Why Do Travelers to the U.S. Have To Wait an Average of 247 Days for Their Visa Interviews?
The State Department's network of consulates are keeping tourists and business travelers in limbo.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government's network of consulates around the world shut their doors. They were extraordinarily slow to reopen, with 60 percent of consulates still fully or partially closed as of last October.
The scheduling of interviews for nonimmigrant visas—used by business travelers, tourists, and foreigners traveling to the U.S. for other short-term reasons—ground to a halt. Now that consulates are reopening, they're dealing with massive backlogs and forcing foreigners to endure egregious wait times before they can sit for visa interviews.
Tourists and business travelers are now waiting an average of 247 days for their visa interviews, up from the pre-pandemic wait of 17 days. That's according to data compiled by Cato Institute immigration researcher David J. Bier, who notes that the "astounding 8-month wait" applies to foreigners who want "to visit the United States for a period of at most just 90 days and usually much less than that." According to Bier, "52 percent of consulates were scheduling tourist and business traveler interviews 6 months or more out," while 27 percent were scheduling a year out or longer.
These delays have led to inefficiencies in issuing visas. Though the rate varies by consulate, nonimmigrant visa issuance has dropped significantly at many sites compared to pre-pandemic levels. The issuance rate fell by roughly 50 percent between 2018 and 2022 in Kuala Lumpur, Panama City, Bucharest, Ho Chi Minh City, and many other cities.
Currently, the State Department's Visa Waiver Program "enables most citizens or nationals of participating countries" to come to the U.S. for tourism or business stays of up to 90 days, no visa necessary. But the program applies to just 40 countries, leaving countless would-be travelers in need of visas.
South Africans who want to visit the U.S. are traveling to Namibia, Botswana, and even more distant countries in the hopes of applying for visas at consulates with shorter wait times, according to the Daily Maverick. Hundreds of athletes and officials attending the 2022 track and field world championships in Oregon this month ran into visa snafus and processing delays. Two athletes applied for visas with the U.S. Embassy in Paris on June 8 but were scheduled for interviews on November 9, 2023—16 months after the championships.
New data from the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) and ForwardKeys show that while international travel to the U.S. is recovering, it's lagging behind other major destinations and likely won't reach pre-pandemic levels until 2025. "The spike in inbound bookings validates the U.S. government's decision to ease travel restrictions by scrapping testing for visitors and returning U.S. citizens—something other economies did long ago," said WTTC President and CEO Julia Simpson. Still, inbound bookings might not translate into much if international travelers aren't able to secure the necessary visas.
Government barriers are keeping travelers out of the country and preventing their money from reaching the American economy. The uncertainty brought by long wait times for visa interviews will simply drive tourists and business travelers elsewhere. Some COVID-era restrictions on inbound international travel may have been scrapped, but the government is still keeping travel out of reach for many.