In China, a long wait for U.S. visas

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    Nearly a thousand Chinese stand outside the U.S. consulate in Shanghai each day to apply for a visa to enter the United States. The Shanghai and Beijing consulates are among the top five in the world that issue U.S. visas.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    It usually takes from 4-8 hours to get a visa this way. U.S. Consul General Linda Donahue says visa issuance to Chinese is up 40% from last fiscal year. More than 700,000 Chinese received visas last year.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Jiang Weifeng arrived to get a U.S. visa at 6 o'clock in the morning. She's been here four hours. She's holding a place in line for her daughter, who plans to attend graduate school in the U.S. Jiang complains that the U.S. government should expedite the process.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Sixteen-year-old Liang Can wants to go to the U.S. this summer as a tourist. He plans to visit U.S. college campuses to see if would like to attend school there. Chinese tourists spend more in the U.S. than tourists from any other country. An average tourist from China spends $6,200 USD per trip.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    The U.S. Consulate in Shanghai processes around two thousand visas a day. US Consul General in China Linda Donohue says she would like to increase staff and office space to make the process faster for applicants.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

Tess Vigeland: The economy may be in the tank, but a big U.S. travel organization says if the government made it easier to come here, billions of tourist dollars would flow into local coffers. The U.S. Travel Association, a Washington-based tourism trade group, recently sent a report to President Obama urging him to make it easier for people in emerging economies to get visas. People in places like China.

Marketplace's China correspondent Rob Schmitz stopped by the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai recently to see how long the wait for a visa takes.

Rob Schmitz: In 1980, the U.S. issued 1,500 visas a year to the Chinese. Today, this single visa office in Shanghai processes 1,500 visas every four hours. And it shows.

Men fighting

Waiting in line all day -- in the rain, without an umbrella -- can bring out the ugly side of some folks. These two guys begin to shove each other for a position in a maze-like procession of more than a thousand people that seems to lack a beginning and an end. But not everyone here is -- literally -- fighting to get into the U.S. Some are fine just complaining out loud to anyone who'll listen.

Jiang Weifeng: How come a developed country like the U.S. can't solve the problem of making people waiting for such a long time outside the consulate? This is just a lack of consideration.

After standing in line for four hours, Jiang Weifeng is airing her grievances to the only American she can find -- me. Better still, I'm an American with a microphone.

Weifeng: Why can't your country make a system where people go online, schedule an appointment, and avoid the lines? That would be more humane.

Humane. This is one of those rare moments when the Chinese are criticizing Americans for their human rights record. I redirected Mrs. Jiang's grievance to the woman in charge of visa operations for the U.S. in China, Consul General Linda Donohue. She says her staff is working overtime to keep up with a 40 percent increase in visa applications over the past year.

Linda Donohue: We would love to reduce the waiting time, let me tell you. Because it's quite a strain on us when we are processing over 700,000 visas a year in mission China. That's a lot.

And these visa-holders spend a lot of money, more than tourists from any other country -- $6,200 per person, per trip -- so do the math.

OK, don't do it. I'll do it for you. That's $4.2 billion. That doesn't include the 50,000 college students from China, who spend bundles more over a longer period of time. They're getting a head start on all the spending here in line, where a micro-economy of ambitious salesmen selling umbrellas and sitting stools has sprung up.

Sixteen-year-old Liang Can huddles under an umbrella with a couple of his high school classmates. They're all holding manila folders stuffed with the essential documents for a United States visa.

Liang Can: I have my passport and the payment, and this certificate of deposit balance to show I have the ability to come to America. I have to prove that my family can afford this.

It won't be hard to prove. He's already attending one of the most expensive private schools in Shanghai. One day he hopes to work on Wall Street. But he'll have to wait. And here, he's getting plenty of practice.

In Shanghai, I'm Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.
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The irony is not just about the long lines and the wait times. The moment of truth, after the days and weeks of preparation even for a visitor visa, comes during the interview process with the consular officer. This process can last anything from a 90 seconds to 5 minutes and during this timeframe the consular officer makes the determination to allow or deny the visa. The real issue here is not the waiting time of long lines hundreds of visa seekers, it is the integrity of the process where a consular officer is expected to review hundreds of visa applicants each day. It is humanly impossible task if the ultimate decision should come during a 3 minute window without the benefit of preparatory review. I have heard of visa seekers being turned down seemingly in an unfair way. One possible way to aovid this would be to have the applications reviewed even before they show up for interview. This will help to ensure the integrity of the process. I don't know what it involves on the logistics of making this happen.

It is true that getting a US visa in China is expensive and not easy - especially if you live far away from a US consulate. It is also true that China recipricates by making it difficult and expensive for Americans to get Chinese visas. What I would like to know, and what these articles never answer, is what percentage of Chinese visiting the US overstay their visas and disappear into our workforce illegally? Isn't the answer to this question the reason that Chinese have trouble getting US visas? Aren't they bringing this upon themselves?

@Kathryn Vidal- The appointment time that applicants are given is merely a goal to shoot for...it doesn't really mean anything except that it spreads the wait throughout the day. My Chinese girlfriend's "appointment" was at 2:00. She got there at 1:30 and waited until 3:30.

Your report on the visa application system at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai was incomplete. Simple research of the Consulate's website would have shown you that there is, in fact, an online application and appointment system for visa applicants. The website cautions applicants about arriving too early or too late for the appointments - they will then have to wait longer in line! The person you interviewed (Jiang Weifing) had no idea there was an online system - so why was she in line? There is still a wait, obviously due to the sheer volume of applicants and an outdated physical facility, but the U.S. State Department has actually made great strides towards streamlining the visa application process in the face of mandates that they personally interview and screen each and every applicant for a U.S. visa.

This story reminded me of my own waits for visas at US Consulates (Lima, 1973, Toronto, 1980, Santiago, 1982). Some things don't seem to change for the better.

Two thoughts:
First, the "line system" at US consular offices has never worked well for applicants, and would have been overhauled long ago if US citizens had to go through it. The State Department acts like it's a charity they do for applicants and seems to have no interest in changing it, but for applicants is is often an experience of this country at its worst.

Second, the number of visas being issued by consulates in China is staggering - I can only think back to the great consular desk staff I have dealt with over the years, and wonder how they put up with it - your typical consular officer has an advanced degree or two, went into foreign service to serve their country, and gets stuck dealing with visa applications that are either rubber stamps, shaggy dog stories, or human tragedies (and I have been told this was better than their last job at State in Washington!). That they are processing visas in these numbers with this antiquated system is a disgrace.

Thank you for reporting on this.


Chris Barnett

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