Students heading to US universities from the UAE have been hit by delays of up to two months due to a backlog in visa processing.
An American state department official said the pandemic was partly to blame, but the US embassy in the UAE said it was prioritising students' applications.
One million international students have studied at US colleges and universities every year since 2015, the Institute of International Education's Open Doors report said.
Last year, this fell by 16 per cent after lockdowns in several states forced students to return home, but now the country is opening up and students are returning.
A US State Department official said the pandemic resulted in "profound reductions in the department’s visa processing capacity".
“Additionally, a range of presidential proclamations restricting travel in response to the pandemic has resulted in further constraints on visa issuances worldwide," the official said.
"Interview wait times vary by post and visa classification, and have been severely affected by Covid-related limitations."
More than 72,000 students from the Mena region studied in the US in 2019-2020 before the pandemic, the Open Doors report said.
Education consultants in the UAE voiced concerns that students may not be able to get visas in time for the beginning of the term in September.
Emergency appointments only
Kiran Kaur, head of acquisitions at Dubai education consultancy GLinks International, which helps students from the Middle East going to US universities every year, said only emergency appointments for visas were available at present.
“While previously we could get students appointments within days, now they are waiting for a couple of months to get visas in Dubai," Ms Kaur said.
“There were delays in getting appointments, and even now general appointments are not available. You need to make a request to expedite the process.”
In pre-pandemic days, it could take between three days and a month for a student in the UAE to get a visa.
Soraya Beheshti, the regional director for global consultancy Crimson Education, said the estimated waiting time for an interview appointment at a US embassy or consulate changed weekly.
“At the moment, the US ambassadorial and consular representatives in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are taking emergency appointments only. It is unclear how long this will last," Ms Beheshti said.
She explained that for students in countries harder hit by Covid-19, such as India or South Africa, the situation would be much worse than for those in the UAE.
Dubai twins hope to study in Utah
Dubai twins Sanmol and Mansol Singh Jammu had hoped to travel to the US for higher studies last year but deflated scores in the International Baccalaureate diploma meant they had to appeal to the board.
After waiting for months to get their revised grades, the Indian students, 19, did not have enough time to apply to the US for a visa and were concerned about rising coronavirus cases in the country.
Instead, they joined the University of Hertfordshire in the UK for undergraduate studies. But after two months classes moved online because of Covid-19, so the twins flew back to Dubai and completed the year remotely.
Now, they have applied to Southern Utah University.
“I am waiting to get my offer from the university and hope to apply for the US visa within the week," said Sanmol.
“I am aware that only emergency appointments are available for the visa. It’s a risky situation but if we get the visa and can join in the September intake, it’s better to go for it."
Sanmol said that if he and his brother were unable to get visas on time, they would go back to the UK for in-person classes and head to the US for the spring term.
UAE students prioritised
The US embassy in the UAE confirmed some visas were being delayed.
"While pandemic-related delays continue to impact some applicants, the US mission offers expedited appointments to all student visa applicants with approaching programme start dates,” an embassy representative said.
“The US embassy in Abu Dhabi and US consulate general in Dubai are working very hard to ensure that student visa applicants are able to arrive at their university or school on time."
The embassy said it had processed nearly 3,000 student visa applications in 2021, and would continue to prioritise students.
Students can schedule a visa appointment and request an expedited interview date.
After scheduling a regularly available appointment, students have to choose the “Request Expedite” option to ask for a date in advance of their planned travel.