New visa regulations for travel to the United States are infuriating executives in Germany.
"If you need to make a decision fast, this denies you any possible spontaneity," said one manager who recently visited Iran along with other German business representatives to explore new opportunities for a large industrial corporation, since economic sanctions have been lifted.
The talks went well, he said, but the trouble started later, back in Germany. When he wanted to fly to New York for work a few weeks later, he suddenly found he needed a visa for business travelers, which involves a lengthy application process.
Since the regulations changes at the end of January, many German managers can no longer take advantage of the Visa Waiver Program officially known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA, which simplifies entry into the United States.
The Iran visit was what complicated this particular manager's trip. The U.S. includes Iran, a country German industry hopes to do business with, on its list of sponsors of terrorism or countries that harbor terrorists – along with Syria, Iraq and Sudan. Iran is still on the list, despite parallel agreements that now make it easier for Western companies to do business with Tehran.
From the standpoint of the German export economy, it's critical that Berlin and Washington address this issue at the political level. Volker Trier, Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce
Anyone who has traveled to one of these countries in the last five years, for business or personal reasons, is ineligible for visa-free entry into the United States. "This is more than inconvenient, because it delays everything," say some corporate executives.
For the industrial corporation affected by the policy, the tightened visa requirements are "nothing but a reintroduction of the Iran sanctions through the back door."
The tougher visa requirements may be just a taste of what business travelers can expect in times of heightened terror threats, as last-minute flights to some destinations will now become more difficult. Officials in the United States are already talking about expanding the group of potential state sponsors of terrorism to include some countries in Africa.
The new policy has triggered more and more complains from German companies. "From the standpoint of the German export economy, it's critical that Berlin and Washington address this issue at the political level," said Volker Treier, head of foreign trade at the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce. Travel group TUI, which maintains a separate division for business travelers, is critical of the substantial organizational overhead and the fact that the new rules took effect so quickly.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Germany is seeing a growing number of inquires and a higher level of uncertainty, especially among business people. AmCham Germany is itself also directly affected by the new rules. "They apply to some of our members too," said a Chamber official.
AmCham President Bernhard Mattes conceded that there is now more red tape to contend with, but he also sees positive aspects of the new procedure. "In return, you now receive a visa that is generally valid for 10 years. ESTA, on the other hand, is only good for two years. Not everyone is aware of this benefit," he explained.
Mr. Mattes is also head of Ford Germany. He noted that the new law does not constitute a travel or entry ban for the United States.
The regulation changed after the United States Congress approved the new rules in December, at the request of Homeland Security. The move was clearly a reaction to the terrorist attacks in Paris that had taken place a few weeks earlier.
The new regulations mean affected travelers from Germany and 37 other countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program now have to apply for a visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate if they have previously traveled to one of the four countries on the terrorism list.
The same rule applies to individuals with Syrian, Iraqi, Sudanese or Iranian passports who have dual citizenship. In these cases, previously issued electronic ESTA approvals, which enabled holders to spend up to 90 days in the United States without a visa, are also no longer valid.
What upsets executives is the complex procedure and large quantity of information they are asked to provide. Each applicant has to appear in person before a consular officer and undergo a detailed interview. Before this, the applicant has to spend sometimes hours filling out a multi-page application, and disclose a large amount of personal information, including how much they earn, the names of ex-wives, divorce dates or pseudonyms. "The consular officers must be convinced that the applicant does not intend to remain in the United States, but instead intends to return to his or her native country," read the guidelines provided by the American General Consulate in Frankfurt.
The guidelines also warn applicants against resorting to a popular trick used in previous years to circumvent such regulations: having several passports. "Anyone who enters the country through the ESTA program and does not disclose that they have been in one of these countries is in violation of U.S. immigration rules," an official with the U.S. consulate in Germany said tersely. "And if it comes to light that someone has done it nevertheless, he or she will be deported immediately." The official also noted that it would be questionable whether an individual who had committed this offence would qualify for receiving a visa in the future, and that such decisions would be decided on a case-by-case basis.
The new rules are also not without controversy in the United States where senators have expressed concern that affected countries could retaliate by requiring visas for U.S. citizens with dual citizenship. However, AmCham Germany does not expect the visa rules to be changed anytime soon. "Not in an election year," said an AmCham official.
So far, the authorities in the United States have not yet denied German nationals visas because of prior travel to any of the four countries. "We have no indications that this has occurred," said Ulrich Ackermann, head of the foreign trade department of the German Engineering Federation (VDMA). Companies in the engineering industry, in particular, are now going to great lengths to revive relations with Iran. "It's clearly an impediment, but nothing more than that," said Mr. Ackermann.
Another large company listed on Germany's blue-chip DAX index agrees. "There is no VIP status," said a company official, noting that anyone who had visited Iran in the last five is required to complete the visa application. "The procedure has been relatively smooth so far." Swabian technology company Voith has had similar experiences. "We are not aware of any cases to date in which our employees entering the United States encountered difficulties linked to changes in the Visa Waiver Program," said a Voith official.
The U.S. Consulate recommends that travelers with a valid ESTA who are concerned about the new rules visit the appropriate website to check their status.
Handelsblatt's Martin Wocher covers industry, focusing on mechanical engineering and steel. Axel Höpner and Frank Specht also contributed to this article. To contact the author: [email protected]