Streamlined Program Makes Getting a U.S. Visa More Efficient

By Jane Morse
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - U.S. efforts to improve its visa process are paying off:  Nearly 97 percent of visa applications are processed within just two or three days of the interview, and worldwide almost 80 percent of visa applications are approved.  In 2006, the United States expects to process some 7.5 million visa applications.

Tony Edson, deputy assistant secretary of state for visa services, brought this good news to an international audience during a September 6 webchat.

Students in particular are welcome, as they always have been, Edson said.

“The United States and our consular officers everywhere around the world value highly the exchange of international visitors and ideas,” he said.  “We do our best to ensure America remains a welcoming destination for international travelers while administering U.S. law and safeguarding our borders.”


“There is a widespread perception in some countries that it has become more difficult to qualify for a student visa to the United States,” Edson said.  “In fact, although we have made significant changes to the application process by incorporating additional security checks, fingerprinting and greatly expanded interview requirements, the basic requirements for a student visa have not changed.”

Students now are required to go to the U.S. embassy or consulate to be fingerprinted and interviewed, but if they are bona fide students and are able to fund the education they plan in the United States, they are likely to qualify for visas, Edson said.

Edson did emphasize, however, that the major mandate under U.S. law is that student visa applicants must prove that they intend to return to their home country after a temporary stay in the United States.

“We recognize,” Edson said, “that the very best advertisement for America is America and look forward to each and every international student who arrives at our shores. We have added some additional security measures to the visa process since 9/11, but even as we strive to make our country safer, we have never stopped trying to make those security measures as efficient and effective as possible.”

He urged students to apply for their visas as early as possible and noted that students are given priority in scheduling visa interviews.


“The United States government,” Edson emphasized, “does not discriminate based on religion or any other factor in processing visas.

“U.S. visas are processed everywhere around the world using the same standards and requirements, most of them stipulated in U.S. law,” he said.

He acknowledged that in some countries a higher percentage of applicants might fail to qualify than in other countries.  “This is not because of their nationality, but because of their inability, as individual applicants, to meet the requirements of U.S. law, Edson said.

One important law governing the visa process, he said, is Section 214(b) of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act.  The presumption under that law, Edson explained, is that every visitor visa applicant is intending to immigrate to the United States.

Therefore, applicants for visitor visas, he said, must overcome this presumption by demonstrating that that they have ties abroad that would compel them to leave the United States at the end of their temporary stay.   Among the ties that bind a person to his or her country of residence are possessions, employment and social and family relationships.  U.S. consular officers make the determination, but the burden of proof is on the applicant, he said.

“In cases of students or younger applicants who may not have had an opportunity to form many ties, consular officers may look at the applicant's specific intentions, family situations, and long-range plans and prospects within his or her country of residence,” Edson said. “Each case is examined individually and is accorded every consideration under the law.”

“Denial under Section 214(b) of the law is not permanent,” Edson said, “and a consular officer will reconsider a case if an applicant can show further convincing evidence of ties outside the United States. Unfortunately, some applicants will not qualify for a nonimmigrant visa, regardless of how many times they reapply, until their personal, professional, and financial circumstances change considerably. “

Under the Visa Waiver Program, Edson noted, travelers from countries that have met criteria specified in U.S. law can travel for tourism and business to the United States without applying for a visa. Visa Waiver Program travelers can stay in the United States for no longer than 90 days.


Visa Waiver Program (VWP) travelers must have secure passports, and all passports must be machine-readable.

Many passports are now equipped with security features, such as digital photographs and contactless chips that can be read without being touched to a sensor.

VWP travelers who obtained machine-readable passports (MRPs) before October 26, 2005, are not required to have the digital photograph or contactless chip, Edson said.  The traveler who obtained, renewed or extended an MRP before October 26, 2005, will not be required to get another passport for travel until his or her MRP expires.

Passports issued, renewed or extended on or after October 26, 2006, must be machine-readable and include the integrated chip.

For more information, see the online journal “See You in the USA,” the IIP web site Immigration Reform and the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs Web site.

A transcript of Edson’s remarks is available at IIP’s Webchat Station.