WHILE ORGANIZING THE 17th World Conference of Family Doctors, known as Wonca 2004, which took place in Orlando this past October, Sondra Biggs, CMP, director, convention management division, American Academy of Family Physicians, Leawood, Kan., encountered a problem that has become increasingly familiar since 9/11: Overseas physicians complained about the difficult visa application process. This was an especially important issue for Wonca, an international conference that draws the majority of its attendees from outside the United States. The triennial conference had not been held in the United States for 20 years — and Biggs wanted to do everything in her power to ease the way for foreign physicians to attend.

Taking a tip from the Radio-logical Society of North America, Biggs posted a letter of invitation on Wonca's Web site. Doctors could fill in their personal information, print it, and use it when they applied for a visa. Biggs' team also called the State Department to see if there was anything else they could do to help.

“After several months of delving into the State Department, we did find someone who deals with visas for people attending medical or any kind of conferences within the United States,” says Biggs. Cherie Lombardi, lead visa specialist, public inquiries, public and diplomatic liaison, visa services, Bureau of Consular Affairs, and her staff provided invaluable assistance, says Biggs.

“We sent them information about our meeting and a registration list, which they posted on their intranet. That information goes out to all the embassies and consulates.” This information was continually updated as Biggs sent the State Department a new registration list every week.

When physicians appeared at an embassy or a consulate to apply for a visa, the staff checked on the Web site and ascertained that the meeting organizers had notified the State Department about the conference and the applicant was registered.

The intranet site is only a communications tool — and cannot guarantee that a visa will be issued. Embassy consular sections abroad have sole responsibility for issuing visas, the State Department underscores.

While there were still some people who did not get visas, says Biggs, and the AAFP did have to refund some money, “Finding this lady was very, very helpful to us.” Wonca 2004 drew 2,200 physicians; about 1,800 were from outside the United States.

Biggs advises other meeting planners to start early and develop a plan for helping attendees with the visa process. “We discovered [Cherie Lombardi] only four months before the meeting. I wish we had known about her a year ago,” says Biggs. (Cherie Lombardi is no longer handling conference inquiries; Ashley Klugman is now planners' contact See box, page 33).

The intranet service is available for conferences that are expected to draw 100 or more international attendees; however, according to State Department representatives, the department is happy to provide information for meeting planners organizing any size conference. In fact, it has just set up a dedicated e-mail for conference organizers and business travelers: businessvisa@state.gov. In addition, its Web site, travel.state.gov, includes information about the visa application process, how long it will take applicants to get an interview appointment, and other instructions. There are also links to embassy consular sections worldwide.

State Department representatives add that they cannot guarantee visa issuance nor expedite the process of applications, but they are “most willing to lend a helping hand to take the mystery out of the process.”

Lombardi also provided Biggs with a guide for conference organizers, available only in the online version of this article (see below).

For more information on helping international attendees, see “Rx for Visa Hassles,” June 2003, page 49, also available online at mm.meetings net.com.

State Department Contact

Ashley Klugman,
U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Visa Office, Public Inquiries Division
e-mail: BusinessVisa@state.gov
Fax: (202) 663-3899

SPECIAL ONLINE SUPPLEMENT TO THIS ARTICLE

U.S. Department of State Intranet Listing – for Conference in the U.S. A conference organizer in the United States may notify the Department of State about an upcoming conference/meeting to be held in the U.S. The Visa Services office lists scheduled conferences and events to be held in the U.S. where significant international attendance (generally including a foreign attendance of 100 or more persons) is expected on our internal Intranet system as a communications tool to U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide. This announcement is for conference and event communications purposes only. It is suggested that announcements be made well in advance of the conference or event (2-6 months or more in advance is suggested).

To request an announcement of the conference or event, please send the following information via email:

Date(s) when conference or event is to be held.
Titles/name of conference or event.
Description of conference in the form of a brief explanation of the purpose, sponsorship and size of the conference.
General explanation of international attendance expected (Number and/or listing of countries, is 20 or less)
Location of the conference as in where it will be held, city/state.
Expected overall attendance and expected international attendance.
Point of contact (conference/event organizer): Contact name, title, address, telephone number and email address, in case embassy consular sections have questions about this announcement.

It is also possible to attach a list of conference participants to the announcement, if the organizer provides a list. A participant list is not required for the announcement, but, if submitted, it should be in the form of an Excel file with columns for:

Country
Foreign registrant’s last name
First name
Company or Organization
Registrant’s title

Also include the conference name and inclusive dates of the conference at the top of the participant list. This participant list would need to be kept up-to-date. A file can be sent every week or, several weeks, as the list changes. When resending the updated list, send the entire list with new registrants/participants added.

Coming to the United States – Visa Related Information for U.S. Conference/Meeting/Event Organizers

A U.S. visa allows a foreign citizen to travel to a United States Port of entry and request admission into the U.S. from a U.S. Immigration Inspector. Since September 11, visa applications have been subject to a greater degree of scrutiny than in the past. The timeframes for visa processing today are difficult to predict with accuracy for any individual applicant and could vary significantly by country. Advance planning on the part of travelers is essential for them to have their visa when they need it to visit the United States.

U.S. Conference Organizers – Information to Share with Prospective International Attendees

As part of the organizer’s communications to each prospective overseas participant, we encourage you to stress the importance of reviewing any U.S. visa they may now have and applying early for any new U.S. visa they may require. For the 27 countries in the visa waiver program, citizens meeting the visa waiver criteria will not need a visa. See http://travel.state.gov/vwp.html to review the visa waiver program procedures. Canadian citizens do not need a visa, but should visit http://travel.state.gov/tcn.html for more information. The U.S. Embassy Consular Section will decide, per immigration law, about a particular applicant’s eligibility for a given visa type based on the information and documentation presented to the consular officer. However, we can provide this information for you. Except for Canadians and those who can travel on the visa waiver program, anyone who wants to attend a business, educational, professional, or amateur sports event, conference or meeting who is not a government official, will generally need a visitor visa (B1/B2). Media and journalists, including citizens from visa waiver program countries, will generally need an "I" or media visa. Government officials traveling for official purposed would need an "A" visa. Advance planning by foreign travelers is critical. We recommend all foreign travelers consider the following when making their plans to travel to the United States:

-As soon as travel to the U.S. is considered, foreign travelers should identify whether a visa is needed. If the traveler already has a U.S. visa appropriate for this travel, check the expiration date on the visa to make sure the visa will not expire before the planned travel date. Contact the U.S. Embassy or Consulate Consular Section in their homeland to determine any additional visa procedures, the timeframe required to set up an appointment for the interview, and schedule an appointment for the interview. An interview is required for most visa applicants. The waiting time for an interview appointment for most applicants is a few weeks or less, but for some embassy consular sections it can be considerably longer. Some applicants will need additional screening and will be notified when they apply. We recommend contacting the Consular Section via the Internet at http://travel.state.gove/links.html. For a few countries, foreign travelers will need to contact the Consular Section by telephone. If a visa is needed, foreign travelers should apply for his/her visa as soon as possible, but no later than 60 dates before the travel date. If the traveler or the conference is scientific in nature, the visa applications should be made no later than 90 days in advance of the travel. Applicants should apply to the U.S. Embassy Consular Section in his/her country of residence.
-Under immigration law, the applicant will need to overcome the resumption that he/she is an intending immigrant. This is done by establishing to the consular officer’s satisfaction, that he/she is not going to stay in the U.S. based on strong compelling ties to his/her home country. The applicant must establish that he/she plans to come to the U.S. for a definite temporary period and that he/she has access to sufficient funds to cover the entire trip. Meeting organizers may choose to include supporting documents in their communications with foreign meeting participants. Such documents, such as letters of invitation, though not required in the instructions for the visa application, would be for presentation to the consular officer during the visa interview. The letter of invitation can provide information about the conference or meeting by explaining the purpose and specific plans of the intended travel, including an explanation of any funding provided for the applicant. The letter cannot guarantee the issuance of a visa. Applicants for nonimmigrant visas must show that they qualify individually on their own merit per provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Applicants must demonstrate that they are properly classifiable as non-immigrants under U.S. law and not on the basis of an American sponsor’s assurance.
-The Department of State recommends their web site as the first source of up-to-date visitor visa information. Information about visitor visas; what a person needs to apply and fees is available on their web site at http://travel.state.gov/getting_visitorsvisa.html and at http://travel.state.gov/visa;visitors.html. -Conference organizers and travelers should note that U.S. Embassy Consular Sections overseas have sole responsibility for visa processing and the issuance of visas. They generally are the first point of contact for visa processing status. Visa Services at the Department of State is not able to expedite the processing of visa applications.

Above information provided by: Cherie Lombardi, Lead Visa Specialist, Public Inquiries, Public & Diplomatic Liaison, Visa Services, Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Department of State, Email: lombardica@state.gov, Fax: (202) 663-3899, Phone: (202) 663-1230