Obama’s Executive Order on Planning for Improved U.S. Visa Processing in China

President Obama has issued a January 19 executive order aimed at improving U.S. visa processing in China. [1] That’s a good thing. Issuance of visas to qualified applicants is an important driver of U.S. jobs and economic growth. The President’s order requires the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security to create a plan within 60 days to:

  1. “increase nonimmigrant visa processing capacity in China … by 40 percent over the coming year”; and
  2. “ensure that 80 percent of nonimmigrant visa applicants are interviewed within 3 weeks of receipt of application….”

Within 180 days of the order, the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security should also report back on their progress implementing the plan.

A Response to the Lost Decade

The executive order explains that America’s share of the world tourism market has fallen dramatically, in part due to more stringent security requirements for visas put in place after September 11, 2001:

The travel and tourism industry is one of our Nation’s leading service sectors and sources of exports. However, the U.S. market share of spending by international travelers fell from 17 percent to 11 percent of the global market from 2000 to 2010, more than a 30 percent decrease in our share of the global market. This decrease was due primarily to increased international competition, changing patterns in global development, and, to some degree, more stringent security requirements imposed after 2001. Given the importance of the travel and tourism industry to the U.S. economy and job creation, a coordinated policy, consistent with protecting our national security, is needed to support a prosperous and secure travel and tourism industry in the United States.

The post-911 security requirements include, among other things, a Congressional mandate that almost all visa applicants be personally interviewed by a consular officer [2] and what Newsweek magazine called a “vast, opaque” even “Orwellian” system of visa security checks. [3]

Improving U.S. visa processing in China is an opportunity to reverse America’s declining share of the world tourism market. In 2010, there were 52 million outbound Chinese travelers. That year, China had surpassed Italy, Japan, France, and the United Kingdom to become the third largest spender on international tourism, after Germany and the U.S. [4] The State Department has characterized visa demand in China as “exploding” and “swamping” the “already over-stressed” consular mission. [5]  So improvements in visa processing will be necessary to take advantage of this opportunity.

The Political Equation

Given the standoff between Congress and the President, it’s no wonder executive orders have become a tool of choice for Obama. The White House portrays this order as part of his  “We Can’t Wait” campaign to create jobs and grow the economy. [6]

While the President’s choice of Disney World left him open to charges by Republican candidate Mitt Romney that he’s living in a “fantasyland” [7], at least the choice of “Main Street USA” as the backdrop was on message.

The President’s appearance in Florida just before the January 31 Republican primary election also appears designed to steal attention from the Republicans campaigning in the key battleground state. Tourism is a key component of the state’s economy.

Goal #1: Increasing Nonimmigrant Visa Processing Capacity

The goal of increasing nonimmigrant visa processing in China by 40% over the coming year is laudable.

Interestingly, though, the executive order seems to just repackage a previously announced State Department goal. In fiscal year 2011, the State Department issued about one million visas in China, a 34% increase over the prior year. [8] The State Department has already announced plans to increase nonimmigrant visa adjudications in China by 40% in fiscal year 2012  [9], followed by an increase to 2.2 million nonimmigrant visa adjudications in 2013. [10]

It’s somewhat disappointing that the President didn’t address visa capacity for 2013 and beyond in his executive order. Long-term planning is exactly what is required to develop a sound visa policy.

Goal #2: Reducing Interview Wait Times

The second goal set out by the President, as interpreted by the State Department, is that 80% of applicants should be interviewed within three weeks of booking an appointment. [12]

This seems like a reasonable short-term goal. It builds on State’s 2007 goal of providing applicants an interview within 30 days. [13] And the State Department reports that 90% of visa applications from emerging countries are already processed in less than three weeks. [14] Yet in China, visa appointment waits spiked at times to exceeded 100 days in 2010 and 70 days in 2011.

Over the longer term, more needs to be done about visa processing times. First, in China, there are barriers to booking an appointment. At peak times, the Call Center is unable to answer the phone to set appointments for applicants who have already paid the nonrefundable visa application fee, or the Call Center tells applicants to call back because there are no appointment slots open.

Second, the President’s goal doesn’t address the back end of the process. There’s a wait from the time of the interview to visa issuance. The above-mentioned system of security checks means that for many applicants there is a wait of three weeks or more between the interview and visa issuance. This wait time needs to be reduced too.

According to the US Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, which advises the Secretary of Commerce, to make U.S. visa wait times comparable to those of European countries with which the U.S. competes for business and tourism visitors, wait times should be reduced to a maximum of five days. [15] This needs to be the medium-term goal.


Here’s what I hope gets incorporated into the plan the President has requested from the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security in order to increase the U.S. Consular Mission in China’s capacity and reduce visa wait times:

1. Adopt the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board’s recommendation that the State Department staff of consular officers adjudicating nonimmigrant visas in China be increased from the current 105 to 617 by fiscal year 2015. The net cost to the U.S. taxpayers to add additional officers is zero as each officer generates total revenue of USD 1.13 million in visa application fees, which is significantly more than the costs per officer of approximately 0.5 million.  [16]

2. Adopt the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board’s recommendation that four to six additional visa-issuing locations be added in China.

3. Negotiate longer visa validity on a reciprocal basis with the Chinese government. Currently, B1/B2 (visitor for business or pleasure) visas for Chinese nationals are valid for one year. A ten-year validity period would match U.S. visas granted to nationals of India and Brazil. If the Chinese government doesn’t agree to reciprocate, Congress should nonetheless consider legislative initiatives to extend visa validity for Chinese nationals , simply because increasing travel and tourism-related jobs and income is in America’s national interest.

4.  Improve the appointment booking system: Under the current system, applicants in China must pay the nonrefundable visa application fee and buy a special phone card before they know whether they will be granted a n appointment in time for their U.S. conference, holiday, or other travel purpose. A system should be set up for applicants to both pay the application fee and schedule the appointment in a single phone or online transaction.

5. Translate the visa application form to Chinese.  The State Department’s online Form DS-160, Nonimmigrant Visa Application, includes only English text visible on the webpage. But if the user hovers the cursor over a section of English text a Chinese translation will pop up. So the Chinese can’t be seen more than a bit at a time, can’t be printed, and can’t be saved. The State Department can provide better customer service.


[1] Establishing Visa and Foreign Visitor Processing Goals and the Task Force on Travel and Competitiveness, Executive Order 13597, 77 Fed. Reg. 3373 (Jan. 24, 2012), http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-01-24/pdf/2012-1568.pdf.

[2] INA § 222(h).

[3] Edward Alden, America’s ‘National Suicide,’ Newsweek (Apr. 10, 2011), http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/04/10/america-s-national-suicide.html.

[4] U.N. World Tourism Organization, Tourism Highlights 2011.

[5] U.S. Dep’t of State Office of Inspector General, Report of Inspection: Embassy Beijing, China, and Constituent Posts (Sep. 2010).

[6] http://www.whitehouse.gov/economy/jobs/we-cant-wait.

[7] Jackie Calmes, For Obama, A Day at Disney World and a Night of Fund Raisers, New York Times (Jan. 19, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/20/us/politics/for-obama-a-day-at-disney-world-and-a-new-york-night.html.

[8] U.S. State Dep’t Briefing, The Growing Demand for U.S. Visas in China and Brazil (Nov. 8, 2011), http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2011/11/176781.htm.

[9] Id.

[10] Tourism in America: Moving Our Economy Forward: Hearings Before the Subcomm. on Competitiveness, Innovation, and Export Promotion of the Sen. Comm. on  Comerce, Science, and Transportation, 95th Cong. (2011) (testimony of David T. Donahue, Dep’y Ass’t Sec’y for Visa Services), http://hongkong.usconsulate.gov/uscn_state_2011111703.html.

[11] 9 FAM 41.103.

[12] Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Dep’t of State, Capitalizing on Visa Demand to Spur Economic Growth in the United States (Jan. 20, 2012), http://travel.state.gov/visa/visa_5654.html.

[13] U.S. Gov’t Accountability Office, Border Security: Long-term Strategy Needed to Keep Pace with Increasing Demand for Visas  (July 2007).

[14] CNN, Obama’s ‘Magical’ Place for Tourism Announcement (Jan. 19, 2012), http://whitehouse.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/19/obamas-magical-tourism-announcement/

[15] Final Report, U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, U.S. Dep’t of Commerce (Sept. 14, 2011), http://tinet.ita.doc.gov/ttab/Recommendations.html

[16] Final Report, supra.


  1. This is a well-considered set of recommendations for building on the President’s executive order, and ensuring that the progress that has been made lasts beyond the election year. You might also be interested, especially with regard to security screening, to these recommendations I put out this week along with Liam Schwartz, a lawyer who writes the Consular Corner blog. It’s at: http://www.cfr.org/immigration/faster-safer-smarter-modern-visa-system-united-states/p27055.

  2. Edward:

    I’ve read your excellent article for the Council on Foreign Relations, “Faster, Safer, and Smarter: A Modern Visa System for the United States.”

    Your point about security advisory opinions (SAO) is of particular relevance to U.S. businesses in China. You write that:

    “Many applicants—about three hundred thousand of the roughly eight million who apply for a U.S. visa each year—face time-consuming manual background checks. Only a small fraction is denied visas, but many face delays of months or even years.”

    This echoes what you previously wrote in Newsweek about the State Department’s “vast, opaque” even “Orwellian” system of visa security checks, known euphemistically as “administrative processing.”

    In particular, the Visas Mantis check is done after a visa appointment intended to prevent nonimmigrants from illegally exporting sensitive US technologies. After spiking to take 16-17 weeks in early 2009, they have consistently taken three to four weeks since then. While the overall percentage of visa applicants subject to Visas Mantis checks may be in the low single digits, still the delays are a serious problem for US high-tech companies in China, including those in the aerospace and semiconductor industries. Fifty percent or more of the employees, customers and partners of many such companies are subject to administrative processing. Delays mean that customer and project meetings, and training sessions often have to be postponed or canceled. Chinese customers’ US travel delays are serious enough to jeopardize US companies’ competiveness with European rivals.

    I appreciate the national security justification for administrative processing but would encourage the State Department to reduce unnecessary delays. First, the pool of persons subject to Visas Mantis checks should be narrowed. For example, persons with multiple past clearances should not be routinely rechecked. Second, the Technology Alert List should be kept up-to-date so that travel related to non-sensitive technologies is not delayed. Third, the State Department should collect all necessary data using the online visa application form and begin administrative processing before the visa appointment in order to reduce delays after the appointment.

    Thanks again for your comment.

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