Long waits, burdensome documentation requirements, excessive processing delays, applications inexplicably denied…it all sounds like a day at the local department of motor vehicles. But these are just some of the complaints registered by people who have tried to obtain a visa for business travel to the U.S. in recent years.
Although obtaining a U.S. B-1 business visa for the U.S. has always been somewhat difficult for potential visitors from certain countries, tougher restrictions and poorly administered visa regulations that were implemented in the wake of September 11 have made it almost impossible for many people in many different countries to visit the U.S. for business purposes.For the past six years, in fact, large numbers of foreign business travelers who had routinely been able to visit the U.S. have been facing excessive visa processing delays, seemingly arbitrary denials, intimidating interrogation tactics and more. These problems have cost U.S. businesses billions of dollars in lost opportunities, sales and potential collaborations.
It was with this in mind that INDA government affairs staff attended a National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) seminar in October that brought together U.S. officials and senior association executives to discuss ways that U.S.-based firms and organizations may help their foreign customers, colleagues and partners successfully navigate the U.S. visa process. This article will review some of the key points we took away from that day.
Getting a U.S. business visa in the past had not been so difficult. Many applicants, for instance, used to be able to get their visas through the mail. After it was revealed that all 19 of the September 11 hijackers had entered the country on valid visas, however, the U.S. government clamped down on security, and began requiring every applicant to be interviewed and fingerprinted as a prerequisite to getting a coveted U.S. B-1 visa.
Unfortunately, officials at the U.S. Department of State now admit that these changes were implemented without adding the necessary resources or staff needed for the increased workload. It did not take long for cracks in the system to emerge, and soon it seemed like every company had a story about losing out on a business opportunity because foreign travelers had been forced to deal with excessive wait times, unresponsive consular officers, baffling visa denials and more. Time and again, companies traded horror stories about international colleagues who were forced to make repeated long-distance treks to U.S. consulates only to have their applications denied, or entire delegations of business men and women from places like India, China, Russia and Pakistan having their visa applications summarily rejected with nary an explanation.
Indeed, a statistical survey conducted by a number of international trade associations in 2004 confirmed the impact of these visa processing problems, finding that U.S. businesses lost some 31 billion dollars between 2002 and 2004, due to lost sales, increased costs, the need to relocate people or functions offshore, etc.
Further, the perception that the U.S. has become "fortress America" in the aftermath of September 11 has reportedly led many international travelers to select rival commercial and financial centers as business locations. This trend is evidenced, in part, by the fact that the number of business travelers to the U.S. fell by 10% between 2004 and 2005, while foreign business travel to places like Europe expanded by about the same amount during that time period.
State Department officials at the October NAM briefing insisted that the anecdotal accounts do not capture the progress that has been made in recent years, however. These officials argued that U.S. government has attempted to address complaints by adding more staff, providing web-based resources, implementing streamlining procedures and other similar steps.
They noted that visa applicants are now able to check estimated wait times for visa application interviews on the State Department website. Additionally, upcoming industry trade shows and conferences are now posted on an internal agency intranet site so consular officials throughout the world are aware of these events before they happen. Furthermore, U.S. businesses inviting employees as well as current and prospective business contacts to the United States are now able to refer questions to the State Department's Business Visa Center (BVC), an information portal rolled out in 2005 for U.S.-based businesses to facilitate the issuance of legitimate visas.
The improvements have made an impact, the officials noted, as shown by the fact that officials handed out some five million business visas last year—up about 10% from the year before. Furthermore, the State Department reports, more than 95% of visa applications are being processed within just two or three days of the interview, and worldwide almost 80% of visa applications are approved.
Association executives at the NAM meeting challenged these depictions, noting that potential business visitors from China and several other countries can be delayed for up to five weeks simply trying to secure an interview appointment. And even when applicants manage to obtain an interview, they frequently find themselves unprepared to answer the questions posed to them due to lack of transparency in the U.S. process.
Despite all this, it was also noted during the NAM briefing that U.S. companies and industry groups can help their international compatriots survive the visa process. Association for Manufacturing Technology's (AMT) Steven Thiry, for instance, delivered a particularly helpful presentation compiling the advice and tips he passes on to his international members who are applying for business visas.
Included in the information provided by Mr. Thiry was a long list of suggested documents that he recommends everyone take with them when going to a visa interview. Some of the suggested documents might be expected (passport, visa fee receipt, an invitation letter, etc.) but other documents included in his list were less obvious, such as company business license, letter from the employer detailing the specific agenda and other information showing that the applicant is traveling for legitimate business purposes.
Mr. Thiry further recommended that applicants be ready to demonstrate why they have reason to return to their home country, and noted that such evidence can include personal savings statements, personal property documents and even family photos. He also noted that applicants should be prepared to answer detailed questions about the impending visit, previous travel experience and personal information about family, academic experience and the like.
Government officials at the meeting agreed that understanding the nature and purpose of the business trip is critical for applicants going into these interviews, and the more supporting documentation they bring with them, the better. But just in case problems still arise, they made sure to circulate to meeting attendees an up-to-date list of consular officials and labor officers stationed throughout the world for U.S. companies when they need to assume the role of advocate for their foreign colleagues.
To learn more, visit: http://travel.state.gov/visa or contact INDA's associate director of government affairs at email@example.com or call 703-538-8805.