On Nov 19 2014 by Michele G. Madera

Visa Agreement a Small, but Important Step to Promote US-China Trade

On November 10, 2014, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (“APEC”) CEO Summit in Beijing, President Obama announced an agreement with China to lengthen the visa validity periods for certain visa classifications.

In exchange, China will also extend the visa validity periods for U.S. citizens traveling to China in these same categories. Under this reciprocal agreement, tourist and business visas will be valid for up to ten (10) years and student and exchange visitor visas will be valid for up to five (5) years, with each of these enjoying the option of making multiple entries during the validity of the visa. These changes have shown President Obama’s inclination to adjust immigration system in ways that will improve the U.S. economy and facilitate global business and trade.

As background, business visitor visas are reserved for foreign nationals traveling to the U.S. for conferences, meetings, negotiations, commercial transactions, and other activities, which cannot include productive employment; it is typically for business activities that are necessary for the person to perform their job in their home country. The tourist visa is reserved for people traveling throughout the United States on vacation or making short visits to see family and friends. The student and exchange visitor visa category is for people coming to the United States to attend school, engage in a vocational program, or participate in a designated internship or training program.

Previously, business, tourist, and student and exchange visas were issued in one (1) year increments. These four visa classifications represent 97% of the nonimmigrant visa applications processed in China for Chinese nationals for fiscal year 2014. The U.S. Department of State began issuing visas with the extended validity period on November 12, 2014. Chinese citizens now join citizens of the United Kingdom, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, India, and most of the European Union, among other countries, to be issued visas with this validity period.

It is important to note that this agreement affects the validity of the visa stamp only. The visa stamp is a stamp entered into the applicant’s passport that allows the person to travel to, in this case, either China or the United States.  The duration of the visa does not allow the person to stay in the U.S. for the period of validity on the visa stamp; rather, upon each admission to the United States, the person will be issued another document, an I-94 record (now an electronic record), that dictates the length of time the person is actually authorized to remain in the United States during that trip, which typically with validity of three (3) months for business visitors, six (6) months for tourists, and for the duration of the student and exchange visitors’ program in the U.S.

Chinese applicants for the newly-extended visas will not be able to obtain them unless they can prove to the Consular Officers at the Embassy, and then the airport immigration inspectors upon arrival, that they possess “nonimmigrant” intent. Nonimmigrant intent is the intent to return to a foreign residence at the conclusion of their stay in the United States (as opposed to immigrant intent, which is the intent to remain in the United States permanently). Most foreign nationals are presumed to have immigrant intent; however, this presumption can be overcome if the foreign national establishes to the Consular Officer and immigration inspectors that he or she plans to return to his or her home country at the conclusion of his or her stay in the United States. This nonimmigrant intent can be established through documentary evidence, such as: proof of employment in the home country, proof of ownership of property in the home country; active bank accounts; a round trip flight itinerary; car title and other assets in the home country; and documentation of family ties to the foreign country, including school records for children and employment letters for a spouse. Greater visa validity will facilitate a greater accessibility for travel to the United States for Chinese business people and tourists who can meet this burden, and who may want to return to the U.S. for an urgent matter or on an occasional basis, as they no longer need to apply for a new visa each trip.

The benefit of increasing the length of time for business, tourist, and student and exchange visitor visas is that it allows Chinese citizens to make more frequent trips to the United States without having to go through the time-consuming and costly visa application process, and United States citizens will likewise not have to apply for a new visa each time they wish to make a business or pleasure trip to China.  The Chinese Foreign Ministry has not yet stated a date for when it will begin issuing visa’s of longer validity to U.S. citizens. Further, there has been criticism that this process will not be timely implemented by China and the Chinese Foreign Ministry will utilize its discretion to only issue visas with the maximum validity when an applicant “qualifies,” although there is no guidance on how an applicant would qualify for the maximum validity. While this issue has been raised to the U.S. Department of State, it has reiterated that this is a reciprocal agreement.

It is expected that the lengthened visa validity will attract more Chinese tourists to the United States and therefore bolster the U.S. economy. Approximately 100 million Chinese people travel internationally each year. Last year, only 1.8 million Chinese citizens traveled to the U.S., which represents less than 2% of the total trips by Chinese nationals outside their country. These 1.8 million travelers contributed $21.1 billion to the U.S. economy and supported more than 109,000 jobs. It has been predicted that the change in visa validity could increase the number of Chinese tourists to the United States to as much as 7.3 million by 2021, which would create additional jobs and allow for billions of dollars to flow into the U.S. economy.