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State rolls out new online visa application for temporary visitors

The State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs is rolling out a new online application process for nonimmigrant visas aimed at reducing processing time. This is the bureau's first step to building the Consular Electronic Application Center, a Web-based system that eventually will host online applications for immigration visas and passports.

The new nonimmigrant visa application, DS-160, combines three forms into one online platform. Once an applicant submits the document online, consular officers can screen it before the visa interview and ask the candidate to fill in any missing information. Applicants must complete the form in English, but they can view as pop-ups foreign translations of the questions.

Nonimmigrant visas generally are required for temporary visitors entering the country with a specific purpose, for instance, international students or tourists seeking medical treatment. The government issued more than 6.6 million nonimmigrant visas at Foreign Service posts in 2008, up 1.2 million from 2005.

The nonimmigrant visa application process officially went online in 2006 when State mandated that the electronic visa application form replace paper questionnaires. But under that system, applicants were required to print out the pages they had filled in online and bring them to a visa interview. The new system cuts down on paperwork: Applicants only need to print out a confirmation sheet with a bar code that allows consular officers to locate the candidate's case in the department's database.

The bureau decided to deploy DS-160 worldwide after a yearlong pilot program ended in September 2009. Eighty-eight consulates and embassies accept visa applications using DS-160, and more are making the transition each week. Adriana Gallegos, a spokeswoman for Consular Affairs, said the bureau expects that DS-160 will be used at every overseas visa-issuing post by the end of April.

But it isn't clear whether State will be able to accomplish that goal. In a statement released in November 2009, State said it was facing "a technical challenge in meeting our deployment goal" because of the difficulty of developing new foreign language translations. In October 2009, Consular Affairs approved translations of DS-160 into 22 languages, but it takes 64 hours and $8,000 to develop each translation, which limits how quickly the form can be deployed in countries where English isn't widely spoken. So far, DS-160 is available in 11 foreign languages; five more translations are ready to be added and six translations are in the works.

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a right-leaning think-tank that seeks fewer immigrants but better treatment for those admitted, said the new application procedure was a clear sign there would be more automation in the immigrant visa application process. She said electronic forms aid efficiency, but also encourage third-party involvement and introduce the risk of fraud. Vaughan cautioned, "automation should not cause the review process to be abandoned or diluted in anyway."

According to the Federal Register, while a third party can assist the petitioner in preparing a DS-160, the applicant must electronically sign the form himself and identify any third party who has assisted in the preparation of the document.

The number of temporary visitors in the United States dropped from 6.6 million in 2008 to 5.8 million in 2009. Geoff Freeman, senior vice president of the nonprofit U.S. Travel Association, said the new Web-based application process is a "step in the right direction," but State should work on dealing with the fact that "the entry process is still not as efficient and welcoming as it needs to be."

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