Why Fiance Visa couples are itching to travel
I was upset when I canceled my London trip in April. By that point, I had already spent months planning, buying airline tickets, booking a hotel, and almost purchasing a bus tour to Stonehenge. My family and I were excited to go.
However, as news came that one by one countries were closing their borders in a domino effect due to COVID-19, we grunted at the TV and defeatedly cancelled our bookings.
It was depressing, but it felt like nothing compared to the stories I started hearing from long-distance couples, particularly those in the US fiance visa process, and their desperation.
A young Italian woman, for example, who was nearing the end of her visa process had to suddenly cancel her dream wedding with her American partner in addition to being unsure when they’d see each other again:
“I’m trying to stay positive but this uncertainty is absolutely terrifying. My fiancé and I were supposed to get married this upcoming summer, but now I don’t even know when we’ll see each other again. I hope everything will be okay soon…”
Before COVID-19 shutdowns, the only step remaining for her was to attend an interview prior to getting a visa stamped on her passport and taking the next flight to the US. For Gina and her partner Jackson who are in the fiance K visa process, travel isn’t a luxury, it is an absolute necessity. Aside from losing money on the deposits and having to tell family and friends the wedding is postponed, it was a pivotal matter in their visa process.
Not being able to finalize visa paperwork means their entire lives hang in the balance… it could translate to being separated for longer, losing thousands more dollars, and months of more waiting if not approved. And due to this desperation, confusion, and uncertainty they’re itching to travel before things get worse.
The Fiance K visa process
First, what is the Fiance K Visa process and why is traveling so important for it?
It’s a popular route for bringing a foreign partner to the US for marriage. For instance, if a US citizen meets someone abroad and they decide to marry, one of their options is a fiance visa.
In Gina’s case, her story began when she was a tour guide in Rome and caught the eye of Jackson, a US-military personnel on vacation. They began talking and soon fell in love. When Jackson returned to the US, he filed for her fiance visa.
The visa process is relatively simple:
- Step 1. The US citizen meets the foreigner in person anywhere in the world.
- Step 2. The US citizen pays a fee and files an application with the USCIS.
- Step 3. The foreigner undergoes an in-person interview in a US Embassy.
- Step 4. The foreigner travels and marries the US citizen within 90 days.
Like the 40,000+ other couples who apply every year, they preferred this quick and easy alternative over having a lengthy and expensive wedding overseas. This summer, their visa process and separation was supposed to come to an end. But instead, they were forced to cancel.
Why is travel so critical?
In a sense, Gina and Jackson were lucky because they could at least start the visa process despite COVID-19 closures. They’ll simply have to wait until the time is right and routine travel resumes before they can marry.
But for others, not being able to travel means they can’t even start in the first place. As we noted above, in order to apply, a couple must have met in person in the last two years whether it was on vacation like Gina or Jackson, on a student visa studying in Spain, or any which way…
That’s why another couple, James and his partner, were planning to finally meet for the first time this year after nurturing a long distance relationship:
“I have been communicating with a Russian woman for 7 months. We planned to meet in Spain in early May but the coronavirus pandemic caused a delay of our vacation to July. Hopefully, we will not need to delay again. We communicate daily… We have a very strong connection, but of course are eager to meet in person. After we meet, I will submit the fiance visa package…”
He knows that without this trip, he doesn’t qualify. With border shutdowns, his budding relationship is at the mercy of COVID-19. The longer they wait to meet, the longer their immigration procedures will take. So like many other couples, they routinely book a flight and cancel it when a new restriction emerges. They’re itching to travel.
Then there are couples on the next step –those who filed the paperwork– and were planning to visit again but had to cancel. Rose, for instance, was preparing to introduce herself to his fiance’s parents to get their approval before they married. As she later wrote to me:
“We were planning on a long holiday to his home island so I can meet his family… my trip to visit him was pushed to May, I don’t know if I will [still] be able to go.”
She told me about the dinner they planned and the gifts she had bought for the occasion. All of that must wait for now because, unfortunately for her, it’s well past May of 2020 and she still hasn’t seen signs of life from airlines or the government. She, too, checks daily for flights to resume or quarantines to end.
Finally, there are tens of thousands of couples biting their nails because their K visas are approved, but they can’t use it. Since K visas carry a 6-month expiration date, and complex global travel restrictions are blocking entries, couples are inadvertently allowing perfectly good visas to expire.
An approved Filipino applicant, for example, is stuck in this sensitive situation. She spent months preparing: getting a medical exam, collecting documents, and attended the in-person visa interview. She’s one of 8,500 yearly Filipino visa applicants who either take a flight or a long bus ride to Manila where there’s only one US Embassy in the country.
“ My visa is approved and expires in July… What happens if the travel bans are not lifted before the expiration date? [if the] US has allowed only essential visas … at the Port of entry… will it take a really long time for me to enter the US? How can I contact the embassy and request them to extend my visa? ”
She’s waiting for answers. When is she allowed to travel to the US and marry her partner? What if her perfectly good visa expires before she can travel?
What does the government say?
When couples contact the Embassy regarding the looming expiration date and being unable to travel due to COVID-19 shutdowns, they are met with silence. Which is unsettling because US Embassies are often seen as being swift and merciless with denials, leaving applicants fearing the worst.
Right now, US consulates all over the world are prioritizing critical visas and operations due to a shortage of staff. It’s difficult to get in touch with anyone. And for the lucky ones who do manage to get a response, they raise more questions than answers.
Some US consulates, for instance, consider the travel bans issued by President Trump to encompass fiance visas although the Executive Order doesn’t explicitly say that. Other consulates indicate that fiance visa applicants are exempt.
The most outrageous requirement, however, is that the US Embassy will only reissue an expired visa if the applicant proves they couldn’t travel due to circumstances beyond their control.
Will COVID-19 travel restrictions count? Common sense says yes. But, then again, we’re talking about bureaucracy… which is never straightforward
So, is it a wonder why couples prefer to attempt entering the US despite the threat of disease because it seems to be a better alternative than losing a visa amid the confusion? Most have already spent about $3,000 USD and waited 5 – 10 months up to this point. There’s a lot at stake and they’re eager to travel and not squander his visa, time, and money.
For better or worse
Thinking back to my London trip… when I began canceling plans, things went smoothly. The hotel management quickly refunded my payment. The airline offered me money back or a voucher to reschedule. All other reservations were completely refunded. Quite frankly, except for the inconvenience, I didn’t suffer at all.
But for people in the fiance visa process –and other visa procedures– travel restrictions cause more than inconvenience. Entire relationships, futures, marriages, and thousands of dollars are on the line.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that these same people are anxiously planning to travel immediately as the lockdowns are lifted. They’re constantly monitoring the news for updates. Their eyes are glued on airlines who may be flying to their destinations. As one long-time reader said, after cancelling her summer visit:
“ We are aiming for a visit in November for thanksgiving. It’s just giving us a goal to focus on. But the whole process from meeting to getting married has been rather slow… I hope for the day that the planes [start to] fly again. I’ll be on the first one over ”
She’s optimistic travel will resume and she can continue with the visa process… but what if travel doesn’t resume? What if lockdowns drag on? What if some nations open up while others don’t? or if a second wave of COVID hits?
Right now, we don’t know. And this uncertainty is exactly why so many fiance visa applicants are itching to travel before things get worse. Can we blame them?