Impossible Dream? U.S.-China Negotiations on Longer Visa Validity

Don QuixoteNegotiations between the U.S. and Chinese governments to extend the validity of U.S. and China visitor and business visas are still underway, according to China Daily:

Peter Haymond, the U.S. consul general in Sichuan province, said … that the U.S. and China are discussing extending the validity of non-immigrant visas for Chinese from the current one year to two or three years.

But after years of negotiations, success seems like an impossible dream.

As background, a visa’s validity refers to the length of time it may be used to apply at a port of entry for admission to a country (not to the length of authorized stay within the country).

  • The State Department issues B1/B2 visas for business or tourism to Chinese nationals that are valid for multiple entries over a 1-year period.
  • The PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ policy is more opaque:  L tourist visas, F visitor’s visas, and M business visas may be issued for 1 entry within 3 months, 2 entries within 6 months, or multiple entries within 6 months or 1 year. There is no public guidance as to who qualifies for a 1-year validity Chinese visa, but U.S. Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs Charles Bennett has said, “currently, China does not normally issue full one-year validity visas to U.S. citizens.”

That’s a problem because U.S. policy is that visa validity should be reciprocal between countries. In 2011 congressional testimony, David T. Donahue, then Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Visa Services, explained:

Increasing the validity length on visas is another strategy for reducing the need to re-apply for a U.S. visa. Brazilians, Indians, and Mexicans receive ten-year visas. Unfortunately, Chinese tourist and business travelers … currently only receive one year visas. Section 221(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act requires us to set visa validities–insofar as practicable–to accord foreign nationals the same treatment upon a reciprocal basis that their country accords to U.S. citizens. This is not just law, but in my opinion, it is good policy. It is not in our interest, for example, to give a Chinese business traveler an advantage not available to American business travelers. Our goal is, wherever possible, to negotiate longer periods of visa validity with foreign governments, but our bottom line is equal treatment for our own citizens. We have been working with our Chinese counterparts to encourage them to cooperate on expanding reciprocity for citizens of both our countries. We also take every opportunity to encourage U.S. and Chinese business leaders to make this point with Chinese officials.

For the U.S. government, increasing visa validity is also key to conserving limited consular resources. In particular, increasing visa validity could decrease the pace at which the U.S. Mission in China needs to hire, train, and deploy officers to adjudicate nonimmigrant visa applications. A 2010 State Department Office of Inspector General report worried that the Mission was “swamp[ed]” and that it was “imperative” for the Ambassador Huntsman to “personally” intensify reciprocal visa validity negotiations with the Chinese government.

These negotiations have gone on for years. It was a major issue for former U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke too. And in 2012 the U.S. Consulate in Shenyang apparently engaged in some guerrilla diplomacy, distributing to Chinese, along with their 1-year visas, a notice that the Chinese government is to blame for the short validity period, saying:

The U.S. government seeks to grant Chinese citizens visas with over 1 year validity. However, we have received no positive response from China to date. Due to the diplomatic principle of reciprocity, without reciprocation from China, the U.S. will not be able to unilaterally extend visa validity for China citizens. Therefore, we only can give you a visa valid for one year. We apologize for the inconvenience.

The main holdup to the U.S. issuing longer validity visas to Chinese citizens appears to be the PRC government’s unwillingness to reciprocate. But over the years, the U.S. government has also given other reasons. One was that the Department of Homeland Security objected to longer visa validity because the Chinese government was taking too long to issue travel documentation to thousands of Chinese nationals in the U.S. with final deportation orders, but that objection seems to have been satisfied.

The big unknown to me is, why has the Chinese government opposed longer visa validity, which would help Chinese companies doing business in the increasingly interconnected global economy as well as for fulfilling the desire of the growing Chinese middle class to facilitate travel abroad. I could speculate that the government prefers more frequent visa applications by foreign nationals in order to keep a tighter rein on their activities, at least until such time as port of entry and interior immigration enforcement systems and technology have matured. Or that the government fears that easier visits abroad would accelerate China’s brain drain. But the government hasn’t explained. The China Daily article, in typical fashion, is silent about the Chinese government’s reasons.

Don Quixote spent his days tilting at windmills and dreaming the impossible dream. Hopefully, longer U.S. and China visa validity is less quixotic and more within the realm of possibility.





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