applicants.”
He said appointments were being released “in a certain way” to help avoid this, including not announcing release dates.
The US consulate in Nigeria also spoke about the issue last year. Susan Tuller, country consular coordinator in Nigeria, said the visa system is “manipulated” by visa facilitators.
“As long as Nigerians continue to pay the very high fees by them to get an appointment, that will likely continue and it makes it very hard for us to control the number of visa appointments that we make available,” Tuller said.
“There’s no reason to pay any additional fees to a visa facilitator or a travel agent.”
A State Department spokesperson told The PIE, “Many temporary visitors turn to visa consultants before scheduling their interviews. While some consultants provide helpful information, many do not. Be wary of recruiters who do not detail what services will be provided for a particular fee.
“We monitor our systems and processes, including the visa appointment system, for evidence of fraud and abuse, and malfeasance and take action as necessary.”
The State Department advised any student who is due to start at university soon but has been unable to secure a visa appointment to send a request through its emergency appointment module.
The US has struggled to keep up with demand as more Indians look to study there. The number of Indian students enrolled in American institutions increased by 19% in 2021/22 compared to the previous year, making up 21% of all international students in the country.
Staffing capacities at US embassies also decreased during the pandemic and the effects of this are still being felt. Currently, appointment wait times for F visa interviews at the five US embassies in India range from 52-81 days.
India is “top priority” for the State Department, according to a government spokesperson.
“The people-to-people ties between our countries means that we have very high demand across many visa categories,” they said.
“We have dedicated significant resources to improving lowering appointment wait times in India and are committed to getting our staff the tools, resources, and support they need to bring appointment wait times down further.”
Despite the issues, agents said they felt that the US is genuinely trying to address the shortage of appointments and that delays would be resolved in time for the Fall 2023 intake.
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