How The U.S. Keeps Out Foreign Visitors

Foreign visits to the U.S. are down substantially compared to pre-pandemic times. That’s bad for airlines. It’s bad for hotels. But it’s bad for the entire U.S. economy, too. And it’s an own-goal, with the U.S. government slow-walking people who want to visit here from around the world.

Being 20% below 2019 levels is worse than it sounds, because we were on a growth trend and so we’re even further below trend than that.

Now, the U.S. still has Covid rules in place requiring foreigners to be vaccinated to come to the U.S. Those rules will presumably end in May when the Biden administration lifts the state of emergency, as it’s said it intends to do.

And traffic from Asia has a long way to go to recover. China’s re-opening helps, though hasn’t fully kicked into travel numbers (indeed, Japan’s re-opening hasn’t either so perhaps some of the harm to travel may be longer-lasting).

Business travel is still limited and depreciation of many foreign currencies against the U.S. dollar makes travel here less affordable. There are undeniable headwinds! Nonetheless much of the damage to travel numbers is self-imposed and continuing.

The U.S. was supposed to become more welcoming of foreigners under the current administration, but that hasn’t happened. There’s no excuse for multi-year waits for someone to get a decision on whether they can visit the United States.

Of course, if you only need a visa (“ESTA”) through the Visa Waiver Program then these wait times don’t apply to you. That applies to 40 countries, but that excludes the vast majority of the largest countries. You can get an ESTA online if you’re from Estonia or Malta, but not if you’re from India or Brazil.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. This is a decades-old problem that spans Administrations and changes in party control of Congress. When the Republicans had full control of the government in 2001/2002, they changed nothing. When the Democrats had full control of the government in 2009/2010, they changed nothing. It is incrementalism.

  2. There is also the elephant in the room. Fear of violence.
    We live in Europe part time. None of our friends want to visit the US anymore. Not even to see the Grand Canyon. The young males still want to come and shoot guns but parents will not travel with their families. Too violent, too decisive. They can see all the natural wonders now on Utube and buy Levi’s for nearly the same price at home in Europe and not get shot at.

  3. It doesn’t help either that one can’t transit airports in the US, with people having to go either through the eVisa transit process or gt a full C-1, which requires an interview. So why bother? Going from, say, India to Mexico a person would pick Canada over the U.S. for a change of planes and where they would feel welcome to spend their money. (Apparently the feds don’t trust their own people to catch anyone trying to get through immigration.)

  4. “ The U.S. was supposed to become more welcoming of foreigners under the current administration, but that hasn’t happened”

    Six million law breakers would disagree. BTW, the previous administration did not have an issue with those who are following the law (such as this humble reader) and are properly checked before being granted the privilege to visit this country and leave when done.

  5. @Paul “ Fear of violence.”

    Many of my friends don’t want to visit many Western European countries due to migrant violence and/or no-go zones. Think: France; UK; Sweden; Belgium; Netherlands; Germany.

  6. Yup it spans multiple administrations. It’s called bureaucracy, red tape and incompetence. The more money and power you give these bureaucracies the more inefficient and wasteful they tend to become, DHS, DOD, NSA, FBI, SSA, FDA, NHS…. Take your pick, they all have a necessary purpose but all exhibit that same tendency.when they get bloated.

  7. So what was visa wait time in 2019, how does it compare to now? So how many visitors were from non-visa countries back then and how many now?
    Without that, it’s just some barely competent hand waving at best, if not pure and simple pushing left political agenda using immigration as pretext

  8. @Immy Grant It was the previous administration that imposed the travel bans for Europe. They’re both as bad. Visitors don’t vote.

  9. This reflects what’s so evil about the government. Legitimate tourists and citizens are put through the ringer to travel and go on vacation while dangerous criminals get to walk across the border and destroy the genetic fabric of America. People who easily can prove they have the funds to come on vacation to the U.S. and will return home after their visa expires are made to wait an insane amount of time while the wrongdoers are given free phones, healthcare, housing allowances, and tuition for their families. It makes sense measures are put in place for visas to make sure people are not poor travelers who will stay in the U.S. and abuse the asylum system but if people have the money it makes no sense why they are discouraged from spending tourist dollars right now.

    America and Europe have no zones which limit the desire for many to vacation. People in Europe hear about the urban violence in Chicago and New York and are scared. Those in the U.S. see foreign migrants in Paris overturning cars and hear about Swedish women being attacked by migrant gangs.

  10. “For politicians, the red tape that ensnarls citizens is a feature, not a bug, of government.” Don Boudreaux

  11. Foreigners can just get an H1B visa and come in and take all the jobs away from Americans that they want.

  12. The underlying issue is that congress, regardless of party control, insists that CIS pay for itself. The only way to get more staff so as to whittle down the wait times is to raise the price for a visa beyond what anyone in these countries could afford. Of course, the easy solution is to provide appropriations for this. But, we are also talking about a congress that perpetually feels like playing chicken over the debt limit, even after they, themselves, set taxes at a level too low to fund appropriations. It’s unlikely that they’ll spring for money to make it easier for Colombians to get B2s.

  13. @B Did you see the news today? The unemployment rate is 3.4%, the lowest since May 1969. But hey don’t let facts get in the way of your line of BS.

  14. @drrichard – Canada also requires transit visas for largely the same group of nationalities that the USA does, and the waiting period for Canadian visas is even longer than that for US visas in many places.

    My local Canadian visa post was averaging “652 to 1083 days” processing period for tourist visas as of December, while US visas were taking (only) 540 days.

  15. The State Department says the backlog is from Covid-19. Here in Argentina, the Embassy did not take b1/b2 visa apps for over a year. Now it takes 260 days to get an interview, never mind the cost of around $400. In Brazil the wait is almost double. Out of curiosity I checked the waiting time for an Argentine to get a visa to visit the UK. There is not waiting time; no visa required. One commenter said it’s a decades old problem. Not so. In 2019 it took about two weeks to get an interview.If it’s a decades old problem, it is far worse than ever. I do agree that consular services have long been starved for resources.

  16. More than anything people are scared to come to the usa because of the increase in nut jobs as exemplified by the maga nuts, and the high chance of getting shot.

  17. I guess the vaccination mandate weights much more on total figures than the visa issue at this point. The visa issue is unfortunately nothing new, but the vaccination mandate is.
    I personally just had to cancel a trip (basically last minute!) because of that when I realized that a recovery is not considered equal to a vaccination in the US – as it is the case in the EU.

  18. This is a badly researched article. Are you saying that a large portion of TOURISTS used to come from countries with long visa wait times like Mexico and India? Or Peru? Come on, this is total bs. Present real numbers – how long were visa wait times before Covid. And how many tourists used to come from which countries then and now.

  19. Setting aside Gary’s censoring in 1 direction, many commenters are clueless about the rest of the world. This is common for travel blogs as lots of pampered Americans think all sorts of goofy things.

  20. @drrichard. Canada requires transit visas. I know a person who had to pay 800 dollars to simply change planes in Toronto because they had a DUI years ago. Canada is also taking 40% to almost double the time to process visas.

  21. @gary I had an accurate response that was removed; it wasn’t vulgar or crude or anything like that. I do think at times people pile on you for censoring but there is some truth to it, like in this case.

  22. I live in Georgia and my wife is Georgian and therefore needs a visa (or greencard) to visit the US with me. The interview wait time here was about 2 years until recently. However, they seem to be working on the backlog and she recently got an appointment within a few months, and then other openings popped up even sooner. They were rushing lots of people through in a hurry and it sounds like most were denied, but they got processed through the interview stage now anyway.

    Of course, as others have said she could probably have walked across the border freely at any time. Although I have a feeling that if I accompanied her I’d be the one in trouble, as a citizen.

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