Visa Approval Rates Surge in FY 2021, According to State Department

Percentages vary by visa category

By David North on September 14, 2022

The approval rates for nonimmigrant visas rose sharply between FY 2020 and FY 2021, according to State Department data just analyzed by the Center for Immigration Studies.

In FY 2020, 74.9 percent of these visa applications, of all categories, were approved by foreign service officers; in FY 2019, it was 74.5 percent. In FY 2021, the approvals jumped to 86.7 percent.

Putting it another and starker way, the rejection rate fell from 25.1 percent to 13.3 percent, thus being reduced by half. That’s pretty dramatic.

So while one part of the immigration system allowed perhaps two million illegal aliens to stay in the country, another increased the number of legal nonimmigrants substantially.

The CIS presentation of these statistics, category by category, shows a wide difference between approval rates, with international organization workers, notably those from NATO nations leading the approval percentages (it is hard to fake being a Norwegian admiral) and foreign students and tourists bringing up the rear (see Table 1).

Although the State Department has been forthcoming with the basic data, it organizes the 77 different categories of nonimmigrant visas in a mind-numbing way that discourages rational analysis; it lists the categories by visa codes, which start with A-1 for diplomats and ends with U-5, relatives of crime victims. (Yes, if your adult child is mugged in LA, for example, you, the alien parent, can get legal presence in the United States, one of the more bizarre elements of our immigration law.)

Our presentation of the data excludes those categories that issued 300 visas or less in FY 2019 and shows the various categories in descending order of approvals; the ones at the bottom of the list are the categories that give diplomats the most grief.

Table 1. Visa Category Approval Rates
for FYs 2019-2021

Visa Code Visa
Pct. in 2019
Pct. in 2020
Pct. in 2021
NATO-2 Representatives of NATO, dependents, and employees 99.40% 99.30% 99.20%
NATO-6 Representatives of NATO, dependents, and employees 99.30% 99.10% 98.20%
E-3R Dependent of an E-3 visa holder 98.80% 99.00% 98.70%
E-3D Dependent of an E-3 visa holder 98.40% 98.40% 97.50%
G-4 Representative of international organization, dependents, & employees 98.20% 97.30% 97.00%
H-4 Spouse or child of an H visa holder 98.20% 97.30% 95.50%
H-1B Alien specialty occupation 98.00% 97.30% 92.90%
E-3 Alien specialty occupation, Australia 97.20% 96.90% 96.70%
O-3 Dependent of O-1 visa holder 97.10% 95.50% 93.20%
H-1B-1 Alien specialty occupation, Chile and Singapore 97.00% 98.00% 97.80%
O-1 Persons with extraordinary ability and dependents 97.00% 95.30% 91.90%
C-3 Government official, members of immediate family, servant, or personal employee in transit 96.60% 97.60% 97.00%
K-2 Child of non-citizen fiancée 96.60% 97.80% 96.20%
O-2 Assistant to O-1 visa holder 96.60% 94.50% 92.90%
A-2 Diplomats, officials, and employees of foreign governments 96.30% 94.90% 93.30%
P-1 Artists, entertainers, or athletes 96.00% 94.70% 95.50%
A-1 Diplomats, officials, and employees of foreign governments 95.70% 92.50% 93.90%
D Crewmember of a ship or aircraft 95.70% 97.00% 95.10%
C-1/D Combined transit and crewman visa 95.30% 94.30% 97.00%
Q-1 Participant in cultural exchange program 95.10% 91.10% 79.00%
TD Spouse or dependent of TN visa holder 95.00% 95.90% 96.40%
L-2 Spouse of L-1 visa holder 94.70% 95.10% 95.90%
G-1 Representative of international organization, dependents, & employees 94.60% 89.60% 91.40%
J-2 Spouse or dependent of exchange visitor 94.40% 93.70% 94.10%
H-2B Temporary, non-skilled, non-farm worker 93.30% 90.70% 94.10%
G-2 Representative of international organization, dependents, & employees 92.40% 85.80% 91.10%
E-1 Treaty trader visa 91.90% 88.00% 94.20%
J-1 Exchange visitor 91.80% 90.10% 91.60%
P-4 Spouses or dependents of artists, entertainers, or athletes 91.40% 93.20% 94.60%
H-2A Temporary agricultural worker 91.30% 93.20% 95.60%
BBBCV B-1/B-2 border-crossing laser visa 90.40% 91.50% 91.10%
I Foreign media representative 90.00% 91.00% 93.00%
L-1 Intra-company transferee – executive, managerial, or specialized knowledge 90.00% 91.50% 94.20%
H-3 Trainee 89.80% 84.80% 85.80%
E-2 Treaty investor visa 89.40% 87.80% 92.50%
TN Trade visa for Mexicans and Canadians 89.40% 90.50% 90.20%
P-3 Artists or entertainers who are teaching, or their spouses and dependents 88.40% 86.70% 79.00%
G-5 Representative of international organization, dependents, & employees 85.80% 81.40% 78.30%
U-3 Child of U-1 holder 84.30% 73.70% 85.50%
R-1 Religious workers 83.50% 82.20% 85.40%
A-3 Diplomats, officials, and employees of foreign governments 82.60% 78.30% 84.90%
CW-2 Spouse or dependent of Northern Marianas Islands workers 82.10% 81.40% 95.50%
B-1 Business visitor 80.60% 82.50% 88.50%
K-1 Non-citizen fiancée 79.00% 76.60% 82.20%
M-1 Vocational/nonacademic student 78.70% 77.60% 78.30%
CW-1 Northern Marianas Islands temporary work visa 76.40% 87.90% 94.60%
R-2 Dependents of religious workers 76.20% 73.10% 80.00%
G-3 Representative of international organization, dependents, & employees 75.60% 87.60% 96.60%
M-2 Dependent of vocational/nonacademic student 75.20% 79.90% 74.20%
C-1 Alien in transit directly through U.S. 74.60% 77.50% 85.20%
F-1 Foreign student 74.60% 68.80% 80.20%
B-2 Temporary visitor for tourism or medical treatment 73.50% 70.30% 58.30%
BBBCC B-1/B-2 border-crossing card, no laser 71.80% 75.60% 96.20%
F-2 Spouse or dependent of foreign student 70.40% 67.10% 67.70%
B-1/B-2 Temporary visitor 69.80% 68.30% 83.20%
Other   85.00% 76.90% 70.50%
Totals   74.50% 74.90% 86.70%

Source: “Nonimmigrant Visa Statistics”, U.S. Department of State.

It makes sense, of course, that visa categories that just about anyone can qualify for — such as tourists and students — would create more rejections than ones that have certain standards, such as diplomats or skilled workers from Australia (E-3), the latter having to meet H-1B specifications.

Specifics. While most visa categories showed a greater percentage of approvals in FY 2021 than in FY 2020, there was an interesting (and welcome) exception, notably in the controversial H-1B program for skilled workers (mostly in the high-tech industries). The approval rate for this very large program dropped from 97.3 percent in FY 2020 to 92.9 percent the following year. As we pointed out recently, many initially allocated H-1B slots went unused last year causing Homeland Security to run additional lotteries as it searched for firms to use these visas. The lower approval rates by State and the lower acceptance rates by both employers and workers may be related.

Most visa classes, like the total of all classes, showed an increase in approval percentages between FY 2020 and FY 2021, including:

  • Tourists (B1/B-2), from 68.3 percent in FY 2020 up to 83.2 percent in FY 2021;
  • Foreign students (F-1), from 68.8 percent to 80.2 percent; and
  • The larger of the two border-crossing card classes, from 75.6 percent to 96.2 percent.

Given that there are 77 varieties of visas, some are used much more than others. In a small minority of cases, all dealing with obscure to very obscure categories, we found several instances, often for one year only, in which a majority of the applications for that category were rejected. We found that in one or more years that seven visa categories fell into this small subset. (In a typical year, three or four million visas are issued; in this tiny minority of cases, there were 76 rejections and 22 approvals.) We excluded categories that produced less than 300 applications from Table 1 above.

Although I have been in the immigration business for decades, some of the categories were used so rarely that I had to look them up. Who knew, for example, about the S-7 category in which there were only two applications filed worldwide in the three years covered? It is for aliens who want admission on the grounds that they have useful information on crime or terrorism. Both applications were rejected.

A majority of the rejections in these categories related to the K program, which allows aliens engaged to citizens to come to the United States despite the fact that no marriage has taken place, the alien would not or could not come to the United States for the marriage, and the citizen would not go to the alien’s nation for the marriage, an unduly generous provision.

Most such fiancées and their kids come to the United States on K-1 or K-2 visas, which are approved about 79 to 80 percent of the time but a small minority of these fiancées and children opted for a slightly different set of visas, K-3 and K-4, and the majority were rejected. I wonder if the obscurity of the visa categories leads to a higher rate of rejections — a consular officer faced with one of the visas listed below has probably never seen any of these applications before and might tend to be more careful than usual when dealing with them. They are arrayed by the total number of rejections in each category.

Table 2. A Majority of These Visa
Categories Were Rejected in FYs 2019-2021

Visa Code Visa
Rejections Approvals
K-3 Non-citizen F fiancées1 41 9
U-4 Crime victims’ parents 15 6
C-2 Some UN officials in transit 9 5
N-9 Some relatives of NATO visa holders2 3 2
H-1C Some nurses3 3 0
K-4 Children of non-citizen fiancées 3 0
S-7 Persons providing information on crime or terrorism 2 0
Totals All categories noted above 76 22

Source: “Nonimmigrant Visa Statistics”, U.S. Department of State.
1 Most alien fiancées arrive as K-1s.
2 Most relatives of NATO visa holders arrive in other NATO visa categories.
3 Most nurses arrive as H-1Bs.

It should be noted that in only a tiny minority of categories was there a majority of rejections.

The big picture is that the State Department approves the vast majority of visa applications, that in FY 2021 that majority grew sharply, and the percentage of rejections fell to half of the percentage rejected in the prior year.

These percentages are worrisome.

The author is grateful to CIS intern Joseph Chalfant for his research assistance.