ABC News: “US Embassy in Russia suspends issuing nonimmigrant visas”

by Joseph McKeown

The US Embassy in Russia announced yesterday that it would temporarily suspend issuing nonimmigrant visas beginning August 23, 2017, after Russia’s decision to reduce embassy and operational staff. On September 1, 2017, visa operations will resume on a “greatly reduced scale,” and only the US Embassy in Moscow will issue visas. The consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok have indefinitely suspended their visa issuance. This decision will affect thousands of Russian tourists and visa applicants. Despite the visa shutdown and staff reduction, the US Embassy in Moscow and the three consulates will continue to provide emergency and routine services to American citizens, although hours may be adjusted.

In late July, Russia announced that the United States must cut 755 people by September 1 from its diplomatic and operational staff to bring the total to 455 people, the same number of Russian staff in the US. Russia’s decision came in response to the sanctions approved by the US Congress and signed by President Trump against Russia for meddling in the 2016 US election and for its aggression in Ukraine and Syria. In response to the sanctions, President Putin said that Moscow was forced to reciprocate against "unfounded accusations.” Many of the more than 1,000 employees at the various US diplomatic missions in Russia, including the embassy in Moscow and the three consulates, are local employees. "For the United States to meet Russia's requirements by September 1, there's no alternative but to fire a lot of Russians," Olga Oliker of the Center for Strategic and International Studies tells Foreign Policy.

In their statement announcing the suspension, the US embassy says that Russia's decision to cut its staff “calls into question Russia's seriousness about pursuing better relations.” Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, says the decision by the US Embassy in Moscow is designed to make Russians unhappy with their own government. As to any possible Russian reactions, Lavrov says Russia will "study" the embassy's announcement, and adds that Russia "is not going to take it out on US citizens."

The US Embassy in Russia has issued a helpful “Fact Sheet” with common questions and answers.

Will nonimmigrant visa appointments be canceled? How will applicants be informed?

At 0900 Moscow time Monday, August 21, US Embassy/Consulates in Russia began canceling all current nonimmigrant visa appointments countrywide. Affected applicants should have or will receive an email with a phone number to call to reschedule their interview at the US Embassy in Moscow for a later date. The US Embassy states that capacity for interviews in the future will be greatly reduced since the Embassy must greatly reduce staffing levels in response to the Russian government’s requirement.

Will there still be visa appointments at the consulates in St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, and Yekaterinburg?

Because of the required reduction of staff personnel, beginning September 1, 2017 all nonimmigrant visa interviews countrywide will be conducted at the US Embassy in Moscow.

How will the Embassy prioritize visa appointment requests?

The US Embassy must give first priority to the travel of officials to the UN, international organizations with offices in the United States, and bilateral missions, as required by international agreements, diplomatic practice, or customary international law. They will also give priority to other categories of nonimmigrant visa applications depending on their staff level, such as travel for medical or family emergencies, including funerals, hospitalizations, or legal proceedings. They will process other categories as staffing permits.

Will there be appointments available for university students studying in the United States?      

The US Embassy in Russia will offer a block of visa appointments to students in early September.

What about those that qualify for a nonimmigrant visa without an interview?

The US Embassy in Moscow will continue to process nonimmigrant visas without an interview for qualified applicants.

How long will this suspension last?

US Embassies/Consulates in Russia will operate at reduced capacity for as long as their staffing levels are reduced.

What about applicants who already paid their visa fee? Can they get their money back?

US Embassy/Consulates in Russia cannot refund fees that have been paid; however, the fee is valid for one year from the date of the payment.

Can applicants transfer the visa fee to apply outside of Russia?

Visa fees are not transferrable outside the country where the fee was paid. Those who want to apply outside Russia must begin a new application and pay the fee in accordance to that location’s instructions.

Why did the US Embassy cancel visa interviews scheduled before September 1?

The US Embassy must plan for departures and staff reductions to meet the Russian government’s September 1 deadline for the staff reduction.

Can those who live in Belarus still apply for a visa in Russia?

No. Visa appointments for Belarussian applicants who have already paid the application fee will be rescheduled. The US Embassy encourages residents of Belarus to schedule nonimmigrant visa appointments at the US Embassy in Warsaw; the US Embassy in Kyiv; or the US Embassy in Vilnius.

Will immigrant visa appointments be canceled?   

The staffing changes will also affect the scheduling of some immigrant visa applications. Those affected will be notified if there is a change to the time and date of their interview.

What services will be available for American citizens?

The US Embassy in Moscow and the three consulates will continue to provide the full range of services to American citizens, including passports, reports of birth, assistance to victims of crime, emergency loans, and prison visits.  The safety and security of American citizens overseas is one of the Embassy’s highest priorities.