- Tourist visas can be expensive and confusing to apply for.
- The process may discourage some travelers from visiting the US
- Visa policies try to balance economic and national security priorities.
It can be hard for international visitors to get permission to come to the US
Onyi Apakama knows this firsthand. She’s a first-generation American born to two Nigerian immigrants, and much of her family de ella is still living overseas.
A convoluted and expensive tourist visa application process means her relatives have missed major milestones with family here in the US
“It was definitely a sad thing because it was (my cousin’s) younger sister,” Apakama said. “She wasn’t able to attend her sister’s wedding.”
For Americans, it can be easy to forget how complicated international travel can be depending on your passport.
US passport holders can access 186 international destinations without applying for visas in advance according to the Henley Passport Index, meaning we almost never need to go through the hassle and expense of filling out extra paperwork or turning up at a country’s embassy to provide ourselves before a trip.
But many visitors coming to the US face a process that’s much more arduous.
Forget the post office:You may be able to renew your passport online
Summer airport meltdowns?:Things in Amsterdam are chilling out
According to Esra Calvert, around 40% of international visitors to the US need to apply for a visa to enter. Calvert is the principal at Esra Calvert Consulting, which focuses on data in the tourism industry.
“There is paperwork you have to do online, and you wait for your appointment time,” she told USA TODAY. “When your appointment time comes, you go to the embassy for an interview. You have to show proof of finances, what your plans are, very basic pieces of information just for proof that you’re going on vacation or a business meeting.”
In Nigeria, Apakama said, it can also be harder to get a visa appointment if your family isn’t politically well-connected.
Those extra barriers sometimes discourage people from applying for visas at all – to say nothing of those whose applications are rejected. That means the US is potentially missing out on a lot of tourist dollars that would otherwise be generated every year.
According to the Department of Commerce, tourism accounted for $1.9 trillion in economic output in 2019.
“There’s so many choices for travelers,” Calvert said. “If a traveler has to wait for a year,” just to get their visa interview, they’re going to go somewhere else forvacation.
Raoul Bianchi, a reader in political economy at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Department of Economics Policy and International Business said that tourist visa applications disproportionately make it harder for people to travel from the developing world.
‘They should’ve helped me’:Booking through platforms like Expedia leaves some travelers stranded
Looser COVID guidelines:What the CDC’s latest policy means for travel
“The global north/global south division is very stark,” he said in an interview. “There is an enormous disparity between wealthy Westernized countries and sub-Saharan Africa, South and Central America and South Asia.”
The process can be so opaque that experts suggest many visa applicants fear that talking about their experiences to the press could hinder their ability to get approved.
What does a tourist visa cost to visit the US?
According to the State Department, it costs $160 per person to apply for a tourist visa. They can be valid for up to 10 years, depending on the applicant’s nationality.
The fees are becoming more prohibitive for some travelers as inflation rises.
“The cost has gone up. And right now with inflation (and) the exchange rate, the Nigerian naira has gotten a lot weaker in the last year or six months,” Apakama said.
When she visited Nigeria in 2019 or 2020, it was around 350 naira to the dollar. Now it’s closer to 430 naira to the dollar, meaning her relatives could wind up paying tens of thousands of naira just in visa fees for a whole family unit to visit.
In a statement, the State Department said those fees are nonrefundable and nontransferable, even if the application is rejected.
“The department’s consular operations are largely funded by fees for services. Visa fees charged are generally based on the cost to the department of providing visa services, and are determined through periodic studies of the cost of consular services, including visa services,” a spokesperson said. “This means that there is no profit to the US government from the collection of fees. Rather the fee is in place to recover the cost to the US government of providing the service.”
Is there a doctor onboard?:In-flight medical kits may not have everything a passenger could need in an emergency
Who is required to get a tourist visa to come to the US?
Visa requirements can change over time, and especially for visitors to the US, have become more stringent in recent decades.
“An average of two-thirds of the people around the world have to obtain a visa prior to departure. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and more recent terrorist attacks worldwide, have changed the discourse of immigration and international tourism within Europe and North America,” Pooneh Torabian, a lecturer in the Department of Tourism at the University of Otago’s business school in New Zealand said in a statement. “Since Sept. 11, international travel has become more regulated in the name of safety and security, and international movement for ethnic minority citizens, specifically Arab and Muslim travelers, has been hindered.”
‘The space was not built for me’:Plus-size flyers say airlines have room to improve
Bianchi agreed and pointed out that visa policies often reflect a country’s broader geopolitical stances.
For example, soon after President Donald Trump took office, his administration enacted a ban on visitors from many Muslim-majority countries, a reflection of the president’s immigration priorities. Even since President Joe Biden reversed that policy, however, advocates say little has changed in practical terms.
“Quite often visa policies can be a reflection of bilateral diplomatic relations or a proxy for something else that’s going on,” Bianchi said.
Story continues below.
For visa applicants, Apakama said, the restrictions can feel like discrimination at a high level.
“Who are the folks that we as a country believe are going to contribute to the society and those who are not,” she said.
Many applicants feel there’s a human arbitrariness to the process too.
“My family members believe it’s whoever’s interviewing you that day and it’s just their mood,” Apakama said. When the visa interviewer seemed grumpy, her family felt their applications faced more scrutiny and were more likely to be denied.
The US has visa waiver agreements with 40 countries including the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and many European nations. Canadian citizens also usually do not need to apply for tourist visas to visit the US Travelers using passports from countries not on the waiver list generally do need to apply for tourist visas before coming here.
Even when a visitor has a visa, border guards have the discretion to turn them away at passport control. Apakama said she’s had relatives who were denied entry after landing in the US and put on flights back to Nigeria.
How long does it take to get a tourist visa for the US?
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, US embassies and consulates have been struggling to keep up with visa applications, and in some places, the wait time for an appointment is now longer than a year.
“It’s discouraging visitors,” Calvert said. “All the hassle that travelers have to go through with the visa application process in this day and age, there could be some opportunities to bring the visa backlog numbers down.”
The State Department’s wait time calculator estimates that the consulate in Mumbai is now scheduling tourist visa appointments 848 days out, though the department says that extreme wait is an outlier.
first-look:American Airlines reveals new business class and premium economy seats
Welcome aboard:An early tour of KLM airlines’ new Premium Comfort cabin
“We are reducing appointment wait times in all visa classes as quickly as possible, worldwide. In fact, visa processing is rebounding faster than projected, after a near-complete shutdown and freezing of resources during the pandemic,” a spokesperson said. “The wait time for a routine visa appointment at half of our overseas posts is less than four months, and at some posts is far shorter than that. Applicants who have urgent travel needs and can apply away from their own home country should seek to do SW.”
Will US visas ever be easier to get?
Bianchi, from Manchester Metropolitan University, said visa policies are constantly in flux.
“There are tensions and conflicts within governments. They don’t work as a monolith,” he said. “You’ll get the tourism industry in alliance with the tourism ministries, but the ministries of the interior, or in your case the Department of Homeland Security, will be very much in favor of tightening visas because their concern is security.”
Are airplane seats too small?:FAA soliciting public comments on minimum dimensions
That push and pull means making visas more accessible is usually a slow and contested process. In the meantime Calvert said, the US will keep missing out on potential tourist dollars.
“I’m concerned about price as a barrier and these visa regulations,” she said. “Travel shouldn’t be that difficult. How do we keep the world open?”