(NewsNation) — Struggling to keep up with demand, a top U.S. State Department official addressed efforts Thursday to trim lengthy wait times to obtain U.S. visitor visas.
According to a release from Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie Stufft, COVID-19 pandemic-era restrictions curbed the State Department’s ability to see and process visa applicants.
U.S. consulates around the world were shuttered because of the coronavirus and the visa application process came to a temporary halt.
Two-and-a-half years later, most countries have lifted restrictions. But there is a backlog. The combination of pent-up demand from the past two years combined with regular seasonal demand has resulted in extended wait times for U.S. visa interview appointments.
According to the New York Times, the wait times are worse than anything the State Department has seen before.
The delays are affecting tourists, students and workers and are causing frustrations.
According to the State Department, the current median worldwide wait time for a tourist visa interview appointment is about two months. But wait times for worker visas can be much longer.
In Istanbul, for example, worker visa wait times exceed 16 months. In New Delhi and Chennai, applicants can expect wait times of nine months, according to a Bloomberg Law report.
In India, according to a Forbes report, obtaining a visa hasn’t been “a practical option.”
Long wait times have created disruptions for companies whose workers can’t get back to the U.S., and they hit companies with workers and executives on temporary visas particularly hard.
About one in six U.S. workers is an immigrant, according to Reuters.
Some of these foreign-born workers are legally employed on a temporary basis with an array of visas that make it possible to obtain jobs that run the gamut from software designers to apple pickers.
Tech companies in the U.S. especially have leaned on employment-based visas to bring skilled foreign workers into the country.
This comes as many employers in manufacturing, aviation and other industries are having trouble finding enough workers.
Entry into the U.S. has been slowed for hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, according to the Times.
In response, employers have advised employees not to travel until wait times drop. Even in this era of remote work, businesses face major headaches if employees are delayed months to return to the U.S.
Efforts by the State Department to reduce appointment wait times include:
- Waiving in-person interviews where possible
- Targeting key visa categories that support the U.S. economy
- Processing more visas with fewer consular officers
- Providing greater transparency to visa applicants
The State Department said it has doubled the hiring of U.S. Foreign Service personnel and says visa processing is rebounding faster than projected.
According to Stufft, 96% of U.S. embassies and consulates can now provide routine visa services, but she recommended that foreign nationals who face delays at their home consulates may be able to travel to a consulate in a third country to obtain services.
“In Fiscal Year 2023,” Stufft said in a release, “we expect to reach pre‑pandemic visa processing levels.”