E.g., 09/28/2022
E.g., 09/28/2022
Temporary Visa Holders in the United States

Temporary Visa Holders in the United States

A tourist takes a selfie in New York City.

A tourist takes a selfie in New York City. (Photo: iStock.com/RenysView)

The United States is the top destination for international migrants worldwide. Many of them are naturalized U.S. citizens or permanent residents, but millions come for a temporary stay to study, for a short-term job opportunity, as tourists, or for other reasons. Foreign nationals who receive a visa to travel to the United States temporarily for a specific purpose are broadly classified as nonimmigrant visa holders.

The past two decades have seen significant fluctuations in the number of visas U.S. consulates and embassies around the world issued to foreign nationals, ranging from 10.9 million in fiscal year (FY) 2015 to a low of 2.8 million in FY 2021. These changes reflected major events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the global 2008-09 recession, executive-branch immigration policy shifts, and most recently, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The global public-health crisis led to the most dramatic slowdown of temporary visas in years, with fewer than half as many visas issued in FY 2020 as the year before. Visa figures for some categories of short-term migrants, such as international students and seasonal nonagricultural workers, have quickly rebounded, but on the whole the U.S. government has issued fewer nonimmigrant visas and wait times have been longer since the pandemic hit in early 2020.

Drawing on data from the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), this Spotlight examines trends in visa issuance and admission since FY 2000 and provides information on temporary visa holders in the United States, including top countries of origin and the three top visa categories: visitors for pleasure or business, international students and exchange visitors, and temporary workers.

Note: All yearly data are for the government’s fiscal year, which runs from October 1 through September 30. Unless stated otherwise, all data refer to the number of temporary visas issued in a given year, not the number of temporary visa holders (“stock”) residing in the United States.

Box 1. Definitions

Nonimmigrants are citizens of other countries who come to the United States temporarily for a specific purpose such as tourism, education, or work. There are more than 80 classes of nonimmigrant visas, including temporary workers and trainees, religious workers, intracompany transferees, foreign students, visitors for business or for pleasure, international representatives, and foreign government officials. Most classes of nonimmigrants must have a permanent home abroad, and most can be accompanied by a spouse and minor children. Nonimmigrants are restricted to the activities allowed by their visa while in the United States.

Click on the bullet points below for more information:

Visa Issuance and Nonimmigrant Admission Trends

Annual nonimmigrant flows can be estimated in two ways: by the number of visas granted by the State Department through its embassies and consular offices abroad, and by admissions into the country at ports of entry reported by DHS.

The number of visas issued by the State Department has been declining in recent years. Nearly 11 million temporary visas were granted in FY 2015 (a record high since FY 2000), but the number dropped by between 5 percent and 7 percent annually from FY 2016 to FY 2018, and then again by 3 percent between FY 2018 and FY 2019 (see Figure 1). These declines, in particular since the advent of the Trump administration during FY 2017, were driven in large part by a series of executive orders and policies that tightened admission and visa issuance criteria. Among these were the creation of additional vetting procedures, a ban on visa issuance for nationals of a number of predominantly Muslim-majority countries (often referred to as the “travel ban”), and visa sanctions against countries that failed or refused to facilitate the return of their nationals ordered deported from the United States.

The sharpest yearly drop in the number of visas issued (54 percent), however, occurred between FY 2019 and FY 2020—a cumulative effect of the Trump administration’s policy shifts and restrictionist rhetoric and the pandemic-related widespread restrictions on global mobility, which included closed consulates and grounded airplanes. The number of visas issued fell by an additional 30 percent between FY 2020 and FY 2021 to the lowest in the past two decades: 2.8 million. Prior to FY 2020, sharp single-year declines in nonimmigrant visa issuance were recorded following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks (a drop of 24 percent from FY 2001 to FY 2002) and during the 2008-09 recession (12 percent from FY 2008 to FY 2009).

Figure 1. Number of Nonimmigrant Visas Issued, FY 2000-21

Source: State Department, Bureau of Consular Affairs, “Nonimmigrant Visa Statistics,” various years, accessed August 30, 2022, available online.

State Department data on visa issuance do not represent the total number of people entering the country or the overall nonimmigrant population in the United States in a particular year because an individual’s arrival may not occur within the same year in which he or she received the visa. Also, visa data do not capture the arrival of nonimmigrants who are eligible for visa-free travel. Currently, nationals of 40 countries (including Australia, Brunei, Chile, most EU Member States, and South Korea) can enter the United States for up to 90 days for tourism or business purposes through the Visa Waiver Program. Some nonimmigrant visas, such as the H-1B visa, are issued for periods of more than a year. And finally, depending on the country of origin and the rules of visa reciprocity, some applicants are eligible for multi-entry visas that allow them to come and go multiple times without needing to apply for a new visa every time.

Another way to measure the flow of people who arrive on temporary visas is data from DHS which track the number of times a nonimmigrant enters the United States in the same fiscal year.

Box 2. Estimating Annual Nonimmigrant Flows

DHS data measure the number of times temporary visa holders enter the United States at a port of entry over a year. As with State Department visa data, admissions figures do not represent the total number of individuals entering the United States or the size of the total nonimmigrant population; the same person may enter the country more than once in a single year.

The data are also limited because Canadians and Mexicans traveling to the United States for business or for pleasure are generally exempt from completing an I-94 form, which DHS uses to collect information on nonimmigrants. This group comprises a large portion of overall nonimmigrant admissions, but detailed data are only collected for those completing the I-94 form.

Prior to FY 2020, nonimmigrant admission trends did not exactly track visa issuance, in part because of nonimmigrants traveling on visas from previous years and because of nationals from countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program (compare Figure 1 and Figure 2). For instance, compared to visa issuance, the decline in nonimmigrant admissions was less pronounced after 9/11 and during the global recession. Nonimmigrant admissions also increased slightly between FY 2017 and FY 2019, despite the significant policy and rhetoric changes during the Trump administration.

However, the trend of both visa issuance and nonimmigrant admissions followed the same pattern of sharp decline with the onset of the pandemic, reflecting policy changes in the United States and other countries as well as shifting traveler behavior. While 81.6 million I-94 nonimmigrant admissions were recorded by DHS in FY 2019, the number fell to 37.2 million in FY 2020 and then further to 13.6 million in FY 2021, the lowest since FY 2000.

Figure 2. Total and I-94 Nonimmigrant Admissions, FY 2000-21

Note: Canadians and Mexicans traveling to the United States for business or for pleasure are generally exempt from completing an I-94 form. Data collection for I-94 admissions changed in 2010, expanding to include land crossings that were previously not counted. Additionally, since 2013, I-94 automation at airports and seaports increased the number of admissions recorded. Click here to learn more.
Source: Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (Washington, DC: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, various years), accessed September 1, 2022, available online.

DHS has not published estimates for the number of foreign nationals temporarily residing in the United States since the onset of the pandemic. As of FY 2019, there were about 3.2 million nonimmigrants temporarily living in the country, about 50 percent of whom were temporary workers, 45 percent were international students and exchange visitors, and the remainder were diplomats and other representatives. This represented an increase from 2.8 million in FY 2018 and 2.6 million in FY 2017.

Countries of Origin

Most nonimmigrants are required to obtain a visa to enter the United States. Nationals of Mexico, India, and mainland China made up about 46 percent of the 2.8 million nonimmigrant visas issued by the State Department in FY 2021. Nationals from the Philippines, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Israel, Colombia, Peru, and Japan rounded out the top ten. These ten countries accounted for 63 percent of temporary visas issued in FY 2021.

Mexico was the top country for temporary visas from FY 2000 through FY 2013, after which it was overtaken by China, which remained the leading country until FY 2019, when Mexico again took the lead. Chinese tourism surged in the last decade, with tourist visas issued to Chinese nationals peaking in 2015 at 2.6 million visas. Tourism from China to the United States has fallen in recent years as Chinese are increasingly visiting other countries. Between FY 2019 and FY 2021, the number of visas issued to Chinese nationals fell more sharply (91 percent decline) than those issued to Mexicans (38 percent decline), in part because of the ban on Chinese travelers imposed by the Trump administration in early 2020 amid the spread of COVID-19.

In the past decade and prior to the pandemic, the number of temporary visas issued to Indians has been on the rise, while the number issued to nationals of two South American countries—Brazil and Colombia—has fallen. Brazil, once the third largest origin country for temporary visitors, is no longer on the list of the top ten origin countries for nonimmigrant visas as of FY 2021.

Figure 3. Number of Temporary Visas Issued to Recipients from Top Sending Countries, FY 2012-21

Note: Figure shows data for top origin countries in fiscal year (FY) 2012.
Source: State Department, Bureau of Consular Affairs, “Nonimmigrant Visa Issuances by Visa Class and by Nationality,” various years, accessed September 1, 2022, available online.

As of FY 2019, 27 percent of foreign nationals residing in the United States on a temporary visa were from India, the same share as in FY 2018 and FY 2017, according to DHS. Other top nationalities were Chinese (accounting for 14 percent of the resident nonimmigrant population), Mexicans (9 percent), Canadians (6 percent) and South Koreans and Japanese (3 percent each).

Changes toward Cuban Nationals

The number of nonimmigrant visas issued to Cubans has fluctuated dramatically over the last decade, even before the pandemic. From a high of 41,000 visas in FY 2014, amid the Obama administration’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, temporary visa issuance fell to just under 7,000 in FY 2018, as a result of the Trump administration’s rollback of its predecessor’s changes. During the pandemic, issuance of these visas fell even further, to just more than 1,300 in FY 2021.

Temporary Visitors

Historically, the largest group of nonimmigrants coming to the United States are visitors for pleasure or for business. Most tourists and business travelers can enter the country with a B visa (or through the Visa Waiver Program if their country is eligible). The 6.5 million temporary tourism and short-term business visitor visas issued in FY 2019 represented 74 percent of the 8.7 million nonimmigrant visas issued that year.

The overall decline in temporary nonimmigrant visas issued in the past decade has been driven primarily by the significant drop in the number of visas issued to tourists and business visitors starting in FY 2016, with an annual decline of between 5 percent and 8 percent from FY 2016 to FY 2019 (see Figure 4).

The pandemic exacerbated this trend: Of the 2.8 million visas issued in FY 2021, temporary visitors accounted for 48 percent—down from 78 percent in FY 2012. In late March 2020, U.S. consulates and embassies suspended routine visa services and provided only critical and emergency services. Depending on local conditions, some State Department offices resumed limited services starting in July 2020, although the pace was uneven across the world and some offices remained closed for nonemergency visas into 2022. This had a significant impact on the issuance of all visas, but visitor visas were among the most affected. For instance, wait times for an interview for a B visa went from 17 days before March 2020 to 164 days in July 2021 and then to 247 days as of July 2022.

Figure 4. Number of Temporary Visas Issued for Tourism/Business, Study, and Work, FY 2012-21

Source: State Department, Bureau of Consular Affairs, “Nonimmigrant Visa Issuances by Visa Class and by Nationality.”

In FY 2017, people from China, Mexico, India, Brazil, and Argentina were the leading recipients of temporary visitor visas. Since then, the number of visas issued to Chinese nationals, a pillar of the U.S. and global tourism industry, continued its post-2015 decline, dropping by 30 percent between FY 2017 and FY 2019 (see Figure 5). The decline occurred due to long wait times to obtain a U.S. visa; because of competing destinations in Europe, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere;  due to the strength of the U.S. dollar relative to Chinese yuan; and perceptions that the United States is not as safe and pleasant a destination as in the past, following several high-profile anti-Asian attacks. Visitor visas issued to Argentines also fell between FY 2017 and FY 2019, by 40 percent. In contrast, visitor visas issued to Brazilians and Mexicans went up by 7 percent and 3 percent, respectively.

Figure 5. Number of Temporary Visitor Visas Issued by Nationality, FY 2017-21

Source: State Department, Bureau of Consular Affairs, “Nonimmigrant Visa Issuances by Visa Class and by Nationality.”

Mexicans were by far the top recipients of temporary visitor visas in FY 2021, accounting for 38 percent of the total. Six percent were issued to Ecuadoreans, 5 percent each to visitors from the Dominican Republic and India, and 4 percent to Israelis. Combined, the top five nationalities received more than half of all temporary visas issued to tourists and business travelers in FY 2021. The Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Israel were among the top ten countries in FY 2017, but until the pandemic they were not among the top five.

In FY 2021, the number of visas to Chinese visitors plunged to fewer than 2,200, compared to 1.4 million in FY 2017. The Chinese government was among the first to adopt a zero-tolerance COVID-19 strategy, and while countries such as Australia and Vietnam relaxed their approach by 2021 and 2022, relatively few Chinese nationals can and choose to travel abroad, facing weeks-long quarantines upon return and limited flight options.

International Students and Exchange Visitors

Foreign students and exchange visitors are those enrolled in academic or language-training programs (F-1 visa), vocational students (M-1), Mexicans or Canadians who commute to academic or language-training (F-3) or vocational or nonacademic programs (M-3), and exchange visitors (J-1), as well as their spouses and minor children. The J visa category includes college and university students as well as physicians, summer work-travel visitors, visiting professors, researchers and short-term scholars, teachers, and au pairs.

Visas issued to international students and exchange visitors fell by more than two-thirds during the first pandemic year, FY 2020, to just under 250,000 (including students' spouses and minor children). The number rebounded to 531,000 in FY 2021, unlike visas issued to temporary visitors, which continued decreasing. In FY 2021, the top countries receiving international student and exchange visitor visas were China (the origin of 18 percent of recipients), India (17 percent), South Korea (5 percent), Mexico (4 percent), and Germany (3 percent). People from these countries received 46 percent of the 531,000 visas issued that year.

Before the pandemic, close to 790,000 international student and exchange visitor visas were issued in FY 2019, representing 9 percent of all 8.7 million temporary visas issued that year. This marked a drop of 26 percent from the estimated 1.1 million student and exchange visitor visas issued in FY 2015, the year with the highest number in the past decade. Several factors contributed to this decline. One was high numbers of student visa delays and denials as the Trump administration focused on reducing immigration across virtually all streams. Other factors included the rising cost of higher education in the United States and expanded opportunities to study in other countries.

In FY 2017, the top five countries for international students and exchange visitors in the United States were mainland China, India, South Korea, Brazil, and Japan, representing 40 percent of the 814,000 such visas (see Figure 6). Three of these countries saw a decline between FY 2017 and FY 2019, ranging from a 10 percent drop for Japanese, 5 percent for Chinese, and 3 percent for South Koreans. The number of these visas issued to Brazilians increased by 13 percent and to Indians by 2 percent. Prior to 2017, Saudi Arabia was regularly among the top five origin countries, but in FY 2017 and FY 2018 Saudi student and exchange visitor visa recipients lowered to a level not seen since FY 2009, largely because the Saudi government restricted the availability of government scholarships to study abroad.

Figure 6. Number of International Student and Exchange Visitor Visas Issued by Nationality, FY 2017-21

Note: Figure includes visas issued to applicants and their dependents.
Source: State Department, Bureau of Consular Affairs, “Nonimmigrant Visa Issuances by Visa Class and by Nationality.”

Other data confirm the decline in international students during the past decade. New enrollment of foreign students at U.S. colleges and universities stood at about 268,000 in the 2019-20 school year (SY), down 11 percent from its highest point in the past decade, 301,000 in SY 2015-16, according to the Institute of International Education. The number of international students newly enrolling at U.S. institutions dropped in SY 2016-17 and has decreased each year since (prior to the pandemic), even as enrollments in Australia, Canada, and other traditional destinations for international students have increased over the same period.

As of July 2022, the wait period for student and exchange visitor visa interviews was 49 days, versus 46 days in July 2021 and just 10 days pre-pandemic.

Temporary Workers

Temporary workers and trainees include workers in specialty occupations (H-1B visa), seasonal agricultural workers (H-2A), seasonal nonagricultural workers (H-2B and H-2R), workers with extraordinary ability or achievements (O-1 and O-2), athletes and artists (P-1, P-2, and P-3), intracompany transferees (L-1), treaty traders and investors (E-1, E-2, and E-3), people working for employers in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and their immediate families (CW-1 and CW-2), representatives of foreign information media (I-1), workers in international cultural exchange programs (Q-1), workers in religious occupations (R-1), and TN visas reserved for Canadian and Mexican professionals, as well as their spouses and minor children.

While there is no cap on the total number of temporary workers, there are annual limits on two visa categories. One is for H-1B visas, capped at 85,000 per fiscal year (with some exceptions; for instance, visas sought by universities and research organizations do not count against the cap). The other is for the H-2B visa for seasonal and temporary nonagricultural work (such as landscapers, crab pickers, lifeguards, or resort workers), which are limited to 66,000 visas annually. Sometimes visa caps can be expanded. For instance, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced in May 2021 that it would offer an additional 22,000 H-2B visas for the second half of FY 2021; in May 2022, the government increased the cap by up to 35,000 additional visas.

Visa issuance trends have differed over the past five years depending on the category of temporary workers (see Figure 7). The only visa category to buck a trend of flat-lined or declining (the H-1B in particular) temporary worker visas is the H-2A category, which increased rapidly before and during the pandemic. Issuance of H-2B visas also rebounded in FY 2021 after a decline in FY 2020, partly because the Biden administration increased the cap for FY 2021 and FY 2022 in response to employer concerns over labor shortages. Overall, the number of temporary worker visas remained at roughly the same level in FY 2021 as it had in FY 2020.

Figure 7. Number of Select Temporary Worker Visas Issued, FY 2017-21

Notes: Data in this figure refer to visas issued to main applicants and do not include visas issued to dependents. Numbers for the H-1B visa include the H-1B1 visa that is reserved for Chile and Singapore Free Trade Agreement workers.
Source: State Department, Bureau of Consular Affairs, “Nonimmigrant Visa Issuances by Visa Class and by Nationality.”

In July 2022, appointments for obtaining a temporary work visa were backed up 74 days, an increase from 59 days the previous year and up from 12 days before the pandemic. While temporary workers seeking to renew or obtain a new visa faced longer wait times at consulates abroad, the declining number of H-1B visas also reflects the fact that these workers, who tend to be much more mobile than other temporary visa workers, remained put in the United States and travelled less during the pandemic, and therefore applied for fewer visas.

In FY 2017, the top two nationalities that received the most temporary worker visas were Indians (33 percent) and Mexicans (29 percent). While most visas issued to Indian nationals were higher-skilled visas such as the H-1B, most visas to Mexicans were H-2A agricultural worker visas. The other top three countries of origin were China, Japan, and the United Kingdom, mostly receiving higher-skilled visas such as the H-1B, L, and O.

Figure 8. Number of Temporary Worker Visas Issued by Nationality , FY 2017-21

Note: Figure includes the visas issued to applicants and their dependents, if eligible.
Source: State Department, Bureau of Consular Affairs, “Nonimmigrant Visa Issuances by Visa Class and by Nationality.”

Between FY 2017 and FY 2019, the number of visas issued to Mexicans and Chinese nationals increased by 21 percent and 11 percent, respectively, while Indians and Japanese received fewer visas (a decline of 6 percent apiece).

In FY 2021, Mexicans received 57 percent of all 639,000 temporary worker visas, followed by Indians (16 percent), Japanese (4 percent), and Jamaicans and South Koreans (2 percent each).

Sources

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