Recently, a petition demanding the cancellation of the telephone appointment fee for U.S. visa application has aroused great attention. A total of 8,778 people have signed this petition posted on the White House website by Nov. 23.
On Sept. 1, the Obama Administration launched We the People on WhiteHouse.gov – a new platform that gives all Americans a way to create and sign petitions on a range of issues affecting the United States. According to the website, if a petition reaches a certain threshold (initially 5,000 signatures within 30 days), policy officials in the Administration will review it and issue an official response.
On Sept. 26, a petition started urging the U.S. Embassy and Consulates to switch to a free online system for visa appointment scheduling on the Chinese mainland. Since the petition has exceeded the 5,000 signatures threshold, it’s very likely there will be an official response. Even if not, the petitioners want a reasonable explanation as to why visa applicants in most other countries and regions can schedule their visa interviews online for free.
In China, visa applicants have to schedule an interview by telephone in advance through a third-party call center; this costs 70 cents per minute. Applicants have to purchase a 36-yuan card for an 8-minute call or a 54-yuan card for a 12-minute call. However, some applicants have complained about the long voice prompts that makes an 8-minute card insufficient. And if they use a 12-minute card, they cannot get the balance back in cash if any time is left on the card.
Ed Ramotowski, who is in charge of the visa office in the United States Department of State, said that his office adjudicated more than one million U.S. visas for Chinese applicants during the Fiscal Year 2011. If an applicant spends 40 yuan for the phone card on average, the one million Chinese applicants spent nearly 40 million yuan last year, excluding the cost of transportation to the specified bank that sells the cards. It’s a waste of resources, financially and physically.
When people in China apply for a visa, each has to pay at least 938 yuan, totaling more than 938 million. Scheduling an appointment should be part of the visa application process and there should be no additional costs. People have complained about this system for a long time. It doesn’t benefit the U.S. government while it may nourish corruption.
Most of other U.S. embassies employ a free online appointment system, which is efficient, accurate, and cost-effective. It allows only one appointment per passport number to prevent people from selling slots. An online system will reduce costs, eliminate undue burdens on applicants, and reduce errors. People in the U.S. who apply for a Chinese visa can skip the appointment step by just walking into the embassy or consulates during regular office hours. There is no reason why an online system cannot be implemented in China as in other countries.
Applicants also question the relationship between the U.S. government and Vision-X, Inc., the primary telephone interview scheduling company. What’s behind the U.S. Embassy and this company? Are there any corruptions related to this exclusive business?
According to an open report by the International Institute of Education and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the number of international students in the United States increased by 5 percent in the 2010-2011 academic year. Among them, the number of Chinese students increased 23 percent to 158, 000, making China biggest source of foreign students in the United States for the second year in a row.
Since international students have to renew their F1 visa every year, most of them are paying close attention to this petition. Nannan Xu, who is studying civil planning at Columbia University, said that canceling the appointment fee would ease the economic burden on students and help build the China-U.S. relationship. Zheng Wang, who comes from Beijing and is getting his masters degree at Columbia, called on people to respond actively to this petition. He said that the online free appointment system should also be implemented in China as in other countries. Anqi Zhang, a masters student majoring in electrical engineering, urged people to question the rationale of this fee.
These students also believe Gary Faye Locke, the U.S. Ambassador to China, should take act. When he took the new post, he said he would like to reduce the visa application time for Chinese people and encourage more visitors, businessmen and students to the United States. People are expecting him to take further steps towards abolishing the phone appointment fee.