Excessive wait times for U.S. visas called 'the equivalent of a travel ban'

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The U.S. Travel Association blamed the visa backlog for delaying the recovery of inbound travel.
The U.S. Travel Association blamed the visa backlog for delaying the recovery of inbound travel. Photo Credit: Ascannio/Shutterstock

The average wait time for U.S. visas has swelled to more than 400 days for first-time applicants from three of the largest countries for inbound travel, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

U.S. Travel said "excessive delays are the equivalent of a travel ban, driving potential U.S. visitors to choose other countries."

In 2019, 35 million international visitors (43% of all international visitors) and $120 billion in spending (50% of all inbound travel spending) came from countries where a visa is required to enter the U.S. Brazil, India and Mexico are three of the top inbound markets and accounted for nearly 22 million (63%) of these visitors.

U.S. Travel blamed the visa backlog for delaying the recovery of international travel to the U.S., which is projected to remain far below pre-pandemic levels in 2022 and 2023, resulting in a shortfall of nearly 50 million visitors and $140 billion in travel spending. 

The association called on the Biden administration to prioritize solving the visa-processing problem, estimating that nearly 7 million potential visitors and $12 billion in projected spending in 2023 alone will be lost due to excessive wait times. 

"The forecast is further proof that the U.S. simply cannot afford to turn away high-spending international travelers," said U.S. Travel CEO Geoff Freeman. "While other economic factors may be out of our control, reducing visitor visa wait times is easily within the Biden administration's reach if only they would make it a priority." 

U.S. Travel, other industry associations and travel suppliers have been sounding the alarm about the impact of visa wait times on inbound travel, after the average wait time jumped from 17 days in March 2020 to 247 days this summer.  

A campaign against long visa wait times

U.S. Travel plans to launch a campaign the week of Nov. 28 highlighting what it calls the "egregious visa wait times" with a website inviting small-business owners in the U.S. to provide statements of missed opportunities associated with fewer international visitors. Affected travelers will share testimonials about their visa waits. On social media platforms, U.S. Travel will use the hashtag #TheyWaitWeLose.

U.S. Travel intentionally revealed the increase in visa wait times and the projected downgrade in visitors on Nov. 8, one year after the reopening of U.S. borders to inbound air travelers. 

"A year ago, the images of planes and travelers headed to the U.S. were cause for celebration after nearly two years of border closures," said Freeman. "Today, a full year since that joyful moment, a massive visa backlog has driven many of our potential visitors to go elsewhere. It's a setback the Biden administration should be fully committed to solving."

U.S. Travel recommends the following to address the problem:

• Lowering wait times for visitor visas to 21 days in the three largest inbound markets (Brazil, Mexico, India) by April 2023.

• The reinstatement of a presidential executive order to process 80% of visas worldwide within 21 days by Sept. 30.

• An increase in consular staffing and resources in high-volume countries and for large international events taking place in the U.S. 

• Extending through 2024 the authority to waive interviews for nonimmigrant visa renewals and applying waivers more broadly to low-risk renewals.

• Setting up a dedicated process to provide faster visa processing for large tour groups, conventions and events taking place in the U.S.

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