US vows to speed up visa process

Updated: 2011-12-02 08:08

By Todd Balazovic (China Daily)

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BEIJING - Chinese citizens applying for US visas will face shorter wait times in the future as the US embassy vowed to speed up the visa application process.

The pledge comes amid an online campaign to stop the use of a call center which charges premium per-minute rates when setting up visa screening interview appointments.

More than 8,700 people in the United States have signed an online petition calling for an end to the 70 US cents a minute charge when making an interview appointment, required as part of the visa process.

In an exclusive interview with China Daily, Charles Bennett, minister counselor for consular affairs at the US embassy in Beijing, said the US was planning a new system that would make the interview scheduling process as easy as "booking an airplane ticket" online.

"Our call center has done very good work for us for many years, but I think we could do better," he said.

It's one of many measures the US is taking in an effort to open its doors to Chinese citizens and investors.

Several steps, such as reducing the interview-screening process, building a new consulate in Guangzhou and expanding current offices, are being taken to ease the entry process for Chinese visitors.

"If we can make some of these changes, and certainly add people and make our processes a little more efficient, it's going to benefit everybody," Bennett said.

During the summer, when students apply for visas for the fall semester and tourism reaches its height, applying for a visa can take up to 100 days.

By increasing staff and eliminating inefficiencies in the application process, the US hopes to shorten the waiting time for visitors, making it easier to travel to the US without having to plan three months ahead during the peak season.

For Chinese business travelers, who often get caught in the mix during the peak season, a quicker interview process means fewer chances of missing a golden opportunity.

"Sometimes it's not possible to plan a couple months ahead, sometimes you can lose opportunities," said Chris Murck, president of Beijing American Chamber of Commerce.

"It would clearly be advantageous to limit the waiting period to two weeks max."

According to the American Chamber of Commerce's 2011 white paper, 36 percent of businesses said they avoid arranging meetings for suppliers, customers and employees in the US because of the difficulty and waiting time required for US visas.

Still, the demand for US visas from China has skyrocketed in the past two years.

In 2010, the US received roughly 800,000 Chinese visitors, more than double the figure 10 years ago, according to the Department of Commerce. With the tourists, businesspeople and students contributing roughly $5 billion to the US economy in 2010, the move is not just an attempt to strengthen ties but also a chance to draw overseas spenders.

"You see a lot of people who, because of the current economic conditions in the US, see increasing the number of foreign tourists to the US, Chinese and others, as something that could be very beneficial to the US economy," Bennett said.

"On the other hand, our primary job still is to protect our borders. That's why we're here, that's why we interview people."