More than 40 mayors from across the U.S. called on the State Department to reduce visa interview wait times for visitors from top markets in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday.
The letter, signed by New York City Mayor Eric Adams, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, Nashville Mayor John Cooper and more, called on the department to address “a severe backlog in the processing” stemming from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter was coordinated by the U.S. Travel Association.
“Due to the lack of prioritization of visitor visa categories, cities and counties are missing out on the opportunity to compete for millions of international visitors due to U.S. visa processing delays,” the letter read. “Local economies lose because international business and leisure travelers spend more money on their trips to the United States than domestic travelers. And it’s a loss for people in our communities whose loved ones can’t attend important life events because they are being forced to wait close to a year or more to obtain visas.”
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The mayors noted that the department had reduced visa processing times for other categories, such as students and seasonal workers, however.
A State Department spokesperson said over 90% of visitors to the U.S. “do not need to visit an embassy or consulate overseas for a visa” within a year before their trip.
“For those travelers who do need visas, we are quickly lowering visa interview wait times worldwide,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Embassies and consulates processed 90% of their “pre-pandemic 2019 nonimmigrant visa volume” in the fiscal year 2022, according to the spokesperson. They expect to exceed that in 2023.
How long does it take to get a visitor visa?
Travelers from top inbound markets applying for visitor visas for the first time have to wait around 400 days on average for an interview, according to the U.S. Travel Association, though the length can vary depending on where travelers apply. Mexico, for instance, has an average wait time of 517 days, the organization said, but those applying in Mexico City may wait as long as 675 days, according to the State Department website.
The mayors called on the department to lower wait times to 21 days for the “top countries for inbound travel” by April, and to 21 days or less for 80% of nonimmigrant visa applicants by the end of September, among other measures. The State Department’s main obstacle, though, is insufficient staffing in the wake of the pandemic, according to Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association.
“We’re sympathetic with that problem,” he said. “But you know what, every hotel in this country, every theme park in this country, every airline in this country is confronted with the same problem, and the truth is you’ve had to find a way to make it work.”
The State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs’ Deputy Assistance Secretary for Visa Services Julie Stufft recently told USA TODAY that the department was working hard to reduce wait times for visas and has made notable progress in the last year.
“Global median wait time for a tourist visa interview which is the big part that we have to handle is about seven weeks. That’s down from June when it was about 120 days,” Stufft said. “People are still getting visas and millions of people still have visas,” noting that in December, about 56 million current visas for travel to the U.S. were in circulation.
Stufft added that the State Department was taking steps to facilitate renewing many of those visas without requiring another in-person interview, and was also, where possible, allowing for off-site processing of some visa applications.
When do travelers need a visa to visit the US?
Around 40% of international visitors to the U.S. need a visa to enter, USA TODAY previously reported. The only travelers who are typically exempt come from countries with visa waivers in place, a list that has 40 countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and many European nations.
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All others, except those from Canada, need to apply for a tourist visa if they’re coming for leisure or a work or business visa in applicable circumstances.
What impact do long visitor visa wait times have?
The U.S. Travel Association estimated that businesses in the U.S. will miss out on 2.6 million prospective visitors in 2023 as a result of the long wait times, projecting that they would lose $7 billion in spending, following a $5 billion loss in 2022, according to the letter.
“Travel is a business where people follow the path of least resistance, and we’re putting up great barriers right now for visitors to come here,” said Freeman.
Contributing: Zach Wichter, USA TODAY