When Sydney-based semi-retiree Ben Adamson was invited to a friend’s wedding in Seattle, he knew his chances of entering the United States were bleak, though he couldn’t have guessed just how bleak at the time.
As the former managing director of a company specialising in cooling systems for the oil, gas and petrochemical industries, business has taken Adamson to just about every country on the US’s visa waiver exclusion list.
“I have travelled extensively on business over the last 10 years, including to Libya, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, all on the US list of undesirables,” Adamson said.
The former engineer applied for his ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) on March 2, and received the expected refusal a few days later. Then began the process of applying for an interview.
“The website advised that the waiting time for an interview was between 216 and 300 days,” said Adamson.
As the wedding was about 160 days away, he sent his apologies to the couple and terminated the visa process.
A perfect storm of state border restrictions, COVID-related staffing issues and lockdowns, and the temporary closure of one of just three US Consulates in Australia has created a bottleneck of visa application appointment requests.
It’s not just rare cases like Adamson’s that will experience additional challenges obtaining a US visa in the face of these massive backlogs. Applications for work, student and immigrant visas, as well as standard US citizen services such as children requiring passport renewals, must be seen in person by a consular officer.
At the time of writing, the Sydney US Consulate remains closed as it relocates to a new site.
Estimates for visitor visa appointment wait times on the US Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs website are currently listed at 300 days for Melbourne, and 110 days for Perth.
Melbourne remains the only east coast facility offering full services and in-person appointments for visa applicants, resulting in ballooning wait lists, appointment delays and massive visa processing backlogs. The US embassy in Canberra does not do visa interviews.
Sydney’s COVID-19 lockdown last year caused unforeseen delays for a planned move for the Sydney post, pausing operations in July. Sydney services have remained constricted to emergencies for US citizens since vacating the former building in September of 2021, with operations yet to resume from a new facility.
A US Consulate General Sydney spokesperson was unable to supply a resettlement date for the new Sydney facility, but has apologised for the delays and constrained services as a result of these factors.
“We recognise and apologise for how disruptive this is for those with plans to travel to the United States. Resuming normal services to the public is our top priority and we are working hard to make that happen as fast as possible,” the spokesperson said.
“Consulates General Melbourne and Perth are providing routine US citizen and nonimmigrant visa services, and extra resources have been provided at those posts to assist with increased demand.”
The Sydney outpost is set to resume full services again in coming months, and tackling backlogs for services for US citizens, students and workers will be first on the agenda.
In the meantime, the United States have also recently given consular officers the discretionary power to waive in-person interviews for certain visas. Australians who meet the requirements may qualify for a mail-in service to have their visa approved by post.
The move would help take pressure off these enormous backlogs currently impacting US embassies and consulates around the world.
To qualify, applicants must have previously held any category of US visa and have never been refused a US visa, among other criteria.
This is unlikely to help visitor visa applicants like Adamson, whose prior business travels have resulted in previous applications being refused.
“A similar thing happened several years ago when I applied for a US visa, as part of an Austrade delegation to the USA, to look at prospects in the oil and gas industry there,” he said.
“The visa was refused at the interview, then two months after the delegation had returned, I received another notice from the consulate, saying my visa was now accepted. Too late, of course. I accept that I’ll never visit the USA again.”
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