The US Consulate-General will replace a free telephone service with a user-pays information line on Monday. The US Vice-Consul in Hong Kong, Raymond Kengott, said the new telephone service was needed because of the rising volume of visa inquiry calls. He said the consulate had received a lot of complaints about busy signals. It answered about 20,000 telephone inquiries a month and processed 200,000 non-immigration visas last year. Mr Kengott said the new visa information service, which costs $6 a minute, was superior to the old service as it could handle 24 calls at a time, or 1,000 an hour, compared to only four at a time in the old system. He said it had to switch to a user-pays system because of financial constraints. A similar information line was used in consulates in countries such as Canada and Germany. 'Although fairly new to Hong Kong, these automated response systems are increasingly common in the United States and elsewhere as a way of providing information to a large number of callers,' he said. Proceeds from the calls, which would be shared with service provider AT&T, would be used to improve consular customer services. An official at the visa section of the consulate, Cecilia Cheng, said trials of the information line showed the average time taken to get information about the most common type of visas was four to five minutes. The maximum duration of a call would be 10 minutes. Mr Kengott said the public also could obtain visa information on the consulate's Web site, by writing to the consulate or visiting it. The new information line, which will be billed in 10-second increments, will be in three languages: English, Cantonese and Putonghua. The number is 900-6038-8038. It also offers a call-back option. Callers can leave a message and a member of the consular staff will call them back within 24 hours.