Extension of Visa Waiver Authority Praised by Travel Industry

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On Dec. 21, 2023, the State Department, in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security, announced an extension and expansion of its nonimmigrant visa interview waiver program for certain “low risk” visa applicants.

The extension and expanded eligibility criteria took effect Jan. 1, 2024 and will remain in effect indefinitely, though the agency will review the program annually. The nonimmigrant interview waiver program had previously been extended in one-year increments, with the most recent extension scheduled to expire on Dec. 31, 2023.

The U.S. Travel Association is praising the decision, which comes one month after the organization sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas urging both agencies to extend the visa interview waiver authority, which gives consular officers the discretion to waive in-person interviews for eligible nonimmigrant visa applications.

These eligible applicants have previously visited the U.S. and are still subject to the same strenuous background checks and screening that all nonimmigrants receive.

However, failing to extend the waiver authority and the subsequent red tape would have significantly increased wait times—already averaging more than 400 days—for as much as 40 percent of visa applicants, a backup that could have cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars in lost traveler spending.

“Visa interview waivers for low-risk travelers are critical to protecting the American economy and reducing the pandemic-era visa backlog that has hindered the growth of international inbound travel to the United States,” U.S. Travel President and CEO Geoff Freeman said in a statement.

“Even nearly four years after the pandemic began, the United States is welcoming 13 million fewer visitors than it did in 2019. Much of that decline is the direct result of stubbornly high visa interview wait times—currently averaging more than 400 days in top source markets. Extending visa interview waiver authority is a major step in increasing global competitiveness and promoting a more seamless, secure travel experience,” Freeman added.

“By extending the visa waiver authority, the Biden administration prevented a loss of 64 million visitors and $215 billion in spending over the next 10 years. In 2024 alone, the U.S. will retain an additional 2.2 million visitors and $5.9 billion in traveler spending that would have been lost without the extension.

“U.S. Travel applauds the Departments of State and Homeland Security for their efforts to uphold security, eliminate barriers and facilitate international inbound travel growth,” he concluded.

View the statement from the U.S. Dept. of State here.

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