- Increase in approvals: I-129F approvals rose dramatically in the first three quarters of FY2023, surpassing approvals for the entire FY2022.
- Backlog surge: The number of I-129F applications that were still pending increased from 30,408 in 2021 to 55,425 in 2022, an 82% increase.
- Rebound from 2020: K-1 fiancé visa issuances increased in 2022, rebounding from the lows of 2020.
- Historical importance: The K-1 visa, with origins from 1952, has been pivotal in reuniting families and fostering international relationships, especially after significant reforms in 1990.
- COVID-19 impact: The pandemic led to significant delays, backlogs, and policy changes in the K-1 visa application process.
- Comparison with other visa types: K-1 visa admissions in 2022 accounted for only 0.3% of all nonimmigrant visas.
- Nationality shifts: Post-pandemic, there was a notable decrease in K visa recipients from countries like Vietnam, Great Britain/Northern Ireland, China, and Brazil, while numbers for the Philippines and Mexico are approaching pre-pandemic levels.
- Top destination states: The most common states for K-1 visa holders in 2022 were California, Texas, Florida, and New York, with 36% of K-1 visa sponsors listing these states as their current home.
- Impact of “90-Day Fiancé”: Since the show’s debut, approval rates for K-1 visas have dropped significantly, with 2022 seeing the lowest rate since USCIS started reporting the data.
The K-1 fiancé visa is designed to help reunite U.S. citizens with their non-citizen fiancés. Under the K-1 visa program, eligible foreign nationals are granted temporary entry into the United States to marry their U.S. citizen partners within a designated timeframe. Subsequently, they can apply for adjustment of status to become lawful permanent residents.
The origins of the K-1 fiancé visa can be traced back to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which initially introduced the concept of allowing foreign national fiancés to enter the U.S. for marriage purposes. However, the modern framework for the K-1 visa was significantly shaped by the Immigration Act of 1990, which streamlined and formalized the process.
Over the years, the K-1 visa has played a vital role in reuniting families and fostering international relationships. It has provided a pathway for couples who met across borders to come together, marry, and establish a life in the United States. The K-1 visa program has been appreciated for its humanitarian aspects, allowing engaged couples to be physically present during the wedding planning and celebration, which strengthens their emotional bonds.
Impact of COVID-19 on K-1 Visa Applications
Even as the K-1 visa remains an enduring facet of U.S. immigration, the lingering repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, which began in early 2020, have persistently disrupted its processes.
The processing time the I-129F petition, the first step in the K-1 visa application, experienced marked fluctuations before and after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, the wait times for the I-129F hovered around a relatively brisk 5 to 7 months. However, as the pandemic took its toll and extended into the following year, these timelines ballooned to a staggering 21 months in late 2022 and into early 2023. This represents a threefold increase, and an added year and a half to the waiting times compared to the pre-pandemic period. Such a dramatic surge underscores the profound challenges and delays introduced by the pandemic to the K-1 visa application process.
The impact of COVID-19 on K-1 visa applications extended beyond processing delays. Policy changes related to public health and border control further influenced the adjudication process, leading to a greater emphasis on health-related screening and quarantine protocols for visa applicants.
This report aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of K-1 visa trends, issuance, and challenges, shedding light on the program’s resilience in the face of unprecedented global challenges.
K-1 Visa Issuances
After the Covid-19 pandemic effectively shut down embassy and consular operations around the world in 2020, K-1 visa issuances have steadily been on the rise, from 19,218 in 2021 to 21,315 in 2022 — an 11% increase. The number of K-1 visas issued are still nowhere near pre-pandemic levels of 35,881 in 2019, or the decade-high of 38,403 in 2016.
Compared to other visa types, the K-1 visa has a smaller number of annual issuances. In 2022, the K-1 visa had 21,315 issuances. In comparison, the B-1/B-2 travel visa had more than 3.2 million annual admissions in 2022. Annual K-1 visas made up only 0.3% of all nonimmigrant visas in 2022.
I-129F Approvals and Denials
The I-129F is the form that U.S. citizens file to bring their future spouse to live with them in the United States. In the first three quarters of FY2023, there were about 51,500 of these forms waiting to be processed. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were only about 19,000 I-129F forms pending.
Note: When speaking of fiscal years, the federal government’s fiscal year begins three months ahead of the calendar year. For instance, fiscal year 2023 started on Oct. 1, 2022.
More I-129F forms have been approved so far in 2023 than during the entire 2022, with a 100% increase in approvals. For the first three quarters of 2023, the government approved 29,763 forms, compared to 11,140 in the first three quarters of 2022. The denial rate has also decreased significantly from a historical high of 37% in 2022 to 25% in 2023.
Since data for the full fiscal year 2023 hasn’t yet been released, we’ve compared year-over-year data from 2013-2022 to illustrate how dramatically the backlog for Form I-129F has grown. The number of I-129F applications that were still pending increased from 30,408 in 2021 to 55,425 in 2022, an 82% increase.
K-1 Petition Processing Times
K-1 processing times have trended upwards since 2021. In the first three quarters of 2021, the average processing time for Form I-129F was 8 months. That number has steadily increased to a high of 14.5 months in the second quarter of 2023.
Where Do Most K-1 Visa Holders Come From?
There were some significant nationality shifts for K Visas (K-1, K-2, K-3, and K-4) post-pandemic. Looking at the top countries historically and comparing 2019 and 2022, there was a 65% drop for Vietnam, a more than 50% drop for Great Britain/Northern Ireland, a 69% drop for China, and 78% drop for Brazil. Philippines and Mexico are trending upwards to reach pre-pandemic numbers.
Where Do Most K-1 Visa Holders Go?
California, Texas, Florida, and New York were the most common destinations for K-1 visa applicants in 2022, based on data of Boundless and RapidVisa K-1 customers. Of the 2,660 total K-1 customers in 2022, 36% of K-1 visa sponsors listed these four states as their current home.
The Impact of 90-Day Fiancé on the K-1 Fiancé Visa Process
“90 Day Fiancé” is a popular reality television series that follows couples who have applied for or received a K-1 visa and have 90 days to decide to marry before the visas of the foreign half of the couple expire. The show has brought significant attention to the K-1 visa process and has likely influenced perceptions about it.
- The show doesn’t appear to have made the K-1 Visa process more popular (based on forms received), however the increase in its viewership over time correlates to an increase in denial rates for applicants.
- Though the overall number of applicants for the K-1 fiancé visa haven’t increased since the debut of 90-Day Fiancé, the distribution nationalities for applicants has diversified, masking an overall drop from certain populations, like the Philippines, despite proportionally high representation of cast members from the Philippines.
- Since the show’s debut, approval rates for K-1 petitions have dropped significantly, with 2022 seeing the lowest rate since the data has been reported by USCIS.
“90 Day Fiancé” Viewership Trends (2014-2022)
The viewership of “90 Day Fiancé” has been steadily increasing since its debut in 2014, growing from 2.6 million viewers in its first season to 5.7 million in 2022.
Before and After 90-Day Fiancé: K-1 Petition Approval Rates and Backlogs (2013-2023)
“90-Day Fiancé” debuted on January 12, 2014, with its season finale on February 24, 2014. Given its launch in the middle of FY2014, our analysis of the impact of the show is based on FY2015 to present.
- Since the launch of the show, the approval rate for K-1 petitions has dropped 24%, from 87.4% in 2015 to 63% in 2022, the lowest rate in nearly a decade.*
- The backlog of applications has increased 256% since 2015. However, the average backlog from 2015-2016 was lower than the average number (22,500) for 2013-2014 and 2017-2021 respectively.
- The recent surge in the backlog of applications (51,506 pending applications so far in 2023) can be attributed in part to the pandemic, but even between 2013 to 2018, the backlog grew 57%, from 18,969 to 29,814, despite no marked surge in forms received by the government.
*USCIS started releasing total completed application data in 2013. Historical reports only account for receipts and approvals each fiscal year.
Potential Influence of 90-Day Fiancé on Country of Origin
Top Represented Countries on the Show
Philippines, Brazil, Russia, and Ukraine are prominently featured, with five or more cast members each. The Dominican Republic, Morocco, Thailand, Nigeria, and Moldova also have multiple representatives.
The above visualization helps in understanding the relationship between the show’s representation and visa recipients. However, it’s important to remember that many factors can influence visa trends, and this graph is just one perspective on the data. While there’s noticeable overlap between the show’s cast nationalities and K-1 visa trends, attributing a direct influence is complex. Some countries, like the Dominican Republic, show alignment, but others, like the Philippines, diverge.
The Impact of COVID-19 on “90-Day Fiancé”
Despite travel restrictions around the world, “90-Day Fiancé” continued to film during the pandemic. Filming was impacted due to various travel restrictions and safety protocols, with some couples unable to meet in person due to travel bans. In 2020, series creators developed a spin-off, called “90-Day Fiancé: Self Quarantined,” which ran for seven episodes.
Of the existing and historical cast, roughly 13% of the couples on “90-Day Fiancé” were impacted by travel restrictions during the pandemic. This aligns with a 14% decrease in overall forms received by the U.S. government between 2019 and 2020.
The cast’s specific challenges mirror the impact of travel restrictions, both into the U.S. and globally:
- Nicole Nafziger and Azan Tefou: Nicole was unable to travel to Morocco to be with Azan due to the closure of the Moroccan borders. They were separated for over a year before they were finally able to be together.
- Anfisa Arkhipchenko and Jorge Nava: Anfisa was unable to travel to the United States to be with Jorge due to a visa issue.
- David Toborowsky and Annie Suwan: David was unable to travel to Thailand to be with Annie due to the closure of the Thai borders. They were separated for months before David was able to obtain a special visa and travel to Thailand.
- Larissa Dos Santos Lima and Eric Nichols: Larissa was unable to travel to the United States to be with Eric due to a visa issue.
- Ashley Martson and Jay Smith: Ashley was unable to travel to Jamaica to be with Jay due to a visa issue.
- Natalie Mordovtseva and Mike Youngquist: Natalie was unable to travel to the United States to be with Mike.
About the Data
Data from this report comes from:
State Department Nonimmigrant Visas Issued by Classification: Fiscal Years 2018-2022 https://travel.state.gov/content/dam/visas/Statistics/AnnualReports/FY2022AnnualReport/FY22_TableXV(B).pdf
USCIS quarterly data for all forms, including: https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/document/data/quarterly_all_forms_fy2023_q3.pdf; https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/document/data/Quarterly_All_Forms_FY2022_Q3.pdf
Boundless and RapidVisa customer data from 2021-2022
“90-Day Fiancé” viewership trends: Forbes (“‘90 Day Fiancé’ Keeps Scoring Higher Ratings Than Almost Any Other Cable TV Program”)
“90-Day Fiancé” cast and country of origin: TLC