By Adewale Sanyaolu And Kate Halim
Securing a US visa interview appointment these days can be described as a camel attempting to pass through the eye of a needle. For over two years, Nigerians have expressed frustration at securing an earliest appointment date even after paying the required visa fees.
Officially, the earliest available date on the portal is January 2024. But Nigerians desperate to get an appointment pay as much as N500,000 through unofficial means to secure an early interview date. In desperation, some of them have resorted to paying travel agents large sums of money so that they can get interview dates faster.
Uche Odinaka told Saturday Sun that after completing her from online, the available visa interview date she got was next year January which she said was too far because she wanted to travel for summer holiday this year. She added that she was disappointed because she was meant to travel with her friends who also got January 2023 date slots.
“When I complained about this to my colleague, he introduced me to a travel agent he said he has known for years. The man told me to give him N200, 000 so that he could assist me get an earlier date for my visa interview. I screamed when he demanded that amount of money because things are tight these days. I told him that it was too much, considering how much I have spent already on my visa application. He later reduced it to N150, 000 and insisted that he wouldn’t take anything less,” Odinaka said.
The 35-year-old business executive who lives and works in Lagos told Saturday Sun that even after paying the N150, 000 to get an early visa interview date, the earliest date she got was October 2022. “I am so angry with the agent. I have called him several times to do something about the interview date he got for me but he said his hands are tied. He begged me to accept the date he got for me. The annoying thing is that he no longer picks my calls”, Odinaka lamented.
Forty-year-old Michael Ajani is confused at the moment. He said he applied for a visa since last year December and up till now, he hasn’t been interviewed. The father of four revealed that the interview date he got was September 2022. According to him, he is supposed to attend a work-related conference next month and if he doesn’t get his visa this month, the money he paid will be wasted.
“I have tried calling the customer care numbers on the US Embassy website and they are not helping matters. I have explained my predicament to them but they seem not to be interested in helping me resolve this issue. The way they are frustrating Nigerians is not fair. We didn’t apply for the visas free of charge, so why are they making it look as if they are doing us a favour?” Ajani queried.
Ajani stated that he has been attending the work conference for years and doesn’t understand why there are no visa appointment dates for this year. He revealed that he contacted a visa facilitator who told him on the phone that he could get him a date if he paid N250, 000 immediately into his account. When he queried the agent on why he wanted such a huge amount of money for something as simple as an interview date, the young man told him that Ajani wasn’t ready to get his visa yet and hung up on him.
Ajani said: “I was speechless when he hung up on me. I thought the US Embassy said there are no available dates until later, how come these visa facilitators have dates to sell to people at exorbitant prices? The annoying thing about paying these guys huge sums of money to get interview dates is that you are not even sure you will get the visa. Getting a visa appointment date doesn’t mean your visa will be approved. This is not fair.”
When the reporter visited the US Embassy in Lagos, a businesswoman who later identified herself as Perpetual Alofe was seen pacing up and down while on the phone. She was telling the person on the line to come to the embassy to rectify the problem with her appointment date. Visibly angry and speaking in a raised voice, the woman was threatening to arrest the person she was talking to if he didn’t come to the embassy to meet her.
Minutes after she was done with her call, Alofe started lamenting to the people around her about how her agent promised to get her an appointment date, collected money from her but when she got to the embassy on the said date, she didn’t hear her name. “I have been here since 7am and this is 11am and I haven’t heard my name. I paid my agent to get me a date and he promised to do so. I just wasted my time today as I have spent hours sitting here doing nothing. I have been calling him to come here for over an hour and he’s nowhere to be found. I have told him that I will track him and arrest him because I met him here at the embassy.”
According to Alofe, the agent helped her fill her form online and when it came to selecting interview dates, the page displayed a ‘no available dates’ notice. She added that he assured her she would get an interview date this month if she paid him a certain amount of money. She said the agent told her that sometimes, they monitor the US immigration portal during a particular time of the day to get appointment dates, then, they click on it immediately to get interview dates for their clients.
Even though her agent told her he did his best to get her a closer interview date, Alofe said she didn’t believe him. She wanted him to come and tell her that face to face instead of hiding and refusing to confront her. “I have known this guy for two years and he handles my travel arrangements. I don’t want to believe he scammed me. I want my money back if he can’t get me what I want. I have planned what I want to do in the US and mapped out the time frame I want to spend there. I don’t want anybody to scatter my plans”, she said.
Twenty-four-year-old Victory Osaremen is a student who wanted to travel to the United States for vacation this year. He applied for US tourist visa last year and got November this year for his visa interview. Not satisfied with the date he got, Osaremen told Saturday Sun that his mother helped him contact a visa facilitator who promised to get him a date three months after his online application.
While he was happy that he would get an earlier date for his visa interview, Osaremen said he was not comfortable with the amount of money the guy asked for. “The visa facilitator asked for N300, 000 to help me. Even though my mother was ready to pay the money, I told her not to do it because the whole process looked like a scam to me. I later explained to my mother that she shouldn’t waste money on getting me a new date and that I could wait until November. I told her to give me the money to add to my travel expenses when I finally get my visa November.”
Mrs. Gladys Adepeju resides in Abuja. She said that she applied for a US visa for herself and her two children last September because they wanted to travel for the summer holiday this year. Adepeju revealed that after applying for the tourist visa on the portal, the date she got for their visa interview was September this year. She stated that it wasn’t what she wanted because schools would resume in September and she had wanted to travel with her children in August.
“My husband resides in the United States and my children and I travel every two years to visit him in the summer. We couldn’t travel in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic and right now, I don’t know if we will travel this year because of this visa appointment date issue. If we don’t make this trip, it means, we have to wait until next year or 2024 before I can be with my husband again. It’s not fair,” she stated.
Adepeju who runs her two businesses in Abuja said she didn’t understand why it is getting more difficult for Nigerians to get US visas. She noted that in the past, it wasn’t cumbersome or strenuous to get appointment dates. “But these days, it seems there’s a deliberate effort to frustrate Nigerians who have intentions of travelling to the United States,” she lamented.
She said: “Some of my friends here have paid travel agents to help them get dates earlier than the ones they got and it didn’t go well in most cases. One of my friends who got a date in April next year paid a travel agent to get another date and unfortunately for her, she got a visa appointment date for October next year instead. I don’t want to suffer the same fate and that’s why I’m waiting patiently for the September date that I got.”
US MISSION: STOP DEALING WITH VISA FACILITATORS
Susan Tuller, the U.S. Consular Coordinator in February this year advised Nigerians against transacting business with touts seemingly manipulating the visa appointment system.
While admitting knowledge of the illegal activities of the travel agents, she said there was little the US Mission could do.
Speaking in Lagos, Ms Tuller noted: “Unfortunately, visa facilitators and travel agents, and some others manipulate our visa appointment system for their own financial gain.
“And even though in Lagos, they operate in the parking lot right next door to our Consular operations, we really have little control over that because they’re not operating on our property and we can’t police them ourselves.
“Unfortunately, the visa facilitators here operate with impunity. They operate for financial gain. And as long as they are allowed to do that and as long as Nigerians continue to pay very high fees to them to get an appointment, that will likely continue and that makes it very hard for us to really control the number of visa appointments that we make available.
“One of the real challenges with paying somebody for the appointment is that the visa facilitators use fake information to book these appointments. So then when you buy an appointment from them, you don’t know the information they’ve put in the system. Once the information is entered into the system, this system is part of your consular service record with us.
“And we see a lot of people who pay the facilitator who doesn’t even know what was used to book the appointment and then they come in and we are not able to see them because the information in the system doesn’t match the information they have on their passports and what they are telling us.
“I really urge people to do this themselves. Don’t pay somebody to do it for you and you don’t know what will come of that. All of the information is available to the public on ustraveldocs.com.”
WHAT COVID-19 CAUSED
The challenge around the visa interview which used to be a seamless exercise, started shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic where the United States Consulate in Lagos and the Embassy in Abuja had to battle with a backlog of applicants.
Thousands of applicants scheduled to attend interviews during the COVID-19 pandemic had to be rescheduled to a future date. The huge backlog of applicants is what is yet to be cleared till today.
Some observers who are close to the workings of the consulate in Lagos and Embassy in Abuja alluded to the fact that they appear to be overwhelmed due to the huge number of applicants, especially in the face of acute shortage of manpower.
But to address the challenge of backlog of applicants, the United States Mission in Nigeria had in February 2022, announced the resumption of Drop Box Services for those with previously issued US visas which expired in the last 24 months.
However, this window of opportunity for Drop Box does not cover fresh US visa applicants. That is, those applying for a US visa for the first time. Such category of applicants must schedule a regular appointment.
A statement by the US Mission explained that the applicants will also qualify if they meet the following criteria including that their previous visa was issued in Nigeria; is in the same classification as their current application and was a full validity, multiple entry visa.
“Those applying for United States visas may be eligible for a visa renewal without an interview if their application is for a B1/B2, F, M, J (academic only), H, L or C1/D (combined only) visa,” the US mission in Nigeria has said.
Also, the applicants’ visa must have expired within the last 24 months or will expire in the next three months from the date of application.
They will be required to provide all their passports covering the entire period since receiving the previous visa and the passport with the most recent visa.
Also, such applicants must have never been arrested or convicted of any crime or offence in the United States, even if they later received a waiver or pardon; and they must have never worked without authorization or remained beyond their permitted time in the United States.
This set of rules is contained in a mailed statement which followed earlier announcement by the mission that the United States has lifted the restriction on drop box service or interview waiver for those renewing visas in Nigeria.
In the statement titled, ‘Limited No-Interview Visa Renewals Now Available’, the U.S. Mission said it will now expand visa services to assist non-immigrant visa applicants in Nigeria who qualify to renew their visa.
However, the number of qualified applicants who can apply using the new procedures will be limited initially.
“If you are qualified based on the above criteria, visit https://www.ustraveldocs.com/ng to start your application.
“Please note that processing times for the program are expected to be up to two months and you will not be able to retrieve your passport during that time.
“Each applicant must individually meet the criteria; minors can apply without an interview only if they meet the eligibility criteria on their own,” the Mission further indicated.
However, those with a life-or-death emergency may request an expedited, in-person interview, but, to accommodate No-Interview Visa Renewals, appointments will be very limited.
“Business travel, conferences, weddings and graduations are not considered emergencies,” it clarified.
“If you have an emergency and need to travel immediately, please follow the guidance provided at https://www.ustraveldocs.com/ng or +234-1-227-8955 to request an emergency appointment.
“Special Note: Third parties unaffiliated with U.S. Embassy Abuja and Consulate General Lagos may seek to take advantage of various visa services to target visa applicants with fraudulent offers or claims.”
Applicants are required to fill out their own forms and make their appointments themselves via the Embassy’s official websites.
The Mission further assured that as future opportunities for Interview Waiver appointments become available, they will be communicated through its website