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Visas: Since Obama's promise, processing times have improved

April 25, 2012|By Catharine M. Hamm | Los Angeles Times Travel editor

If you’re Chinese or Brazilian, the wait for your U.S. visa may be over.

OK, not completely over, but perhaps not as long as it once was.

Against the backdrop of Disney World in Florida, President Obama acknowledged on Jan. 19 the importance of tourism to the U.S. economy and promised that the waits for visas, which published reports said often lasted three months, would improve.

“We will always protect our borders and shores and our tourist destinations from people who want to do us harm,” Obama said. “But we also want to get more international tourists coming to America. And there’s no reason we can’t do both.”

Except, perhaps, the resources to expedite those visas.

The State Department added workers in key locations, and reallocated resources to other consular offices. The result, said David T. Donahue, deputy assistant secretary with the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, is a marked improvement in processing times.

In some cases, wait times in China are as little as two days, Donahue said, and in Brazil, waits can be as little as a week.  Tourism from these countries has increased significantly, which warranted improved handling.

In this day of plentiful information and instant everything, the question may be this: Why do we need a visa at all, never mind one that’s tough to get?

It’s a matter of security, Donahue said, to ensure that people won’t misuse the visa (overstaying their allotted time here, for example) or enter the country intending to commit crimes or carry out terrorist attacks. So consulates use a combination of interviews, biographies and biometrics on “each applicant to ensure they don’t post a threat,” he said.

There are 36 countries from which visitors do not need a visa. Some won’t surprise you -- Britain, Switzerland and Spain, for instance -- but a couple that might: Brunei and Singapore, for example. South Korea is the newest member of the exclusive club, whose members you can see here. These visa waiver countries get this status because they generally have a visa rejection rate of less than 3%, Donahue said, and the country participates in information sharing with the U.S.

Everybody else will need the ticket to ride.

And if you’re traveling abroad, chances are you won’t need a visa to visit those visa waiver countries. To find out the details about visa requirements, go to the Americans Traveling Abroad page.  

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