Only 27 countries are part of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. So travelers from the other 164 countries of the world need a visa to enter the United States — and the process of getting one can be daunting.

The issue is of great importance to religious organizations holding international meetings in the United States.

In a report issued in April, the U.S. Government Accountability Office recommends that the State Department reassess how it allocates resources to its consular offices so that it can shorten visa-processing delays.

The report said that although the GAO has not measured the impact of these delays, educational, scientific, and business organizations worry about the effect these wait times have on business and international scientific and educational exchanges. For example, according to the report, “a coalition of eight industry associations published a study estimating that U.S. companies suffered losses totaling $30 billion from July 2002 to March 2004 due to delays and denials in the processing of business visas.”

According to the GAO study, during a six-month period in 2005 to 2006, 97 of the State Department's 211 visa-issuing posts reported wait times of 30 or more days during at least one month of that six-month period. Twenty of the posts reported wait times of more than 30 days for the entire period, and nine posts reported wait times of more than 90 days.

The latter included offices in India, Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, Brazil, and Paris, France. (France, a VWP country, had been unable to provide acceptable digital passports in any quantity, leading to a marked increase in visa applications. On May 4, the State Department certified that new digital passports issued by France are compliant with U.S. requirements.) At consular offices in China, officials report that while staff and procedural improvements have lessened wait times, expected demand increases could affect wait times in the future.

In interviews with consular officials, the GAO found that changes in visa policy and procedures have increased consular workloads, while staffing shortfalls and inadequate visa-processing facilities have made it difficult to keep up with demand.

GAO officials reported that in 14 of 25 posts covered in the survey, consular officials rated their workspace as below average. The GAO also found that as of April 30, 2005, 26 percent of midlevel consular positions were either vacant or filled by an entry-level officer.

According to the GAO, the State Department plans to restructure overseas staffing. But the report also says that the State Department's assignment process does not guarantee that positions of highest priority will always be filled with qualified officers, so further reassessment of the process is needed.

Maximum Visa Wait Times
(in days, as of Feb. 2006)

Mumbai, India 154
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 140
Mexico City, Mexico 134
Port Au Prince, Haiti 167
Paris, France 116
Source: U.S. Government Accountability Office