US missions in UAE hiring more consular staff to clear visa backlog

Wait time for tourist and business visas can still take a year, consul general says

Jonathan Webster, consul general at the US embassy in Abu Dhabi, says extra staff will help clear the visa backlog. Photo: Khushnum Bhandari / The Nationa
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US missions in the UAE are hiring more consular staff to speed up visa processing — which currently can take more than a year.

But clearing the existing backlog would still take a long time, a senior consular official has said.

“We are going to continually receive additional staff well into the next year. And we are always looking for ways to add capacity,” Jonathan Webster, consul general at the US embassy in Abu Dhabi, told The National.

“In the coming year, we hope to issue double the number of visas we did this year, but it will still take time to clear all the applications
Jonathan Webster, consul general at the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi

“So, all that said, there still can be extensive wait times for a regular tourist visa appointment, which can be up to one year.

“In the coming year, we look to do about 125 per cent of what we did this year. But even with that, it will take some time to get through all the demand that is out there.”

Long wait for non-immigrant visas

At present, appointment waiting time in Dubai for B1, B2, and other non-immigrant visa types is 451 calendar days, according to the US State Department website.

In Abu Dhabi, it is 378 days.

Bindu Rai, a Dubai resident, says she had to cancel her travel plans to the US last year as visa appointment dates were not available. Photo: Bindu Rai

The current waiting period for student visas is 295 days in Abu Dhabi and 119 days in Dubai. Similar delays are recorded in other GCC countries as well.

In cities like New Delhi and Chennai in India, the waiting time exceeds three years.

Almost three years after the Covid-19 pandemic began, people are facing long delays in getting tourist, business and student visas to the US from missions worldwide.

Bindu Rai, a Dubai resident, said she was forced to cancel her trip to the US last year.

“My ticket was in August 2021, and I applied for the visa in May. The earliest appointment I got was for February 2022,” said Ms Rai.

“I was finally able to move the interview date to the third week of January in Abu Dhabi because Dubai had a longer wait.”

Australian Liana Livingstone, an accountant who has lived in the UAE for the past 12 years, said her visa run was a “debacle”.

She said she submitted the application online as she did not have to give a face-to-face interview.

“You cannot post the documents directly to the consulate. So, I had to drive to Emirates Post. Then days later, I got a message that they had reviewed the documents and they wanted to interview me.

“I was not qualified for electronic system for travel authorisation (ESTA) because I have been to Iraq and Iran.”

She said there was just one slot open for the week at 7.30am on a Friday. “I am pretty sure that was from a cancellation, after that slot there were none available for months,” she said.

Liana Livingstone, an Australian living in the UAE, says she was not eligible for a US visa interview waiver because she had travelled to Iraq and Iran. Photo: Liana Livingstone

Backlog caused by pandemic

Mr Webster said the delays are caused because of a surge in seasonal demand and the huge backlog built up during the pandemic, when US missions stopped issuing visas.

“Our operations were limited to two pandemic-related restrictions — the number of people that could be in a public place, including our waiting room, and also the number of staff we could have in the office,” he said.

“And, because of that limitation, demand built up. We're now seeing a resurgence in international travel, and new additional demand is constantly coming in.”

He said the consular sections in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are fully operational now. With most countries lifting restrictions, 96 per cent of US embassies and consulates across the world were providing routine visa services.

125,000 non-immigrant visas processed so far in 2022

Mr Webster said since January this year, the US missions in the UAE have processed more than 125,000 non-immigrant visas, including new renewals.

“That exceeds the number of visa applications that we processed in 2019, the last pre-pandemic year. So, we are really pleased with that,” he said.

“And next year, we expect that capacity to exceed even more. In all of 2018, and the entire year of 2019, for example, we did just more than 110,000 visas. So, we're already well ahead of where we were pre-pandemic.”

He said that several mechanisms, including interview waiver and mailing services, have been added to fast-track the visa process.

For instance, those with a US visa that expired within the last four years can request an interview waiver.

“They can apply by post without coming in. And we're committed to completing those applications within two weeks of receipt,” he said.

“So, we receive a substantial number of applications through post.”

As per US State Department figures, almost half of the nearly seven million non-immigrant visas the US issued globally from October 1, 2021, to September 30, 2022, were adjudicated without an in-person interview.

Mr Webster said similar mechanisms are also available for people who are travelling for urgent medical or business travel on the US visa information and appointment services website.

For student visas, too, he said, they try to speed up applications upon request to ensure that students meet their programme start dates.

“Somebody who is applying six months before their programme start date might have to wait for a little, but if you know you need to be at school in a month, we will make sure that you come in.”

He said in the UAE, and globally, a record number of student visas were processed — 10,000 student visas were processed in the Emirates in the past year.

Mr Webster advised making travel plans well in advance, and those who have scheduled appointments must check with the US embassy and consulates as appointments open regularly.

“As we add capacity and as we got new consular officers at our posts, we open up appointments all the time. So, hopefully, even people who have a longer wait will find openings sooner,” he said.

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Updated: December 14, 2022, 2:00 AM