U.S. Consulates in China to Visa Applicants: Pay First, Find Out Your Appointment Time Later

(Updated Nov. 14)

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing has announced that effective November 15, 2010, the Embassy and Consulates in mainland China will require payment of the visa application fee (usually 966 RMB/140 USD) at CITIC Bank before scheduling an appointment.

That’s a pain if you’re an applicant with a tight travel schedule. If you can’t get an appointment that meets your schedule, your fee won’t be refunded. (It’s not transferable to another person either, although it’s valid for one year).

You can get a general sense whether a timely appointment will be available by checking this State Department website, which is updated about once a week. But to get real-time information, you need to buy a special card at the Bank to phone the Embassy’s Call Center to ask about appointment availability. You need to fork over 54 RMB for a 12-minute card or 36 RMB for an 8-minute card. But that’s not fool proof because because between your first call and the moment you call back, having paid the application fee, the appointment slots meeting your schedule may have been booked by others. You’re out of luck.

Applicants who seek “expedited” appointments should also be cautious. Such appointments may be granted if there is an “emergency” justifying moving you to the front of the line. But it’s not clear precisely what constitutes an “emergency” in the eyes of a consular officer. For example, the Embassy’s website mentions “humanitarian” situations involving hospitalized “immediate relatives” (i.e., parents, spouse, and children) but is silent about grandparents, siblings, etc. Nor does the Embassy mention when, if ever, an expedite can be granted for a business emergency. To request an expedited appointment, you’ll first need to pay the fee and book an appointment. Then follow the particular Consulate’s procedures to email or fax in your expedite request. But if your appointment is not expedited, so you cancel your trip, your money will not be refunded.

The Embassy explains in a blog (Chinese only) that the procedure is designed to reduce no-shows. I’m all for efficiency. The Embassy faces a huge challenge given their limited resources and growing visa demand. Last summer appointment waits peaked at over 100 days.

But efficiency shouldn’t unreasonably impact customer service. It’s unpleasant to have to pay for a phone card only to be told by the Call Center that no timely appointment is available. It’s even worse to lose the non-refundable visa application fee. The Embassy’s diplomatic mission is harmed if too many customers feel like they gambled on the appointment system and lost their money.

Are there ways to mitigate foreseeable problems like those described here? How about making the fee refundable so long as any cancellation is done 48 hours in advance of the appointment? Or how about paying the fee by phone after the operator tells you the next available appointment time?

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