The State Department’s large gains in the number of visas issued overseas last year—surpassing pre-Covid levels in some categories—remains muted by extreme wait times that many immigrants, visitors, and tourists still face to enter the country.
US embassies and consular offices issued 200,000 more immigrant visas overseas last fiscal year than in FY 2021, and 4.1 million more temporary, non-immigrant visas than the prior fiscal year, according to the Visa Office’s annual report.
The numbers, released in late January, reflect the return of State Department services that were limited for much of the Covid-19 pandemic as well as efforts to boost the ranks of consular officers overseas.
Meanwhile, US missions in popular source countries like India have undertaken new initiatives to reduce extreme wait times for travelers who must secure visa interviews before visiting the US. Yet industry representatives, while acknowledging some progress, have highlighted ongoing concerns about the wait times that business travelers and tourists from India, Brazil, and Mexico face.
Applicants at many consulates still must wait well over a year just to get a required interview for their visa, and can’t even book their travel until after getting approval.
The new visa issuance numbers are “a step in the right direction,” said Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the US Travel Association, a trade group representing transportation, lodging, and recreational enterprises.
“But it’s all relative,” he said. Travel to the US is still only 63% of what it was pre-pandemic, which translates to billions less in spending, he said.
“We’ve taken these travelers for granted. That’s a decision that has enormous economic implications,” Freeman said.
Effect of Attrition
More than 90% of visitors to the US don’t need to visit an overseas embassy or consulate before traveling. But first-time applicants, including those seeking B-1 and B-2 temporary visas for business and tourism, must attend an interview before getting the documentation.
Available visa interviews haven’t kept up with demand, however, thanks in part to attrition of experienced consular officers during the pandemic. The resulting trickle of visitors means less money spent on lodging and shopping in the US as well as missed in-person meetings for manufacturers seeking to close deals with partners abroad.
The State Department has tried to reduce wait times by continuing to waive interviews for numerous visa categories covering international students and temporary and seasonal workers, citing their positive impact on the US economy.
The agency also announced last month it would be adding special Saturday interview days at the embassy in Delhi and consulates in Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, and Hyderabad as part of a new initiative to address interview backlogs in India and dozens of other consular offices around the world.
“This is pretty unprecedented,” said Mandy Feuerbacher, a former consular officer and executive vice president at Argo Visa, a company that helps applicants prepare for visa interviews. “They don’t really do that unless they’re really trying to get wait times down for certain countries.”
More significant progress will come as the agency brings on new consular officers and they gain experience conducting visa interviews, Feuerbacher said.
“Even though you’re getting more bodies in those seats, they’re not as experienced,” she said. “So it does take a while to feel comfortable and confident enough to make very quick decisions on who is eligible for a US visa or not.”
A State Department spokesperson said the agency is quickly lowering visa interview wait times worldwide thanks in part to new innovations in visa processing.
“Visa wait times are no longer a global challenge; median interview wait times have fallen dramatically,” the spokesperson said. “Wait times for work, student, crew, and exchange visitor visas are substantially shorter across the board.”
The State Department has made concrete progress in reducing interview wait times, but “we’re still not approaching where we were before Covid,” said Jeremy Neufeld, senior immigration fellow at the Institute for Progress.
Adopting objective target times for completing visa interviews—as the Obama administration did in a 2012 executive order—could create the urgency needed to push wait times down, he said.
“Establishing clear-cut goals would be helpful,” Neufeld said. “Right now it’s very much up to individual consulates, probably more than it should be, to figure out what their goals are.”
The US Travel Association and other advocates concerned about long wait times also have urged the State Department to restore domestic processing of visa renewals and adopt remote processing using videoconferencing.
Temporary visa holders must travel back to their home countries to renew expired visas. But backlogs for interviews have created the risk that applicants in countries like India could be waiting months before returning.
The agency said last year that it’s planning to reinstate stateside renewals, which were discontinued in 2004, but hasn’t provided a timeline.
The State Department spokesperson said there’s little efficiency to be gained from videoconferencing, but the Bureau of Consular Affairs is “actively pursuing” stateside processing options.
It’s hard to know how many people are just choosing not to travel to the US now because of the difficulty of getting a visa appointment, said Tiffany Derentz, senior counsel at Berry Appleman & Leiden LLP and a former State Department official.
But wait times will eventually come down as consulates are fully staffed again, she said.
“I think we can expect 2023 to be a pretty big year for visa issuance,” Derentz said.
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