This blog is one in a series by experts across the Center for Global Development ahead of the 2022 US-Africa Leaders Summit. These posts aim to re-examine US-Africa policy and put forward recommendations to deliver on a more resilient, deeper, and mutually beneficial partnership between the United States and the nations of Africa.
America’s dysfunctional visa system threatens a White House Summit—and US national security.
Powwater, an American technology startup which delivers clean water in Kenya, was recently invited to pitch a major Silicon Valley investor. But when the company tried to bring their Kenyan chief product officer to California, she was told the next available visa appointment was in June. . . of 2024.
This lost opportunity for an American company and a budding entrepreneur is disruptive, avoidable, and common: the inability to issue timely visas hampers thousands of American companies. In fact, the broken US visa system threatens broader goals of rebuilding America’s economic competitiveness and credibility as an international partner.
Visas will loom large when President Biden hosts 49 African leaders December 13-15. The wait time for a visitor visa appointment in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, is now 666 days; waits of at least three months are now common at US consulates across the continent. In an ironic twist, the administration had to create a special visa track for participants in the White House’s own summit from civil society and the business community.
The purpose of the summit is to bolster US relations with the fast-growing continent, boost trade and investment, and counter the rising influence of China and Russia. The White House’s unspoken objective is to rehabilitate America's reputation as a reliable ally that treats partners with respect (and doesn’t call them “sh*ithole countries”). But these high-minded strategic goals could be undermined if the US cannot fulfill the basic government function of issuing visitor visas.
An entire day of the summit is dedicated to boosting trade and investment, yet African entrepreneurs and business leaders often cannot get a visa to come here. Travel is the lifeblood for business relationships connecting Americans and foreign partners.
African wait times are far from the longest. According to the State Department's own data, the average wait today for a visa appointment in India is over 900 days, in Colombia over 700, in Mexico over 600. Meanwhile, average wait times in peer countries like the UK and Australia are under 50 days.
When a foreign national wants to come to the United States for business, tourism, or to see family, they must interview in person at a US consulate (unless they are a citizen of certain waived countries). Under pressure from the pandemic and shortages of overseas staff, the system effectively collapsed in many overseas US consulates.
The impact of a broken visa system is huge for the United States. The US Travel Association estimates that in 2023, the US will lose 6.6 million visitors and nearly $12 billion in lost travel spending because of visa delays.
The visa hassle also disrupts people’s lives and keeps families apart. A colleague of ours, Divyansh Kaushik, just completed his PhD at Carnegie Mellon, but the ceremony will be a lonely one since his parents can’t get a visa appointment until 2025.
Finally, the inability to issue visas has serious knock-on effects to big-ticket US national security and economic competitiveness issues. Countering strategic competitors like China and Russia requires providing a credible and trusted alternative, one that does not treat non-Europeans as second class. Long delays erode US soft power. A two-year wait just for a visa appointment makes America appear dysfunctional, incompetent, and even insulting—and international leaders aren’t shy about saying so.
To ease the visa backlog, the administration must surge resources. A decade ago, when complaints rolled in that visa waits had become too long (a fraction of what they are today), President Obama issued an executive order setting 21 days as the target. If the White House wanted to keep pressure on the State Department, they could reinstitute Obama’s 21-day goal.
Other small sensible changes could also help save time and paperwork, such as issuing longer visas and processing visa renewals domestically for visitors already in the United States to ease the burden at foreign consulates.
Over the long term, it’s time to modernize the entire visa process. Our current system no longer makes sense in the digital age when remote interviews and digital document submission are possible. A domestic visa specialist could do the same job faster and for a fraction of the cost as sending a foreign service officer overseas just to sit in a windowless room to check reams of paperwork.
A visit to the US shouldn’t require a bespoke visa process, special connections to the White House, or years spent in limbo. To advance America’s strategic objectives around the world and rebuild our domestic industries will require that we urgently fix—and rethink—our broken visa system.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.