State Department:

Tourist Visa Processing Backlogs Persist at U.S. Consulates

NSIAD-98-69: Published: Mar 13, 1998. Publicly Released: Mar 13, 1998.

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Benjamin F. Nelson
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed how Department of State consulates process visas for visitors (nonimmigrants) to the United States, focusing on the: (1) extent and nature of visa processing backlogs in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and at other consulates; (2) factors affecting consulates' ability to process nonimmigrant visas in a timely manner; and (3) activities planned or under way to improve nonimmigrant visa processing.

GAO noted that: (1) visa processing backlogs are a problem for some consulates, including the one in Sao Paulo; (2) the visa backlogs at the consulates GAO reviewed varied widely, ranging from 8 to 52 days; (3) the longest delays occurred during peak travel periods such as the summer months and winter holiday season; (4) factors that affected consulates' ability to process nonimmigrant visas in a timely manner included inadequate consular staffing and other staffing-related issues as well as inadequate computer systems, facilities, and other equipment; (5) an increased emphasis on preventing the entry of illegal immigrants, terrorists, and other criminals also contributed to delays; (6) State has initiatives under way to address staffing problems, upgrade equipment, and identify and implement practices that could improve visa processing at overseas posts; and (7) however, it does not systematically gather data on visa processing turnaround times and has not yet set specific timeliness standards to help guide its improvement program.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: State indicated in its official agency comments that it would undertake establishment of desirable timeliness goals, in response to GAO's recommendation. However, in June 1999, State officials told GAO that State no longer intends to implement the recommendation due to resource constraints. The Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services said that State tried to begin implementing the recommendation but decided that it could not establish timeliness standards without being able to guarantee posts that it could provide the necessary additional resources to meet such standards. The Deputy Assistant Secretary indicated that State might revisit the recommendation in the future, if the agency's Consular Affairs Bureau were to gain control of the staffing allocation process for consular personnel at overseas posts. State's geographic bureaus manage this process. The Deputy Assistant Secretary could not assess the likelihood of such a change taking place.

    Recommendation: To determine the appropriate level and mix of resources needed and to take full advantage of ongoing efforts to improve visa operations, the Secretary of State should develop timeliness standards for processing nonimmigrant visas.

    Agency Affected: Department of State


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