I am not aware of a change in the immigration law that would allow you to skip the F-1 visa renewal interview. You may be confusing two different renewals. There is something called automatic visa revalidation. Automatic visa revalidation allows most F-1 students to take a trip of less than thirty days to countries contiguous to the United States and reenter on an expired visa provided you have proper documentation and have not applied for a new visa during the visit. This process revalidates your visa (making it eligible for the single trip back to the United States), but does not renew it.
If your F-1 visa has expired or is about to expire, there is no need to worry. You can stay in the U.S. with an expired F-1 visa as long as you are student in good standing and have not violated the terms of your status.
There are some good reasons to renew an expired F-1 visa. For example, you may want or need to travel outside the United States. You cannot re-enter the United States on an expired visa (except in the limited automatic visa revalidation manner discussed above.) Also, if you entered the United States under a different visa status and changed your visa status to F-1 while in the United States – you will also need to apply for an F-1 visa if you leave the U.S.
You cannot renew an F-1 visa while in the United States. You must do so at a United States embassy or consulate. Although the Department of State encourages you to apply in your home country, you may apply at another U.S. embassy or consulate. Before you travel to an embassy or consulate that is not in your home country, contact that embassy or consulate and confirm the procedures for renewing your F-1 visa. Inform them of your country of citizenship, and ask them whether they will accept and consider your application and approximately how long it will take for the visa to be issued, if approved.
It may be more difficult to obtain a visa from a U.S. Consulate which is not located in your country of citizenship or lawful permanent residence. You cannot re-enter the U.S. until your visa renewal is approved. If the visa is denied, you will not be able to return to the United States as a student.
This link will tell you how long it will take to get a visa application appointment at a U.S. Consulate: http://travel.state.gov/visa/temp/wait/tempvisitors_wait.php
If you are going to leave the country to renew your F-1 visa, there are some steps you need to take before you leave.
• SEVIS I-20 - Check the front of your I-20 to make sure your major, and source of funding are correct. If you need a new I-20 you will need to provide updated proof of financial support.
• PASSPORT - If traveling outside the U.S. your passport must be valid at least 6 months into the future upon your return to the U.S. Passport may be renewed at your country’s embassy in the United States, or in your home country.
• LETTER FROM YOUR FOREIGN STUDENT ADVISOR – A letter from your international student advisor certifying that you are an international student at your school and are maintaining status.
• TRANSCRIPT – Bring a copy of your transcript to prove that you have been maintaining your status and making academic progress. Also, bring with you a copy of your current semester schedule, with proof from the your financial office that you have paid your bill.
• FINANCIAL DOCUMENTATION –Updated documented proof of financial support from the sponsor that appears on your I-20, particularly if the documentation is from more than a year ago.
You should start the visa process as soon as possible upon your arrival back in your home country or the country in which you will apply for the renewal. Keep in mind that the holiday periods (Christmas/New Year) and summer vacation are very busy times at visa issuing posts. In addition, security checks on visa applicants may further delay the issuance of visas.
I hope this helps.