Beginning Dec. 15, Americans and Japanese will be able to visit each others’ countries for as long as 90 days without a visa if they hold transit or return-trip tickets, the Japanese Foreign Ministry and the U.S. Embassy here announced Tuesday.
Embassy officials said the arrangement promises to relieve U.S. consular officials of a massive burden. About 1.8 million visas were issued last year to Japanese in Japan.
Japanese made 2.3 million trips to the United States and its territories last year, accounting for 34% of all the 6.8 million visitors from overseas. Visits to American destinations so far this year, the embassy said, are up 17%.
“The travel industry and airlines have told embassy officials that the convenience of travel without a visa will encourage even greater Japanese travel to the United States,” the embassy said in a statement. “The success of this program should lead not only to greater tourist flows between our two countries but also to greater understanding, as well.”
No figures were available for Japanese spending in the United States as a whole, but the Hawaii Visitors Bureau said earlier this year that Japanese visitors to that state spend an average of $366 a day. Last year, the bureau estimated, Japanese spent more than $2 billion in Hawaii.
Until now, Japanese have had to wait up to two days to obtain a visa at a travel agency or up to two hours at the consulate, an embassy officer said.
Japan has agreements with 50 other countries allowing reciprocal visa-free travel. For years, it had offered the same reciprocity to the United States, but not until Congress enacted the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was the United States able to respond.
At present, Americans arriving in Japan without a visa may be issued a 72-hour non-renewable pass, but it restricts them to the metropolitan area where they entered the country.
It was not immediately clear how many Japanese might elect to travel without a visa. The requirement that travelers hold return or onward tickets may force Japanese electing to travel without a visa to pay significantly higher air fares than they would by buying a one-way ticket in Japan and a return ticket in the United States.
Airlines selling tickets in Japan charge fares based on an artificially high exchange rate of 296 yen to the dollar, more than double the official rate.