Applying for a visa to visit the United States is about to get easier from Hong Kong and Macau - but don't expect it to get any faster.
Announcing a new website and free phone service yesterday, US consular chief for the two cities, George Hogeman, said the visa application procedure would still take "a couple of days" but would be more convenient.
At present, there are five steps in the process: complete an application form; pay the fee at Dah Sing Bank or Banco Comercial de Macau; schedule an interview time at the embassy or consulate; attend the interview; and return to the consulate two days later to pick up your passport.
But from tomorrow, while the steps will be similar, applicants will be able to make appointments online or by speaking to a call centre agent via a free phone number.
Paying fees and collecting visas will also be more convenient. Instead of designated banks, applicants will be able to pay fees at any 7-Eleven outlet.
There will also be a free delivery service for passports, or they can be collected from service centres in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kwun Tong or Wan Chai.
Visa pricing will remain the same - starting at US$160, and valid for 10 years.
Some 49,000 people in Hong Kong applied for a US visa last year, up 41 per cent from 2008.
The US added Taiwan to its visa waiver list last year, meaning Taiwanese passport holders can travel to the country and stay for up to 90 days without a visa.
Japan, South Korea and Singapore are also in the programme. But Hong Kong has yet to be added to the list.
The visa success rate for Hong Kong passport holders is 98.3 per cent, Hogeman said.
"Most people get 10-year visas with little or no waiting," he said.
He added that a US tourism promotion office would be set up in the city this year.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong lifted an eight-year ban on imports of beef on the bone from the United States after the outbreak of mad cow disease there.
The first shipments arrived by air last week and will be sold here next month.
The US Meat Export Federation said nearly 50,000 tonnes of US beef were exported to Hong Kong last year. It expected the US market share to rise from 28 to 35 per cent in the next 12 months.