On September 20, the US announced a pending end to the travel ban it had imposed more than 18 months earlier, on visitors from 33 countries, including the countries that formerly sent us the most visitors each year.
The only thing missing in the otherwise welcome and very-long overdue announcement was any detail about when the ban would be lifted. Mention was made of “early November”, but here we are, three weeks later, getting close to November, and still we don’t know when the ban will be lifted.
While the US travel industry remains gaspingly desperate for foreign visitors to return to our shores, it is important to understand that the country will not truly be “open” even when the outright ban on all travel from these 33 key countries is lifted. There’s a subtle “unofficial” travel ban still in place, and little known or acknowledged. There’s still the issue of getting a visa prior to coming to visit.
The US allows people from 40 countries to come into the country for short stays, for either tourism or business purposes, without a full visa application. Such people just need to complete a simple quick ESTA (“Electronic System for Travel Authorization”) request, and requiring a relatively modest $14 fee. Approval is usually quickly granted.
These 40 countries are essentially the EU/Schengen zone, plus nine other countries – Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and the United Kingdom. Canada is separately covered. But if you’re not from one of these fortunate countries, it is often close to impossible to visit, no matter who you are or why you wish to visit.
This contrasts with more liberal visitor policies in many other countries. For example, the EU allows (in addition to its member nations) people from 59 other countries to visit without a visa. This ranges from “obvious” countries such as the US, Australia, and Canada, to places you’d struggle to find on a map such as Kiribati and Vanuatu.
It is a curious contradiction that the US probably has the most liberal “illegal aliens are welcome to come to live here” policy in the entire world, but also one of the most restrictive “lawful temporary visitors are not wanted” policies. I don’t make this statement lightly. I’ve traveled to countries that require visas as varied as Russia, China, and North Korea, and getting a visa in all cases was easy and simple. Fill out the form, send it, your passport, and a visa fee, to the relevant Embassy/Consulate, and your passport would be returned back, quickly, with a visa. Probably 99.9% of all applicants for visas to these countries are approved.
Other countries understand that tourism is an important source of income. It brings in foreign money, it creates local employment, and also enables tourism providers to prosper and provide tourism services to local people too. Everyone – no matter what their job (or even if retired) directly or indirectly benefits from international tourism. Most countries understand this and spend tens of millions a year encouraging foreign visitors to come and spend their money. Yes, over-tourism is becoming an issue in some places, but the solution is not no tourism at all!
But, the US approach to encouraging international visitors? Not so much. While we still have a reasonable number of foreign visitors each year, when contrasted with the size of our country and the enormous range of attractions we offer, it is paltry. We could have very many more, particularly when it is noted that the enormous majority of people come only from countries which qualify for “easy” ESTA travel approvals.
What if you’re not from one of the 40 countries that need only a $14 ESTA? You run the risk of being buried in bureaucracy. Here’s a list of assorted countries/cities (generally capital cities) and the leadtime the US Embassy/Consulate in each city is currently quoting between when you apply for a Visa and will be interviewed to see if your application will be accepted or not.
|Embassy/Consulate||EU Visa-free?||US Tourist or Business Visa|
Appointment waiting time
|Buenos Aires, Argentina||Yes||Emergencies only|
|Sydney, Australia||Yes||VWP or 199 days|
|Brasilia, Brazil||Yes||Emergencies only|
|Sofia, Bulgaria||(EU member)||Emergencies only|
|Phnom Penh, Cambodia||No||6 days|
|Santiago, Chile||Yes||VWP or Emergencies only|
|Beijing & Shanghai, China||No||Emergencies only|
|Bogota, Colombia||Yes||452 days|
|Cairo, Egypt||No||Emergencies only|
|Port au Prince, Haiti||No||Emergencies only|
|Hong Kong, Hong Kong||Yes||5 days|
|New Delhi, India||No||Emergencies only|
|Jakarta, Indonesia||No||90 days|
|Jerusalem, Israel||Yes||224 days|
|Kingston, Jamaica||No||562 days|
|Tokyo, Japan||Yes||VWP or 1 day|
|Almaty, Kazakhstan||No||400 days|
|Kuwait City, Kuwait||No||15 days|
|Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia||Yes||Emergencies only|
|Mexico City, Mexico||Yes||Emergencies only|
|Managua, Nicaragua||Yes||Emergencies only|
|Islamabad, Pakistan||No||450 days|
|Panama City, Panama||Yes||Emergencies only|
|Asuncion, Paraguay||Yes||450 days|
|Lima, Peru||Yes||Emergencies only|
|Manila, Philippines||No||481 days|
|Bucharest, Romania||(EU member)||150 days|
|Moscow, Russia||No||Emergencies only|
|Riyadh, Saudi Arabia||No||246 days|
|Cape Town, South Africa||No||Emergencies only|
|Seoul, South Korea||Yes||VWP or 20 days|
|Taipei, Taiwan||Yes||VWP or 2 days|
|Bangkok, Thailand||No||50 days|
|Ankara, Turkey||No||Emergencies only|
|Dubai, UAE||Yes||Emergencies only|
|Kyiv, Ukraine||Yes||Emergencies only|
|Montevideo, Uruguay||Yes||371 days|
|Hanoi, Vietnam||No||2 days|
There are of course many other countries in which the US also has visa issuing Consular offices – every country in the world that it recognizes, other than Bhutan, Iran, Maldives, North Korea, Syria and Yemen, but I didn’t think you’d be so interested in minor countries such as East Timor (which the EU welcomes without a visa, and in which the US says only a one day wait for an interview) or Palau (Embassy temporarily completely closed).
Now look at the list above. So many countries in which we’re not approving visas, neither for tourism nor for business, at all! What’s with this “Emergencies only” status? Many other countries where applicants are required to wait for months, sometimes well over a year, wait between applying and being interviewed.
Which brings two more things to keep in mind. As is shown in a limited number of cases, it is possible, but rare, for the US to schedule visa interviews within a week or so of an application – bravo to Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Cambodia. But how to comment on the service offered in countries such as Colombia, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, and many other countries where there’s over a one year wait? Or in all the countries where you can’t schedule an interview and come here at all – not because the US is refusing to allow visitors, but because, for whatever reason, the Consular section of the US Embassy is refusing to process visa applications?
When we as US citizens apply for a visa, we usually don’t need to be interviewed at all, we just fill out a form, and send it off, and get a visa in reply. I could also add that entering countries – even such as Russia, China, and North Korea – is also much more a positive, welcoming, and friendly experience than is so often the case at US Immigration here in the US, too.
People applying for US visas must first be interviewed before a decision to grant a visa (or, often, not) is made. The fee for an interview is substantial ($160 for the interview alone, more for the visa if granted), and should be way more than enough to cover the costs of providing decent timely service. A typical interview takes less than five minutes (it is official US policy that interviews should be very short – this is not just Consular officers being uncaring). Are interviews even needed when they are so perfunctory; in some cases the interviewing official doesn’t even speak the local language, making it much harder to evaluate the veracity of answers to questions posed?
The cost of the interview, for an intending visitor, is a lot more than the $160 fee, and the time it takes is a lot more than the five minutes with a Consular official (plus perhaps half a day or more waiting for your turn in line at the Embassy). Maybe the US Embassy/Consulate is hundreds/thousands of miles away – so you’ve the time and cost to travel to the interviewing city, probably a couple of nights of accommodation, and the return home again afterwards to add to the $160 fee. Only the most motivated of people are going to subject themselves to all that inconvenience, hassle, and cost, which brings us to a second point.
The second point is that, after all of this, there is no guarantee that a visa will be granted. Approvals and rejections seem to be semi-random, fickle, and totally unpredictable. Website forums are full of appalling stories of people who you’d think would be approved but who are refused – and reasons for refusals are never given.
How would you like to apply for a visa to visit somewhere, pay $160 for an interview, then wait perhaps a year for an interview, only at the end of which to be told your visa application has been rejected, with no reason given, and no way to appeal?
Of course, few people enjoy or accept the uncertainty and the extraordinary long lead-time. In addition to the people who are refused visas, a massive number more people never even try to come here – and they tend to be the people we’d most want to come. Sure, we’re a great country to visit, but there are over 200 other countries, most of which are much easier to go to, and many of which also have plenty of appealing tourism experiences.
Why do we in the US hate visitors so much? We’re actually a friendly welcoming society in general, how is it we’ve become so hostile to visitors (while so welcoming to illegal aliens)?
We’re also damaging our image in the world. It suits some countries to portray us as the embodiment of evil in some form or another, but if their citizens could actually travel here and see us with their own eyes, they’d soon realize that we’re normal, and more like them than different in issues of ultimate humanity. Tourism is a great way of reconciling nations.
We are economically and socially harming ourselves by adopting such an extremely unhelpful and negative approach to both business and leisure visitors.