From 2010 to 2014, the number of tourist and student travel visas issued by the State Department increased more than 50 percent, from 6.4 million to 9.9 million. During this same time period, the wait times for in-person interviews with embassy consular officers dropped from an average of 15 days worldwide to about six days.
This impressive growth and increased efficiency resulted from a State Department initiative led by Edward J. Ramotowski, the deputy assistant secretary for visa services, and his team in the Bureau of Consular Affairs.
The work was prompted by a January 2012 executive order from President Obama calling on the State Department to streamline the visa process for foreign visitors, reduce lengthy wait times and boost the number of international travelers to the United States in order to spur economic growth and job creation.
“The work that Ed has done to improve the processing has had a tremendous impact,” said Roger Dow, the president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. “Ed is really the one who made things happen.”
It is estimated that the increase in foreign travel has helped generate more than 54,000 jobs and billions of dollars in added economic activity.
As part of managing this initiative, Ramotowski provided guidance and instructions to embassy officials across the world; added staff at high-volume consular posts, including retired Foreign Service officers who spoke the local languages; and privatized functions such as photography, fingerprinting and fee collection. He also expanded the use of departmental authority to waive personal interviews for repeat travelers who do not pose security risks.
Tom Nides, a former deputy secretary of State, said Ramotowski helped “make it easier for people to obtain their credentials to come to the United States while remaining vigilant” about security precautions. He said this has involved using a screening system that identifies those who might pose problems, while processing legitimate, low-risk travelers more quickly.
Donald Jacobson and Charles Bennett, consular officers in Brazil and China respectively– which were specifically targeted in the executive order led their teams in those two countries. Faster processing times helped boost travel from China from 1,032,841 travelers in 2011 to 2,121,325 in 2014, and in Brazil from 1,431,690 travelers in 2011 to 2,203,571 in 2014.
In Sao Paulo, the busiest visa post in Brazil, the average interview wait time dropped from about 90 days in 2010 to about three days in early 2015. The same is true in Shanghai, one of the busiest posts in China, where average wait times decreased from 120 days in 2010 to about three days in 2015. If an applicant is found qualified, the visa is usually received a few days after the interview.
Part of the challenge in the Brazilian cities of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia and Recife was dealing with severe space constraints and inadequate and outdated consular offices, which made it difficult to accommodate the numbers of people seeking visas. With support from Ramotowski, Jacobson led his team in privatizing non-governmental functions, freeing up staff and space to do the necessary personal interviews in the consular offices.
Another obstacle was the Chinese government’s initial reluctance to reciprocate on increasing the validity of visas beyond a year. Annual renewal applications had reached 30 percent of the total visa workload in 2014, clogging the system and limiting the availability of visa appointments for an expanding Chinese middle class.
Bennett and Ramotowski were heavily involved in the State Department’s behind-the-scenes negotiations to convince the Chinese to extend visa validity from one year to 10 years for tourists and business travel, and from one year to five years for students attending college in the United States. This decision, announced by President Obama and China’s Xi Jinping in November 2014, removed the need to renew a visa every year, spurred visa demand, and is now facilitating travel for millions of Chinese tourists, who are among the biggest spenders in the United States. American travelers to China also now receive 10-year visas.
This work in Brazil and China has been replicated around the world, in missions large and small.
“Most people in government would roll their eyes and say, ‘No, we can’t do that.’ But Ed was able to convert all the people who were critics into strong allies,” said Isabel Hill of the International Trade Commission.
In streamlining the visa process, Ramotowski said the State Department drew on the experience of a number of private-sector companies. “Disney talked to some of the larger missions about their expertise in managing lines and moving through the process efficiently and creating a positive experience,” said Ramotowski. “We tried to benefit from those practices.”
Ramotowski joined the State Department 29 years ago, and has served as chief of the consular section at U.S. embassies in the Bahamas and Poland, and in other positions in Mexico, Colombia and Jamaica. He assumed his current job in July 2012.
Ramotowski said the visa initiative “moved the needle” by improving the process for foreigners to come to the United States, helping “create jobs in travel and tourism and build a greater understanding of the U.S. around the world.”
“We don’t want to rest on our laurels,” said Ramotowski. “We keep trying to improve the process, take advantage of advances in technology and continue to make progress.”