Susan Tuller is the country consular coordinator for the US Mission in Nigeria. Prior to Lagos, she had served as the deputy consular chief in Chennai, India. She has also served as the deputy chief of mission (DCM) in Mbabane, Swaziland and as DCM in Cotonou, Benin. Her other overseas assignments include Haiti, Honduras, Guyana, and Ecuador. Prior to the Foreign Service, Tuller was a Peace Corps volunteer in Micronesia and the Associate Peace Corps director in Eritrea. In this interview with Odinaka Anudu, she advises US visa applicants to answer electronic application form fully and the officers’ questions honestly.
Last week the US Government announced the removal of reciprocity fees for approved visa applications from Nigeria. What brought about this change and what part did the government of Nigeria play?
We were pleased to announce that on December 2, the US government revised its visa reciprocity schedule for Nigeria, removing reciprocity fees for six visa classes, including tourists, students, and specialty workers, among others. This means that going forward, applicants approved for any non-immigrant visa class will no longer have to pay an additional visa issuance fee.
The US government initially implemented reciprocity fees for Nigerian nationals in August 2019 because US citizens were being charged additional fees to obtain similar visas to Nigeria. While we prefer to have a single visa fee for all non-immigrant visas, when a foreign government imposes additional fees on US citizens, the United States will impose reciprocal fees on citizens of that country to eliminate any cost difference for US citizens. Through sustained dialogue and cooperation with our Nigerian counterparts, the Nigerian government recently agreed to remove the additional visa fees on US citizens, allowing the United States to remove the reciprocity fees. We thank the Nigerian government for its partnership on this important issue.
How much will Nigerians pay for Non–Immigrant Visas going forward?
All non-immigrant visa applicants are still required to pay the non-refundable application processing fee, known as the Machine Readable Visa (MRV) fee, at the time of application. For most visa classes, this fee is $160. Reciprocity fees paid prior to December 3, 2020, are not refundable.
What is the update on the US Visa Bond pilot? Is Nigeria still exempted from the program?
The US Department of State, in coordination with the Department of Homeland Security, is piloting a visa bond program to identify and tackle the root causes of visa overstays. Visitors from some countries overstay their visas, which is illegal. Under the program, consular officers may require non-immigrant visa applicants to post a bond as a condition of visa issuance. The program is a diplomatic tool to encourage foreign governments to take appropriate actions to ensure the timely departure of their nationals temporarily visiting the United States. We are committed to combating visa overstays and making sure travelers to the United States respect our laws.
The program is scheduled to begin on December 24 and will last for six months. Nigeria is not included in this pilot program.
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How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected visa processing times in Nigeria?
The health and safety of the Nigerian public and our staff are our highest priority. To ensure everyone’s safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have had to drastically reduce the consular services we offer. Currently, we offer some visa and citizenship services on a limited basis. As a result of limited staffing and space, our wait times for nonimmigrant and immigrant visa appointments have increased. We will continue to review our health protocols to determine which services we can offer safely. This is not particular to Nigeria – US missions are experiencing this worldwide.
The non-immigrant visa application processing fee, known as the Machine Readable Visa (MRV) fee, is valid for one year from the date of payment. Applicants who have paid the fee may schedule a visa appointment in the country of payment. However, the Department of State understands that as a result of the pandemic, many visa applicants who paid the MRV fee are still waiting to schedule a visa appointment. To accommodate these applicants, the Department has extended the validity of MRV fees until December 31, 2021, to allow all applicants an opportunity to schedule and/or attend a visa appointment using the fee they already paid.
In what ways has COVID-19 impacted the issuance of student visas?
Nigeria ranks eleventh in the world and highest in sub-Saharan Africa in the number of students it sends to the United States. Almost 14,000 Nigerians study in the US. Maintaining opportunities for Nigerian students to continue their education in the United States is very important to us. As we continue to prioritise the health and safety of our staff and applicants, the US Embassy in Abuja and Consulate General in Lagos are processing limited student and exchange visitor visas. We will continue to monitor our health protocol to determine the number of student visa appointments we can safely offer. We encourage applicants to visit our website for more information: https://ng.usembassy.gov/visas/.
Which visas are currently being issued?
The US Embassy in Abuja and Consulate General in Lagos are processing limited visas for tourists, business travelers, students and exchange visitors, and certain immigrant visa categories. Again, we encourage applicants to visit our website for more information.
When should Nigerians expect full consular services to resume?
The Department of State suspended routine visa services worldwide in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In July, US Embassies and Consulates began a phased resumption of routine visa services. Currently, the level of services any one embassy or consulate is able to provide depends upon the public health conditions in that particular country.
The US Embassy in Abuja and Consulate General in Lagos are processing limited tourist, business, student, exchange, and certain immigrant visas. We always prioritise the health and safety of our staff and customers and will provide additional services as conditions allow. We are unable to provide a specific date for when we will resume additional visa services, or when we will return to processing visas at pre-pandemic workload levels. We encourage everyone to visit our website (https://ng.usembassy.gov/) and follow us on Facebook (U.S. Mission Nigeria), Twitter (@USinNigeria), and Instagram (@USinNigeria) for information regarding operating status services.
We will continue to provide emergency and mission-critical visa services, as we have since March. Applicants with an urgent need to travel should follow the guidance provided on our website about requesting an emergency appointment.
Is it true that the US does not issue visas to Nigerians who have no previous travel history?
No, that is not correct. Each visa applicant must demonstrate their eligibility for the visa category they are applying for at the time of their interview. Nigerians with no previous travel history may still qualify for visas if they meet the requirements of that particular visa category.
Applicants are often refused visas on the grounds that they have not demonstrated strong ties to Nigeria. What do you consider to be strong ties to the country and how can applicants prove them?
Strong ties refer to an individual’s familial, social, professional, academic, and any other ties to their country of residence. The best way for an applicant to demonstrate their strong ties is to be honest about their purpose of travel to the US and by answering the consular officer’s questions truthfully. There are no set formulas or magic words that an applicant must use in order to qualify for a visa. Each individual is different, and one answer does not fit all. That is why it is important to answer the electronic application form fully and the officer’s questions honestly.
Can an applicant demonstrate these ties by bringing a lot of documents to the interview? What documents are essential and which ones can be left at home?
Bringing a lot of documents to the interview will not demonstrate that an applicant has strong ties to Nigeria. Instead, the applicant should prioritise answering all questions truthfully and with complete information, to include the questions in the electronic application form and during the interview.
How does employing the services of touts and visa agents affect the outcome of a visa application?
We discourage applicants from using agents when applying for a visa. Nobody can answer the questions on the electronic application form better than you. Applications for U.S. visas can only be completed at www.ustraveldocs.com. We encourage all visa applicants to visit our website for more information on how to apply and to find a link to application website. Any information on applying through another website is likely a scam.
Does this rule out all third-party assistance with filling out applications?
If someone needs help completing the application, we recommend they find a trusted relative or friend who can assist them. Agents or third parties often seek to benefit by charging a fee for their services and they may not always provide the correct information, which can harm your chances of qualifying for the visa.
Let’s talk about scheduling emergency appointments. What qualifies as a genuine emergency and how can applicants schedule emergency appointments when necessary?
We have continued to provide emergency and mission-critical visa services since March. Emergency determinations are made on a case-by-case basis. Applicants with an urgent need to travel should follow the guidance provided on our website about requesting an emergency appointment.
Where can I get more information about applying for US visas?
The best source of information about applying for a U.S. visa is our website: https://ng.usembassy.gov/visas/.