Travel executives have taken the U.S. government to task for not remedying more quickly the delay in processing travel visas that they say is costing the U.S. travel industry in big ways. We went to the top government official working on this. She says efforts are now producing real results, and asks for patience.
American embassies are working around the clock to bring down the amount of time international travelers have to wait to get a visitor visa interview in order to travel to the U.S., according to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Visa Services Julie Stufft. The global median wait time for a B-1 or B-2 visa, also known as a visitor visa, has been reduced from 17 weeks in June to five weeks now.
Aspiring travelers from some U.S. inbound markets, however, still have to wait hundreds of days to get an interview for their first visitor visa. Indian travelers now have to wait 700 days for an interview at the Mumbai embassy, according to the U.S. State Department’s website, down from 999 days in January but still very high. It reinforces a 2023 Skift megatrend that large numbers of travelers from non-Western countries will be locked out of U.S. conferences and destinations because of border bottlenecks.
Lobbying group U.S. Travel Association estimates visa delays will cost the industry nearly $7 billion in traveler spending in 2023. In January, Marriott CEO Anthony Capuano publicly called on the Biden Administration to take more action in an on-stage interview with the Chamber of Commerce. Hilton CEO Chris Nasetta said he will lead a “ratcheting up of attention” on the issue when he becomes national chair of U.S. Travel.
In this conversation with Skift’s Dawit Habtemariam, Stufft explains the visa bottleneck, U.S. State Department’s efforts to reduce it, why India’s wait times are absurdly high and more. The comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Skift: For two years, international travel was suspended because of the pandemic. Can you explain what happened with U.S. embassies when it came to visa processing in general as borders opened in 2022 and then zoom in on B-1 and B-2 visas?
Julie Stufft: We had an unprecedented work stoppage in our posts overseas and some places we were prohibited from doing that work. So we sent people home or we weren’t able to keep people overseas for various reasons. Now we are recovering and we’re really addressing that pent-up demand of people who would’ve theoretically applied had the pandemic never happened. For two years people weren’t able to apply, and that’s what we’re seeing now.
Now, if we had talked six months ago, I would’ve told you that this is a global problem, we’re working on it globally. But now it’s really just a problem in a few places and with, as you identified the B-1, B-2, first time traveler group. We’ve narrowed it down to one type of traveler in just a few countries. It’s no longer a global visa sort of crisis in terms of wait times. In June, I think we had a 17 week global median wait time. Now it’s five weeks for B-1s, B-2s. So we’re not thrilled with where we are right now, obviously it’s going to get a lot better. We’re really, really thrilled with how far we’ve managed to come in the last year.
Skift: U.S. Travel and the CEO of Marriott cited an average of over 400 days for some of the top inbound markets like India, Brazil and Mexico. I know those countries in particular are kind of the outliers. They’re the real big bottleneck.
Stufft: Yeah, totally. I mean what you’ve just cited was worded very carefully to make it seem like more of a problem than frankly it is. So in Mexico, we’ve already got, and the wait time has stabilized. Same with Brazil. In Mexico, Brazil, and really India, for that matter, we’re doing more visas now than we were before the pandemic. And I would say that everything is going in the right direction very quickly.
India is kind of a special case. We were shut down completely. We had a travel restriction in place for India, a Presidential proclamation. It was a pretty rough couple years in India. We have had a huge demand historically, even without a pandemic in India and a lot of consulates across many, many visa categories. So not only visitors, but immigrants and students and workers, tech workers in particular are all huge record-breaking categories in India, and we’re all doing them now at the same time. We’ve taken a bunch of those down. So India at this point, we put in a different category than some of the others.
Skift: Can you give a visual idea of the amount of people waiting?
Stufft: Yeah. So it’s very interesting because we don’t have a backlog per se like we do for immigrant visas. We don’t talk about it like that because we don’t know who’s going to apply. We just have to wait for these wait times to stabilize. So right now the reality is that in October of next year, we have wide open visa appointments for Indian citizens in India. If you opened it up right now and decided you wanted a tourist visa interview, you’d find that next fall you’re going to have a lot of choices for interviews. As more people come in, and we’ve got a huge number of people there now, but as they’re going to be even more officers coming. As that goes, that will actually go down. So the current wait time will no longer be that wait time as we go forward. That’s our goal, this is not just something that they only gets bigger. It will get smaller.
Skift: Please talk about the initiatives for the main countries that have the longest wait times.
Stufft: Absolutely. The vast majority of the world is back to normal. They’re back to very low wait times, let’s say less than 90 days. These outlier cases that you mentioned, we are just sending tons of people into these places to work. They’re working weekends, multiple shifts during the week, really, really just making an attempt to just reign that in, bring it down.
They’ve got a huge surge force right now in Mexico. Although their wait time is going down a lot, so they’re much lower than 400 days. I think they’re in the low two hundreds. And that’s obviously a huge post for us. Same with Brazil, they’ve got this under control. There’s a long wait time, but as they get personnel in, it will keep going down.
And also we’ve opened up a number of embassies. This is fairly unprecedented, actually it is unprecedented. We’ve asked other embassies where Indians can travel or can frequently travel to open up appointments for Indian nationals there. So Bangkok, for example, an Indian traveler doesn’t need a visa to go there. They can go there and they’ll be given an appointment like they’re a Thai applicant. Same in Germany, same in some other places. In fact, I think in the last few months, Indian visa applicants have applied to around 200 different US missions overseas.
Obviously that’s not our goal. We don’t want people to have to travel outside their own country for a visa interview. But while we get this under control, if you really need to travel, there are ways to do it. We also have expedites in place. We’ve gotten, if you’re a repeat traveler, even a tourist, your visa wait time is negligible. So it’s really only this one group of first-time travelers at the visa window that we’re trying to address now, and we just need to do that with sheer numbers and hard work.
Skift: Once processing staff is back to pre-pandemic levels, that’ll get things essentially back to where they need to be. That’s it, right?
Stufft: Yes, and these are ultimately national security positions. These are highly trained, like language trained in many cases, counselor officers. So we can’t just spit them out of a machine, an extruder, as my boss says, we have to actually bring them on, train them and put them out.
By the end of our fiscal year, which is in September, we will have all of those positions filled. In a place like India it’s going to take longer. It’s going to take more people than that because we have to come back out of this stoppage.
Skift: I mean the issue is India, Brazil and Mexico are just so important for the U.S. travel industry, that’s the thing. I think U.S. Travel said that they’re some of the top markets for international inbound travel outside the Visa Waiver Program.
Stufft: No, it’s true. But I will part with USTA in a number of points and one of them is this point, the correlation that they’re making between inbound travel and visa wait times just doesn’t exist. When it comes down to it, fewer than 3 percent of people who are entering the U.S. had to wait for a visa appointment in order to travel, but that’s a very, very small slice of people coming in. As you know, most of those people aren’t waiting very long at all.
While these are important markets, we will continue to get these wait times down to a point where everybody will be very impressed, the correlation is not there. USTA itself has done surveys that show that there are many factors that play much bigger than visa wait times for inbound travel. So right now we’re issuing as many visas in Brazil, Mexico, and India as we did before the pandemic, more actually.
This year we’ll issue more than we did before the pandemic. So in that case, there’s something else at play here. It’s not just the visa wait time. There’s 60 million people roughly that have valid tourist visas right now. It’s up to the industry to manage that, but we will take care of the wait time piece.
Skift: Is there anything else you’d like the industry to know about visitor visa wait time processes?
Stuft: Yeah, I would like to share that it’s going to be better than they’ve ever seen it. This is a new era for visa processing and they should expect more positive changes coming up. While we get the visa wait times down, which we have done, overwhelmingly done and now increasingly we’ll manage this year, it’s going to be a different year.
We’ll be looking at this in December and saying, “Wow, I can’t believe how many visas we did this year.”
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Photo credit: The U.S. State Department is working on variety of initiatives to reduce visa wait times. moodboard / Adobe