- Tourist visas can be expensive and confusing to apply for.
- The process may discourage some travelers from visiting the U.S.
- Visa policies try to balance economic and national security priorities.
It can be hard for international visitors to get permission to come to the U.S.
Onyi Apakama knows this firsthand. She’s a first-generation American born to two Nigerian immigrants, and much of her family is still living overseas.
A convoluted and expensive tourist visa application process means her relatives have missed major milestones with family here in the U.S.
“It was definitely a sad thing because it was (my cousin’s) younger sister,” Apakama said. “She wasn’t able to attend her sister’s wedding.”
For Americans, it can be easy to forget how complicated international travel can be depending on your passport.
U.S. passport holders can access 186 international destinations without applying for visas in advance according to the Henley Passport Index, meaning we almost never need to go through the hassle and expense of filling out extra paperwork or turning up at a country’s embassy to prove ourselves before a trip.
But many visitors coming to the U.S. face a process that’s much more arduous.
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According to Esra Calvert, around 40% of international visitors to the U.S. need to apply for a visa to enter. Calvert is the principal at Esra Calvert Consulting, which focuses on data in the tourism industry.
“There is paperwork you have to do online, and you wait for your appointment time,” she told USA TODAY. “When your appointment time comes, you go to the embassy for an interview. You have to show proof of finances, what your plans are, very basic pieces of information just for proof that you’re going on vacation or a business meeting.”
In Nigeria, Apakama said, it can also be harder to get a visa appointment if your family isn’t politically well-connected.
Those extra barriers sometimes discourage people from applying for visas at all – to say nothing of those whose applications are rejected. That means the U.S. is potentially missing out on a lot of tourist dollars that would otherwise be generated every year.
According to the Department of Commerce, tourism accounted for $1.9 trillion in economic output in 2019.
“There’s so many choices for travelers,” Calvert said. “If a traveler has to wait for a year,” just to get their visa interview, they’re going to go somewhere else for vacation.
Raoul Bianchi, a reader in political economy at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Department of Economics Policy and International Business said that tourist visa applications disproportionately make it harder for people to travel from the developing world.
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“The global north/global south division is very stark,” he said in an interview. “There is an enormous disparity between wealthy Westernized countries and sub-Saharan Africa, South and Central America and South Asia.”
The process can be so opaque that experts suggest many visa applicants fear that talking about their experiences to the press could hinder their ability to get approved.
What does a tourist visa cost to visit the US?
According to the State Department, it costs $160 per person to apply for a tourist visa. They can be valid for up to 10 years, depending on the applicant’s nationality.
The fees are becoming more prohibitive for some travelers as inflation rises.
“The cost has gone up. And right now with inflation (and) the exchange rate, the Nigerian naira has gotten a lot weaker in the last year or six months,” Apakama said.
When she visited Nigeria in 2019 or 2020, it was around 350 naira to the dollar. Now it’s closer to 430 nairas to the dollar, meaning her relatives could wind up paying tens of thousands of naira just in visa fees for a whole family unit to visit.
In a statement, the State Department said those fees are nonrefundable and nontransferable, even if the application is rejected.
“The department’s consular operations are largely funded by fees for services. Visa fees charged are generally based on the cost to the department of providing visa services, and are determined through periodic studies of the cost of consular services, including visa services,” a spokesperson said. “This means that there is no profit to the U.S. government from the collection of fees. Rather the fee is in place to recover the cost to the U.S. government of providing the service.”
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