Travellers looking to visit the United States for tourism, business and family visits have expressed their frustration over delays in securing interview dates in order to get visas.
BusinessDay’s findings show that the earliest time to get interviews dates is in 2024, while the ‘DropBox’ option is only open for those whose visas expired within a space of two years.
DropBox is the facility or process used to apply for visa renewal without the visa interview. It is a facility to submit documents without an interview. The DropBox facility makes visa renewals quick and easy by helping applicants eliminate the in-person visa interview requirement.
Any applicant whose visa expired beyond two years and those who are applying for the first time will have to apply to get interview dates.
Applicants for US visas are required to appear in person for a visa interview at the embassy in Abuja or the consulate general in Lagos. Applicants are required to schedule an appointment for the interview, either online or through a call centre.
Apart from students, those travelling for emergencies and medicals, the earliest interview dates are years from now.
“We hardly get people buying tickets to travel to the United States for family visits, business or tourism because the process of getting the visas is very discouraging. Applicants will have to wait for over two years to secure interview dates and they are not even sure of getting the visas eventually,” Gina Ogonna, a travel agent at Green Travels, told BusinessDay.
Ogonna said sometimes, even students are not issued early dates for interviews, despite having their Form I-20, which proves that a person is legally enrolled in a programme of study in the US.
She said the situation had made more students seek admission in the United Kingdom and other countries, saying the long wait for US visa interviews was affecting travels to the country.
The travel agent said the situation might have led to the suspension of Delta Air Lines’ direct nonstop service between New York-John F. Kennedy International Airport and Lagos three weeks ago.
Delta said customers impacted by its suspended New York-JFK-Lagos service would be re-accommodated on Delta-operated flights or service operated by its joint venture partners.
BusinessDay’s finding show that Nigeria is not the only country affected by the development but has a longer wait time to secure interview dates. In Brazil, the wait time is 760 days, in Guyana it is 900 days.
The US Department of State blamed the pandemic for the backlogs.
David Bier, associate director of immigration policy at the Libertarian Cato Institute, said the two-year, pandemic-induced lockdown of US consulates around the world halted visa services.
“They just stopped doing work during COVID. And that produced what we’re seeing now, which is year-plus waits, massive backlogs and all the problems associated with that,” he told VOA.
Though wait times vary significantly from consulate to consulate, Bier said, “it is the worst it’s ever been since 9/11.”
The latest State Department data from its consulates show the wait for some visa interviews can routinely be more than a year, and the majority of consulates now take more than six months to schedule an interview for a tourist or business traveller.
In a February 2022 letter to the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, members of the US Chamber Travel Coalition urged the Biden administration to ease domestic and international travel requirements and coordinate with other countries to ease travel between countries.
The coalition is made up of Airlines for America, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, the US Chamber of Commerce and the US Travel Association. It wrote that as other sectors of the economy reached a full recovery, business travel spending was about 50 percent below 2019 levels and international travel spending was down 78 percent compared with 2019.
“Imagine if you just got pregnant and would like your mother to come and take care of the baby, if your mother starts applying for a visa today, that baby will be over one year old by the time your mother is interviewed, ” a travel agent said.
Some applicants said they had applied for admission into various institutions in the US earlier this year, after which they were given admission and provided with Form I-20, which enabled them to book an interview appointment.
They however said it was very difficult to secure early interview dates after paying the necessary fee required by the US consulate.
“I am supposed to resume studies in the first week of September but my interview date is fixed for almost the end of October. This means I would have missed out from school activities for over one month and would have to catch up with things when I resume,” an applicant who identified himself as Chisom told BusinessDay.
Susan Akporiaye, president of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA), said the US embassy had not opened for full operations since COVID-19.
She said: “They have really not opened and that is why people can’t get appointment dates till 2025. They have not started visa processes but they only opened for students, medical and emergencies. I had a meeting with the consular when she came for the launch of the resumption of United Airlines in Nigeria. I told her that by the end of this year, all Nigerian visas would have expired and people won’t be able to travel.
“They said they’re working on something and not too long after that, they resumed the ‘Drop Box’; and said if people’s visas expire within two years, they will be eligible for ‘DropBox’. This means that for instance, people whose visas expire between 2019 and 2022 can apply for a DropBox,” Akporiaye said.
She hinted that those whose visas have expired for more than two years would have to wait for interview dates. “People are seeing appointment dates till 2025 because they are hoping that before then, they will have started full operations. When they did the Drop Box option, a lot of people got their visas renewed,” she added.
The NANTA president said some students did not get US visas because they did not submit the right documents.
She said: “The I-20 form qualifies students to get dates and they use the interview option for them and their interview dates are always available. It is the I-20 number that the system recognises.
“For emergency cases, the US consulate will book any day available and send a request to applicants to provide all the documents to prove that the case is an emergency. The onus now lies on the US consulate to treat the cases as emergencies or not. If they check and find out that it is not an emergency, they may not attend to the person.”
According to Akporiaye, those travelling for tourism, family visits, and businesses whose visas have expired after two years or those applying for the first time would have to apply for interview dates and wait till 2025 for their interviews.
When contacted, a spokesperson for the US Mission in Nigeria told BusinessDay that the Department of State remains committed to facilitating legitimate travel to the US by both immigrant and nonimmigrant travellers.
According to the spokesperson, the US Embassy in Abuja and the US Consulate in Lagos are currently providing the full range of consular services, including processing all categories of nonimmigrant visas.
He said: “To address visa demand in Nigeria despite the ongoing challenges resulting from COVID closures and restrictions, the US Mission has introduced a number of initiatives including processing nonimmigrant visas without an interview for those who qualify.
“In the last few months, Consular Sections in Abuja and Lagos have processed over 95,000 non-immigrant visas. Demand continues to exceed appointment availability; however, and this is likely to be the case for the foreseeable future.”
The spokesperson said applicants with an urgent need to travel should book any available appointment on ustraveldocs.com and follow the instructions to request an expedited appointment.
He said as the Consular Sections must prioritise services for US citizens, immigrant visas, and work and student visas, only the most urgent tourist and business visa cases can be expedited.
“We remain committed to lowering those wait times as quickly and safely as possible, recognizing that visas for work and tourism play a critical role in the US economy. Regular updates on estimated nonimmigrant visa wait times are available on travel.state.gov,” he said.