US foreign policy

US State Department aims to ease visa backlog as travel opens up

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The US will expand visa processing efforts to accommodate an expected spike in applications under a new policy that loosens restrictions on vaccinated travelers, officials said Tuesday.

On Nov. 8, the US will open borders to fully vaccinated people who’ve been tested within 72 hours, while generally barring entry to unvaccinated foreigners, except from countries where vaccines remain scarce.

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Visa delays mounted throughout the pandemic as consulates closed and workers stayed home, creating a backlog that could be exacerbated if a surge of people seek authorization to visit the US under the new policy. Douglass Benning, the principal deputy assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, said the coronavirus led to a “profound reduction in processing.”

“We are committed to addressing that -- we are taking a look at a variety of means to safely increase our capacity,” Benning said on a call with reporters Tuesday.

Airlines will be asked to verify testing and vaccination status, and will match names and dates of birth of a passenger, said Cindy Friedman, who leads the Travelers’ Health Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There will be a “limited number of humanitarian exemptions issued, such as for people needing to travel to the US for life-saving medical treatment,” Friedman said. The CDC is still developing its policy on exemptions.

Unvaccinated people with non-tourist visas will be eligible if they’re coming from a country with a vaccination rate below 10 percent. They’ll need a passport from that country, Friedman said -- a hurdle that would impede unvaccinated people from non-exempt nations skirting US restrictions by transiting through an exempt one.

The list of exempt nations will be updated every three months. Adults who meet the exemption and plan to stay in the US for at least 60 days must sign an attestation to get vaccinated in the US within that time period. “It’s a very small number of visas that have been issued to folks in these countries,” Friedman said.

The US will recognize any vaccine cleared in the US or authorized by the World Health Organization, and will accept people who mixed doses, so long as they have two shots of a two-dose vaccine. People who’ve recovered from Covid and gotten just one dose of a two-dose vaccine -- a standard considered fully vaccinated in parts of Europe -- are not eligible to enter.

Read more: US airlines, White House say COVID-19 vaccine mandate will not impact holiday travel