A Chennai-based classical dancer was due to visit her family in the United States in May 2022. A frequent visitor to the country, she applied for a fresh US visa six months in advance, hoping to make it in time for a family function. She filled the forms and duly paid the visa fee of $160. It's when she reached the appointment stage that she had a shock in store for her.
"My visa interview is scheduled for February 2024 and my passport will expire by then," she told BOOM. The family function is long gone and she retains the appointment with no foreseeable travel plans only to avoid losing the visa fee altogether.
The Wait For US Visas— Till 2024
While reports of delayed US tourist visas have been in the news since the beginning of the pandemic, it was recently that the wait time for appointments, over 500 days in most centres in India, has come to light. "I was ready to travel to Delhi, Mumbai, or Kolkata, wherever an appointment was available sooner but it was all the same," said the dancer adding that several artistes scheduled to perform in the USA have had to cancel their trips and face loss of revenue.
In Mumbai, Karthik Rajashekar, a lawyer, has undergone a similar ordeal. He applied for a first-time visitor's visa to the USA on May 10 , 2022 and has a visa appointment scheduled for September 2024 in Mumbai. "My travel plans were for December 2022 but that is clearly not happening," he said.
Most fresh applicants we spoke to have visa appointments scheduled in 2024 including those who had applied before the pandemic. Travel, in most cases, now only seems like a distant dream.
"The hope is booking an appointment a year later and then attempting to reschedule it to a closer date, free of cost," the dancer said.
She said that interview appointments sometimes open up due to cancellations and a few "lucky ones" manage to get those slots. "There is, however, no pattern to it or any announcements made in advance. We end up just having to check the website many times a day," she added.
The US Embassy website confirms that several appointments scheduled in October and November, 2022, have been cancelled and applicants will need to log in to the online portal to reschedule them. The US Embassy India Facebook page runs Visa Fridays, a campaign that allows applicants to ask visa-related questions every week, 2 pm onwards.
What About US Visa Renewals?
While travel agents claim that dropbox renewals (permitted within two years of the last issued US visa) are comparatively easy, there seems to be a significant wait for appointments for the category too.
Mumbai-based businessman, Varun who has a valid US visa himself was looking to renew his parents' visitor's visa. "The earliest dropbox appointments I could find were for Chennai in March 2023 and New Delhi in June 2023. I booked the one for March and through an agent managed to reschedule it for October," he said adding that the lack of any helplines or announcements makes the process more difficult. Varun has no travel plans at the moment.
The Agents: 'People Are Willing To Pay More'
For travel agents, the US visa delays have become a nightmare of sorts.
Reji Philip of Mumbai-based Cosmos Travels is hounded by phone calls of customers at all times of the day. "The appointment dates are so ridiculously far away that clients assume we are vying for extra compensation to book timely appointments. People are willing to pay extra," he said.
Clients contacting for visa applications for weddings and meeting family are all getting appointments years after their travel dates. "Besides even when you manage to book an appointment, the consulate reschedules them without notice," he said adding that only migrant visas are being processed without major delays.
"But in cases of migrant visas sponsored by family for children (below 18 years) delays can sometimes last until they turn 18. Then they have to submit a fresh application in a new category," he added.
Philip claims he has a new employee whose only job is to book and track US visa appointments. "We continue to take up requests and offer no guarantee," he said.
Despite the odds of travel and loss of revenue in the pandemic, according to Philip, there has been an advantage. "Due to all the visa concerns and the following up it entails; people are moving back to travel agents. They don't trust online portals anymore," he said.
The delays, the agents claim, are due to the heavy backlog of pandemic applications and short-staffed consulates.
US Visa Appointment, In Another Country
Business travel was severely affected during the pandemic and continues to be delayed due to visa processes. In the interim, a search for alternatives to resume US visits continues.
Manish, a Mumbai-based manager at a software products company had been tasked to ensure visas for senior management travelling to an event in the US.
At the Indian consulates, he got appointments 300-500 days away from the event. He looked at Dubai, Singapore and Oman as options for the visa appointments.
"We hired an international immigration consultant who researched and suggested multiple countries for visa appointments. Oman seemed to have a high success rate and when we tried, we got an appointment within two weeks," he said.
The Mumbai-based manager said that more people have since discovered this option and the gaps in appointments through Oman have increased, too.
The high cost of immigration consultants and travel to a third country for visa processing, he added, doesn't help matters either.
The US Embassy in India through a spokesperson, in a recent statement, said that it is working towards reducing wait time and doubling consular hiring to keep up with visa applications. The delays, it further said, are a result of the pandemic and the shutdown of resources during the time.