The Chinese put up with a lot living in the world’s most populous country: standing on over-crowded trains for 40 hours; sleeping outside hospitals to secure a doctor’s appointment; waiting more than a year to earn a driver’s license.
Add getting a U.S. entry visa to the list.
Applicants here have waited as long as 60 days to secure an appointment at one of five U.S. consular locations in China that process visas. There, they’re often greeted by long lines, followed by a face-to-face interview that can end badly in a matter of seconds.
“I wish there was a way to improve the system,” said an aircraft parts manufacturer from central China who said his business deal in the U.S. was delayed for two months as he and four co-workers waited on their visas. “It would benefit both countries,” said the man, who gave only his last name, Ren. “Right now it’s very aggravating.”
For the most part, U.S. officials agree. Recognizing the potential boost to American businesses, the newly installed U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke, has pledged to make reducing wait times a priority.
“We know that if we want to strengthen our commercial relationship with China and create jobs in America that we need to make it easier for Chinese businesspeople and tourists to travel to the United States,” Locke said in a speech last month in Beijing.
Tougher visa procedures since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have cost the U.S. an estimated $606 billion in spending from visitors from China and elsewhere, according to the U.S. Travel Assn. Had growth in international travel to the U.S. kept pace with the rest of the world over that period, the country would have received 78 million additional visitors, the group said.
The pain isn’t being felt only by airlines and hotels, but by department stores, restaurants and outlet malls that would have gladly welcomed foreign spenders. A bipartisan bill being proposed in Washington would provide more resources to consulates around the world to cut wait times to just under two weeks.
Though Brazilian demand for U.S. visas is growing at a faster rate, China’s sheer size poses a unique set of challenges for America’s consular corps. The embassy and consulates in China are processing twice as many non-immigrant visas than they were only three years ago -- recently hitting the 1-million yearly mark for the first time, a number that had previously been reached only in Mexico.
Yet there are only about 100 visa adjudicators in China, creating a crushing backlog during the summer when tourists and students travel the most.
“It’s not easy work,” Charles Bennett, minister-counselor for Consular Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, said of his staff. “You’re making, in some cases, life-changing decisions many times a day, and that can cause fatigue.”
To adapt, U.S. consular services expanded their hours, took on about a dozen additional staff and hope to have another 20 officers by spring. Several facilities are also being expanded.
The U.S. Department of Commerce expects a 232% increase in Chinese tourists by 2016. Meanwhile, the increase in Chinese students coming to the U.S. grew 485% from 2005 to 2010.
Despite the staggering numbers, the embassy remains dogged by charges that it rejects applicants arbitrarily and that the process is unfairly burdensome.
“I’m fed up,” said Wendy Liu, 24. The single woman from Beijing said she was recently denied a visa and told to reapply when her personal life and finances were more stable. “I’ll go anywhere but the U.S. now,” she said. “I thought America was supposed to be a country of freedom.”
The embassy has responded by launching an outreach campaign to demystify the visa process and set the record straight on rejections.
For one thing, only 15% of applicants are denied, not half, as some have suggested, Bennett said. There is also no quota for rejections.
The embassy’s visa section answers questions and offers tips in Chinese using a microblog on the popular service Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. The account has already attracted nearly 100,000 followers.
“The visa application should not be a nerve-racking experience,” said one recent post. “When you’re waiting in line, you can close your eyes and take a deep breath. Please note that this is not a test or exam. This is just a friendly conversation about why you want to visit the U.S. and your situation in China.”
The Chinese government likewise requires Americans traveling to China to obtain visas, though that process does not include an interview. Still, access to restive regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang is limited.
To visit the U.S., Chinese nationals must demonstrate that they have enough money and family or business ties that make it likely they’ll return to China. (The Department of Homeland Security said it did not keep statistics on how many Chinese overstay their visas.)
Student visas can be denied on grounds of national security. Beijing native Tan Ge, 25, believes he was snubbed after he stated his interests in infrared technology and nanoelectronics on his application. He said he now studies in Canada after being forced to abandon a full scholarship to Arizona State University.
By its very nature, the on-the-spot probe at the U.S. Embassy or a consulate can feel invasive to Chinese applicants, who are asked to tote their bank statements, property deeds, marriage licenses and hukou, a Chinese household identification card.
“It made me feel very uncomfortable,” said Xu Yong, 28, a journalist who needed a business visa last month to cover a conference in New York. “They made me feel like someone from a Third World country up to no good.”
After giving his fingerprints, Xu waited to be called for his interview, sitting in an area that was as quiet as a library. Each passing minute seemed to intensify the anticipation.
After an hour, Xu was called with three other people to a window for their interview. Two were rejected before his turn. Then the American officer, speaking fluent Chinese, reached for Xu’s paperwork, asked some simple questions and said, “Congratulations.”
“I was so nervous, the first thing I did when I got out was call my mom and tell her I passed,” Xu said. “She was the one who warned me it wasn’t going to be easy.”
Nicole Liu and Tommy Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.