The United States of America processed a record 1.39 million visa applications in India in the year 2023, propelling India to the second largest consular operation of the USA in the world, behind only Mexico.
At a presentation made to the Indian travel trade in New Delhi, senior officials of the Embassy released data about the record growth that demand for travel from India to the United States has seen in 2023, across all categories of travellers, including tourism, business, work and students.
Officials of the Consular section of the US Embassy said that the number of visa applications could have crossed 1.4 million easily, had it not been for a cyclone in Chennai that led to the Consulate in the capital of Tamil Nadu remaining shut for a week.
Briefing the travel trade on the details of the operations of the consular wing of the US Embassy, they added that the US Consular team in India operated from four consulates and the Embassy, employing about 350 persons looking after visa applications in India, making India the second largest operation in the world for the US, behind again only Mexico.
The officials said that though the staff in India had declined during the pandemic, it has risen by over 33 pc in the last years and is now bigger than ever before.
In terms of visa categories received, over half the total visa applications were for tourism, which stood at 700,000. They added that he expected the number of visa applications in India in the current year to cross the peak of 745,000 applications received in 2018.
In terms of work visas, the US runs its largest operation of the world in India, with over 300,000 work visa applications in 2023 and over 230,000 student visa applications, which makes the Indian operation not just the largest in the world, but one accounting for 20 pc of global student visa applications.
With so much workload, the Consular officials told the Indian travel trade that tourist visas were accorded the lowest priority. By law the highest priority accorded by the US Consulates is for American citizens, followed by immigrant visas since they reunite families of American citizens, followed by work visas, student visas and then the tourist visas. Yet, with over 50 pc visa applications being for tourist visas, they added that tourist visas consumed most of the resources and time of the Consulates.
They said that the US was currently running a pilot programme to see if work visas could be renewed in the United States itself, liberating the resources of the Consulates for tourist visas.
The officials told the travel trade that even though the US Embassy could look again at increasing the staffing in India, but each new appointment of an American citizen at the mission needs to be approved by the Indian government.
They highlighted that despite the challenges and the record increase in volume of work, the waiting times for visas have dropped by 75 pc within a year, from over 1,000 days in December 2022 to low hundreds in 2023.
However, they also said that earlier some Indian travel agents blocked mass visa appointments only to resell them at sharply higher premiums to individuals later. But with the change in norms and requirement of biometric data meant that appointments could not be blocked en-masse or sold to the highest bidders later.
The officials also categorically rejected any possibility of MICE visas being issued by the US Embassy again due to high risk of people misusing it to stay back in the US, instead of returning with the group.