GAO Report: Growing Visa Demand a Challenge for State Department

A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office highlights several challenges the State Department faces in keeping up with growing visa demand at consular posts in China. GAO, Border Security: Long-Term Strategy Needed to Keep Pace with Increasing Demand for Visas, GAO-07-847 (July 2007).

INACCURATE ESTIMATES OF VISA APPOINTMENT WAIT TIMES

One challenge is that the State Department in Washington, DC, doesn’t currently have accurate estimates of visa appointment wait times at consular posts. Posts use different methods–not one standard–for making these estimates. Most disturbing, “some posts artificially limit wait times by tightly controlling the availability of future appointment slots—such as by not making appointments available beyond a certain date, which can make appointment scheduling burdensome for the applicant who must continually check for new openings.”

[The State Department website today reports B visa wait times in China as follows: Beijing 30 days, Shanghai 20 days, Guangzhou 36 days.]

TEN-PRINT FINGERSCANS MAY INCREASE WAIT TIMES

By September 2007, State plans to have equipment in place at all posts to do 10-print fingerscans. This new security measure may slow down appointments and increase wait times. London has already begun using 10-point fingerscans, leading to “about a 13 percent reduction in the number of applicants processed in a day. However, as each post faces slightly different circumstances, it is unclear whether this reduction would take place at all posts.” Id. 22.

CONTINUED GROWTH IN VISA APPLICATION VOLUME

Consualr posts in China reported that their visa adjudication volumes increased between 18 and 21 percent last year alone, and growth is expected to continue. Id. at 10. According to a State Department study, visa applications in China are projected to grow 232% from 2005 to 2020. This represents the highest growth rate of any of the countries studied and the growth in the number of applications (behind Mexico).

STRAINED CONSULAR FACILITIES

Consular facilities are having a tough time keeping up with demand. Beijing is planning to open a new Embassy just in time for the 2008 Olympics. The new facility will meet consular section needs when it first opens, but the post expects to quickly outgrow the new space as workload will soon require an additional six interview windows. Id. at 22.

In Shanghai, even though the consular section was moved to an offsite location to process visa applications, the post has indicated that it already has reached visa-adjudicating capacity because it cannot add any more interviewing windows in the current space, and construction on a new consulate will not begin until 2009.

STATE DEPARTMENT’S TWO-YEAR PLAN

The State Department has adopted a Two-Year Plan to meet growing visa demand by the deployment of a worldwide appointment system; use of the Kentucky Consular Center to verify information on visa petitions; revalidation of fingerprints for applicants who have already completed the 10-fingerprint scan; the implementation of an entirely paperless visa application process by the end of 2007; and remote or off-site interviewing of visa applicants.

The full GAO report is available at the GAO website.