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

Rob Schmitz Jun 28, 2011

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

Rob Schmitz Jun 28, 2011

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.

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