Chinese students struggle to get visas during the pandemic

U.S.-issued visas for Chinese students have dropped in the past year. Photo by Bilin Lin/BU News Service

By Bilin Lin
BU News Service

As the U.S. embassy continues to suspend non-emergency visa services in China, many Chinese students enrolled in American universities are forced to travel abroad and obtain their visa in another country. 

The U.S. has only issued 808 visas to Chinese students between April and September this year, compared to 90,410 in the same period in 2019. U.S. embassies in some countries with high COVID numbers, such as India, have resumed visa services for international students. But non-emergency visa services at the U.S. embassy and consulates in China have been suspended since February.

“Due to COVID-19’s constant changes, the U.S. consulates in China only have a minimal amount of staff,” read an appointment cancellation email to students from the U.S. embassy. “Therefore, we are unable to provide conventional visa services.”

Despite data showing controlled COVID-19 cases in China, the embassies are still canceling student appointments, and the date for the embassy to reopen remains uncertain. 

While many students hope the U.S. embassies will open as soon as possible, some decided to go to another country to obtain their student visa, including Boston University student Yuting Gong who traveled to Cambodia in August.

She said the process involved getting a Cambodian visa first and then getting a COVID-19 test report with a negative result before boarding the plane from China to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

“The plane was full of students,” Gong said. “Some are trying to get a U.S. visa, and some have a U.S. visa already. They need to stay in another country for 14 days before returning to the U.S. because of the travel ban.”

Upon arrival in Phnom Penh, she received another COVID-19 test and was forced to quarantine for two days while waiting for the result.

Gong said she had to stay with a stranger for two nights, as part of the quarantine policy in Cambodia that a single room needs to have two occupants.

“The hotel was filthy, and it didn’t have hot water, so I didn’t shower for two days,” she said. “I was quite hopeless when I got there. I couldn’t sleep well, and I wanted to go back to China.”

After two nights of mandatory quarantine, she was cleared and free to go anywhere she wanted while waiting for her appointments with the embassy.

She said the experience was not too pleasing. She was concerned with her safety, and she continuously worried about getting rejected on her visa application. That would not only mean a wasted trip but another 14-day quarantine when returning to China.

“I know some people went to tour Siem Reap, but I didn’t go anywhere,” said Gong. “My mood was just abysmal, and I just laid on my bed every day.”

Fortunately, after about 20 days in Cambodia and a long 30-minute visa interview, she got her visa and flew to Boston.

Some tourism and visa companies have started offering services sending Chinese students to another country to obtain their U.S. visas. One of the companies, 91 U.S. Visa, started offering this service this summer, flying people to Cambodia.

However, it suspended its services in Cambodia, according to a customer service agent.

“There aren’t any appointments available for a foreign national in Cambodia at this point due to the heavy volume of Chinese student’s applications,” the agent said. She said they are now sending their customers to Singapore to obtain a visa. 

Although Singapore no longer requires mandatory quarantine for Chinese nationals with a valid negative COVID-19 test report, the U.S. embassy requires Chinese students to stay in Singapore for more than 14 days before conducting their interview. If approved, students must wait for approximately a week before their passport is returned and then they can fly to the U.S.

The whole service package costs 58,500 yuan, equivalent to about $8,900, including a one-way flight ticket from China to Singapore, a Singaporean visa, hotel stay for the entire trip, meals, multiple COVID-19 tests and mock interviews.

Mutian Qiao, a Boston University student still in China, was disappointed that the embassy did not resume visa services after the election. He said if his appointment with the embassy in Beijing on Dec. 15 gets canceled again, he will have to travel to another country.

He said he has been taking classes remotely in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, since September, but would prefer to take classes in person.

“I want to have the kind of face to face conversations with my professors,” he said. “Plus, Zoom works pretty bad. The voices are uneven, and it goes on and off.”

Dr. Robert Ross, a professor of political science at Boston College believes the suspension of U.S.on U.S. visa services in China and reducing Chinese students coming to the U.S. is part of Trump administration’s efforts to decouple the United States from China.

“[The] Trump administration is not thinking about who wins or who loses,” Ross said, “They just want to end cooperation with China because they think cooperation benefits China. There’s just an overall effort to contain China, and part of that containment is reduced educational exchanges.”

He said he thinks Chinese students will not be able to get their student visa in their home country while Trump is the president, but that even after president elect Joe Biden assumes the office, the embassy will not resume visa services for Chinese students immediately.

He said the Biden administration will have more pressing issues to deal with, on top of the political backlashes the decision might create. 

“The ‘Trumpets’ in America will be watching carefully, the Republicans will be watching carefully, and they will scream and shout – ‘you are soft on China,’” Ross said. “So this is a gradual process, not something that will change in the first two or three months.”

Suisheng (Sam) Zhao, an international relations professor from the University of Denver, also said that U.S. visa services won’t resume in China right after inauguration day.

“I don’t think [Biden] can come to this issue immediately after the inauguration because there are so many other issues,” Zhao said. “But eventually, I think his administration would have a much more rational policy.”

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