The year 2022 saw a large growth in the number of US visas issued abroad. This growth has since stagnated, as reported by Bloomberg on 8 February 2023. This stagnation relates to the long waiting times for the mandatory interview both immigrants and travellers to the USA have to face.
Increase in the number of issued visas in 2022
Last year, US embassies and consulates issued 200,000 more immigration visas and four million more temporary non-immigration visas compared to 2021. These figures were released last January by the US State Department. The increase was mainly due to the resumption of the ministry’s consular services, which were restricted for a long time because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to an increase in the number of issued visas, there was also an increase in waiting times to obtain a visa.
Steady progress, but still long waiting times
Since then, many US consulates and embassies, including those in India, have implemented measures to decrease the longer waiting times caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. These longer waiting times only apply to travellers who have to apply for a visa and therefore have to attend an interview. Travellers who can use an ESTA for their trip to the USA, are not affected by longer waiting times.
Despite the steady progress in recent times, there are still long waiting times in countries such as India, Brazil and Mexico. In several countries, visa applicants have to wait for more than a year to get an appointment for the interview at the US consulate. This interview is required to complete the visa application. The delays have forced some travellers to postpone their trip because it is not possible to travel to the USA without a valid travel authorisation.
Many travellers do not require a visa
However, over 90 per cent of travellers travelling to the USA for tourism or business purposes do not have to apply for a physical visa to do so. Tourists and business travellers who meet certain requirements can use an ESTA. This is a digital travel authorisation allowing them to stay in the United States for up to three consecutive months. Because the application procedure for the ESTA is entirely online, these travellers do not have to visit a US embassy or consulate.
Travellers who are not eligible for this digital travel authorisation, for example, because they do not meet the ESTA requirements, always have to apply for a visa. They therefore always have to book an appointment for an interview at a US consulate.
Impact of the COVID-19 crisis on visa issuance
The steady increase in waiting times for an interview indicates a greater demand for visas than time slots available for interviews. The supply-demand imbalance is mainly due to the temporary or permanent loss of many consular staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fact that fewer visas are being granted impacts the US economy. A large portion of business travellers who would normally have chosen the USA have decided to do business elsewhere because of the extraordinary long waiting times. Tourists who are not eligible for the ESTA have also decided to spend their holidays elsewhere. One of the consequences is that less money is being earned in the tourism industry. However, the long waiting times also cause, for example, manufacturers wanting to do business in the USA to be unable to make direct arrangements with possible US business partners.
Attempts to decrease waiting times
The US State Department has implemented a couple of measures in an attempt to decrease waiting times. For example, for visas within certain categories, the requirement to have an interview is abolished. This applies to visas for international students and (temporary) seasonal workers, among others. According to the ministry, applicants for visas belonging to these categories have a positive impact on the recovery of the US economy.
Because there is an extraordinary long backlog in processing visa applications in India, extra measures are necessary here. This is why the ministry announced it would add extra interview days at the US Embassy in Delhi and the US consulates in Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad.
New targets needed
The U.S. Travel Association and other involved parties are concerned with the long waiting times. According to them, further measures are needed to decrease the waiting times and restore the number of visas issued to the same level as before the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other things, they urged the US State Department to process visa applications remotely. They state that many interviews can also be held online, for example.
Do you meet the requirements? Apply for an ESTA
Tourists and business travellers who meet the ESTA requirements, are advised to apply for this travel authorisation. This way, they are not affected by the long waiting times. In addition, this travel authorisation is easier and quicker to apply for than a visa. With an ESTA, travellers can travel to the USA as often as they like for a holiday, business trip, visit to family or friends, or transit within the validity period of two years. A stay in the USA can last up to 90 days with an ESTA.
Attending a study or executing paid work, however, is not permitted with an ESTA. For this and other travel purposes, the ESTA is not suitable; travellers require a US visa. Always check well before departure which visa is required for your travel purpose and make sure you apply for the required visa on time. The exact waiting times can differ per visa and are mentioned on the website of the US State Department.