New Delhi: With appointment slots for US tourist visas only available in 2024, Indian travellers say they are facing major inconveniences, including loss of business opportunities, given the over 16-month waiting period.
The wait-time for a tourist visa across all five US consulates in India — New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Hyderabad — has crossed 500 days, according to the US Department of State website.
This is due to a backlog of visa applications put on hold during the pandemic, a surge in new applications since the travel season began in March, and limited consular staff, said tourism industry leaders.
“The reason these appointment dates look so drastic is because the US Embassy will only begin accepting new tourist visas in September 2022. Even US visa renewals, which are usually processed within three weeks, are taking six months,” Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO) president Rajiv Mehra told ThePrint.
In an email to ThePrint, a US embassy spokesperson said “national-interest” and repeat travel will be prioritised, “which may mean that some travellers applying for their first visitor visa experience a longer wait time”.
“Visa processing is rebounding after a near-complete shutdown and freezing of resources during the Covid-19 pandemic. The US Department of State is committed to facilitating legitimate travel to the United States for both immigrant and non-immigrant travellers and is reducing appointment wait times in all visa classes as quickly as possible, worldwide,” the email further said.
In April, Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs at the US embassy Donald L. Heflin had said that 8 lakh visas were likely to be issued in the next 12 months whereas 1.2 million visas were issued before the pandemic.
‘Worse than Schengen visa delays’
In April-June this year, Indians had faced long waits for availing Schengen visas to travel to Europe.
According to IATO president Mehra, the situation is now more acute. “It’s worse than the situation we saw with the Schengen visa delays. Those delays have reduced now because the travel season has cooled down. But in the case of the US, all types of visas — visitor, student and all other non-immigrant ones — are seeing a huge surge.”
Sanjay Dang, managing director at international travel agency Uniglobe Le Travelworld, explained that there was also a backlog of applications from April 2021, when the US embassy stopped processing regular B1/B2 tourist visas during the second wave of the pandemic. “Since then, only students and Indians with multi-entry visas have been given priority,” he said.
The B1 visa is issued mainly for short-term business trips, while the B2 covers travel for tourism purposes.
As for student visas, the wait time for appointments has crossed 400 days unless applying from Mumbai, which is offering a 100-day period.
About the wait-times for student visas, Dang explained that it can be “discouraging” for those eyeing spring or summer courses in 2023.
“The fall semester in US universities has already begun so Indian students who needed to get their visas have got them and started their courses. But for students looking to apply for spring or summer courses in 2023, it can be quite discouraging to see dates available 400 days from now. The situation could ease after September, but it’s a wait-and-watch approach as of now,” he said.
While the fall semester starts in September and ends in December, the spring semester is held in the January-May period.
Lost business opportunities
Manoj Mathew, 44, a consultant with the Centre for Public Policy Research in Kerala, told ThePrint that despite being a frequent traveller to the US, he has been unable to get a visa appointment for a short-term business trip.
“I was invited to attend a two-day strategy meeting with a think tank based in Michigan from 3 to 4 October. I applied for a visa three weeks ago, but have only been able to see appointment slots for April 2024,” he told ThePrint.
Mathew, who had a 10-year B1/B2 tourist visa that expired in 2018, claimed he has travelled to the US six times.
“There’s clearly a huge backlog of visas if it’s affecting people who have a travel history to the US and are only seeking short-term business trips,” he said, adding: “Consultants like me are losing out on business opportunities and incurring losses in non-refundable visa fees.”
There are also applicants like Vishal Mutreja, 43, a Mumbai-based IT professional, who are not being able to immediately visit the US on emergency medical grounds.
“I applied for a visa in March to visit my uncle who has been suffering from heart and kidney issues. At that time, there were slots for December 2023. I applied for an emergency visa on medical grounds. But even then, they were only offering to expedite it by six months, which means June 2023,” he told ThePrint.
Mutreja had applied for a 15-day tourist visa to reach New York, but has been unsuccessful in getting it expedited.
Last week, he reapplied for a visa and saw slots for February 2024. “It’s getting quite frustrating. My uncle is a permanent resident and has provided all the necessary documents including a formal letter of invitation,” he said.
There are also fears that visas could arrive too close to the time of scheduled travel, forcing people to pay high airline fares.
“I want to visit the US for my brother’s convocation in May 2023. I’m unsure if I’ll get a visa in time and even if I get it closer to the date, I’ll have to pay through my nose for the ticket,” Gurugram-based Gautam Varma told ThePrint.
(Edited by Tony Rai)