U.S. vows to tackle visa waits amid soaring demand

Near-record demand means that the U.S. State Department processed more visas for tourism and business this year than any since 2015 — but that demand is also behind the persistent delays in obtaining those visas.

The U.S. issued nearly 8 million visas for tourism and business during fiscal year 2023, more than it has in eight years, and said several of its embassies and consulates have set visa issuance records. The U.S. doesn’t break out tourist visas from business visas, but the latter includes visiting the U.S. for conferences or meetings.

While the uptick is good news for U.S. tourism, wait times of more than 500 days for a visa interview for first-time visitors still persist in some key markets — including India, Mexico and Colombia — even as they have dropped globally on average from 200 days to 130 days.

“That’s the white whale we need to tackle,” Julie Stufft, the deputy assistant secretary for visas services, said during a media roundtable this week. 

Geoff Freeman, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, gave credit to the Biden administration “for acknowledging the economic consequences of long visa wait times and trying new approaches to solve the problem.”

“Today’s visa delays are discouraging millions of travelers from visiting the United States,” Freeman said. “We will continue to work with the federal government to address this issue and hope they will join us in demanding no more than 30-day delays — as achieved during the Obama administration — at any consulate worldwide.”

Stufft said the State Department considered 90 days a reasonable wait for first-timers and that the average fell to 130 days in fiscal year 2023 (the department’s fiscal year ends in October). 

But she acknowledged that while the average wait “did come down significantly, we’ll be the first to say it didn’t come down far enough.”

To that end, Stufft said that the department was lasering in on the “handful of posts” with persistently high wait times in that category, which in many cases have also had the highest visa output in the world, even breaking records. 

Why are wait times so high?

Stufft said that the incongruity of record output along with such long wait times is a signal of outsize demand. The State Department has been saying since summer that demand is the culprit behind extended visa wait times, rather than Covid-related backlogs or operational delays. In August, officials said that some consulate posts in Mexico, where the waits for visa interviews were still more than 700 days, had issued more visitor visas in 2022 than in 2019. 

“When you see a 600-day wait time in a place like Bogotá [Colombia], when our consular section there has done, in some cases, twice as many visas as they’ve ever done before, this is a new signal of demand for travel that goes beyond sort of a hangover for Covid, we believe,” Stufft said.

Another issue is that the average wait time as posted on the State Department’s website does not necessarily reflect real wait times at specific consular or embassy offices, she said. The website picks up the first available interview date and time at a specific office, but that office can then release additional slots that don’t get factored in. And the department doesn’t measure by volume when it takes the worldwide average, so if 100 people apply somewhere with a 500-day wait, it factors into the average as much as a post where 500 people have a 100-day wait.

The system also doesn’t factor people making multiple appointments or visa brokers who make many appointments that aren’t attached to an applicant. “That reflects in our waiting times, even though those people may not exist,” Stufft said. 

The department credited its success in issuing as many visas as it did in 2023 to several solutions, such as expanding interview waivers, which enable frequent travelers who meet national security standards to renew visas without having to visit an embassy or consulate. 

But another factor that helps lower wait times is what Stufft called a tipping point. One example is Brazil, where high wait times this year “fell through the floor,” an indication that demand peaked, she said.

DMOs applaud progress

Destination marketers around the country, who have not seen their pre-pandemic international visitor numbers fully rebound, applauded the progress while saying there is room for improvement. 

Adam Burke, CEO of the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board, said he was grateful for the State Department’s “focused efforts to significantly reduce visa wait times.” 

“While there’s still work ahead to ensure that our visa application process is competitive with other global destinations, this is a major step forward,” he said. “We know that there is significant pent-up demand for international travel to the U.S., and the State Department’s ongoing progress will play a critical role in restoring what was previously our country’s top service export.”

Fred Dixon, CEO of New York City Tourism + Conventions, who said the city is the country’s No. 1 port of entry and the top destination for inbound international travel, called it “very welcome news.” 

“International visitors are critical to New York City’s tourism industry,” he said. “They make up 20% of visitation but 50% of total spending and room nights.”

Catherine Prather, president of the National Tour Association, said that while issues persist in some markets, such as India and China, “our DMOs, suppliers and receptive operators certainly welcome the shorter wait times in other countries.” 

“We hope to see continued improvement to catch up with 2019 visitation levels and help meet the goal set forth in our National Travel and Tourism Strategy,” she said. 

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