The Mona Lisa of Visa Reform

Both sides are smiling, but unknowns remain

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For people doing business in the US and China, one of the most exciting developments of the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) was President Barack Obama's announcement that the US and China have agreed to mutual increases in temporary visa validity. The Nov. 10 decision brings with it improvements as well as questions.

In 2013, 1.8 million Chinese travelers visited the US, contributing $21.1 billion to the US economy and supporting more than 109,000 American jobs, according to the press release.

“The United States hopes to welcome a growing share of eligible Chinese travelers, inject billions (of dollars) into the US economy, and create enough demand to support hundreds of thousands of additional US jobs,” the White House said in a press release.

US VISA VALIDITY FOR PRC NATIONALS

The US has begun issuing visas with longer validity by default, although officers may use their discretion “very sparingly” to issue shorter-term visas. These lengthened visas include:

B1/B2 visas for business and tourism will increase in validity from one to 10 years – the longest validity possible under US law.

F1 academic student and F2 dependent visas, M1 vocational student and M2 dependent visas, and J1 exchange visitor and J2 dependents visas will increase in validity from one to five years or the length of their US program.

PRC VISA VALIDITY FOR US NATIONALS

The proposed changes to visas for US citizens to China include:

Previously, L tourist visas, M business visas, Q2 relative visit visas, and S2 private matters visit visas were typically issued valid for one entry within three months, two entries within six months, or multiple entries within six months or one year. Under the new agreement, they may be issued for a maximum of multiple entries over 10 years.

X1 study visas (for education programs lasting more than 180 days) were previously issued typically for a single entry valid for three months. Now, they may be issued for a maximum of five years.

The Chinese government hasn’t yet said whether the five- or 10-year validity will be “normal,” or just the “maximum” that can be issued.

HOW THIS SERVES NATIONAL INTERESTS

For the US government, increasing visa validity also means that the State Department doesn’t need to hire, train, and deploy as many consular officers to adjudicate renewals. Instead, any staff increases can serve the growing number of first-time visa applicants.

For the Chinese government, the agreement helps Chinese companies do business in the increasingly interconnected global economy. Perhaps more importantly, the agreement helps fulfill the desire of the growing Chinese middle class for more convenient international travel. Consider this: according to the Henley and Partners 2014 Visa Restrictions Index, Chinese can only visit 45 countries visa-free. About 180 nations' passports are valid for travel to more countries visa-free. For example, Finland, Germany, Sweden, UK, and US passport holders can travel to 174 countries without a visa.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Visitors and students to the US in high-tech and scientific fields may be subject to “administrative processing,” otherwise known as “security advisory opinions.” This refers to background checks after their interviews to determine if they are likely to try to illegally access sensitive US technologies. If they pass their check, the State Department may limit their visa validity to keep closer tabs on them. What period of validity will be granted?

To what extent will China make the new five- and 10-year visas “normal” as opposed to the “maximum” reserved for persons such as frequent travelers or executives at multinationals with regional headquarters in China?

Will China issue 10-year F visas for exchanges, visits, and inspections?

Chinese X1 visas were previously issued typically for a single entry valid for three months. By law, within 30 days of entering China, the student must apply to the Public Security Bureau to obtain a residence permit valid for multiple entries to China during its validity. How will new five-year X1 visas impact the terms of the residence permit?