The announcement during President Obama’s mid-November visit to China of a new visa reciprocity agreement with China received relatively little media attention, but it is a big deal. Effective November 12 and requiring no Congressional action, the agreement extends from one to 5-10 years (depending on visa category) the maximum available period for visas issued after that date by Chinese authorities for Americans and by American authorities for Chinese visitors. This is going to make life easier for a lot of people–not just Chinese grad students in the US and frequent business travelers. U.S. citizens seeking to visit China, and U.S. consular officials providing visa services in China will also benefit from these changes.
Until the recent announcement, strict visa reciprocity requirements had prevented the U.S. from issuing visas to Chinese citizens for periods of validity exceeding those provided to U.S. travelers seeking entry to the China for the same purposes. The requirement is statutory: Section 221(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act states that “the Secretary of State shall, insofar as practicable, accord to such (foreign) nationals the same treatment on a reciprocal basis as such foreign country accords to nationals of the United States who are within a similar class”. The previous reciprocity schedule prevented Chinese students, business visitors and tourists from receiving visas valid for more than one year because the Chinese government would not issue visas of longer validity to U.S. citizens in these categories. Most countries provide generous periods of visa validity for U.S. visitors; those that do not, as was the case with China, may do so for a variety of reasons, but the impact is always the same–inconvenience, disruptions, and delay, usually with more adverse consequences for those countries’ own nationals than for U.S. citizens.
Chinese students in particular were adversely impacted by the former requirements, and frequently opted to remain in the U.S. for years after their visas expired to avoid having to queue up for visa renewal at one of the overcrowded U.S. consular sections in China each time they went home for a visit during their studies. With record numbers (over 300,000 this year) of Chinese students studying in the U.S., the one-year straightjacket caused real inconvenience and hardship for them and their families.
It also caused considerable hardship for U.S. consular officers in China. With ever increasing numbers of Chinese citizens traveling to the U.S., consular officers were forced to issue new visas each year to frequent and returning travelers, and efforts to streamline the re-interview process could only do so much to reduce the workload. The number of new visa adjudicating officers in China could simply not keep up with the numbers of visas that needed to be adjudicated and re-adjudicated each year.
The overwhelming logic of making it easier for Chinese visitors to get multi-year validity visas had repeatedly clashed with official Chinese reluctance to extend the same benefit to U.S. visitors. It also caused confusion among advocates for change, who frequently failed to understand the regulatory limits on U.S. officials’ ability to act on reciprocity. Under the INA, the Secretary of State has authority under section 221(c) to set visa policies and validity, but he or she must honor the principle of reciprocity in doing so. The result–political and economic pressure from schools, the business community, and Congress to “do something” to make it easier for foreign students, tourists, and business travelers could only go so far; as long as Chinese government officials were not prepared to deal, the status quo continued and U.S. officials’ hands were tied.
The ripple effect from the new Chinese-U.S. visa reciprocity schedule will be considerable. Chinese students can now receive “duration of status” student visas valid for up to 60 months. and can travel back home and return during their studies without having to obtain a new visa each time they do. Frequent business travelers can now receive ten year multiple entry visas that will allow them to travel to the U.S. whenever they need to without having to monitor constantly the remaining validity of a one-year visa. And overworked consular officers in China will get a break and have a less stressful work environment, which in itself can have a positive impact on the quality of consular visa decisions involving Chinese citizens.
Negotiations like those leading to the new reciprocity agreement are not dramatic and rarely make headlines until they are completed, but that does not mean that they are inconsequential. Quite the contrary–it’s the start of a new era of enhanced travel between the world’s two largest economies and the benefits will be huge. Intense media focus on greenhouse gas emissions agreement may have diminished the immediate impact of the reciprocity announcement for many, but over time it will prove to have a highly positive impact on the bilateral relationship–and on real people’s lives.