US plans to charge for visas

HONG Kong residents applying for or changing their United States visas will have to carry the cost of the cash-strapped Clinton administration's plans to clamp down on illegal immigration.

Under the proposed changes, likely to come into force later this year, everyone applying for tourist and other non-immigration visas will have to pay about US$20 (about HK$155). At present there is no charge.

And those Hong Kong citizens in the US who currently pay charges for services - such as re-entry permits or applications for relatives to join them in the United States - will see those charges rise by an estimated 10 to 15 per cent.

The cost of airline tickets to and from the US will also rise slightly as the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) passes on an increase in the inspection fee for all those landing on US soil.

Although officials also plan to clamp down on those living and working illegally in the US, they stressed yesterday there were no imminent plans to reduce the amount of visas on offer to bona fide applicants wishing to emigrate to the country.

The new charges are to help pay for the new Expedited Exclusion Bill, which includes a massive US$172 million package to upgrade immigration procedures and help fight the rise in illegal aliens.

The new non-immigrant visa charge is being sought to help fund a US$45 million programme to extend Machine Readable Visas (MRV) throughout the globe.

Figures obtained from the US Consulate yesterday showed that 82,717 non-immigrant visas had been issued in Hong Kong between January and August, compared to 131,589 for the whole of last year.

Hong Kong and US missions in other developed nations already issue MRVs, which have digitised photos and are more difficult to forge.

But the State Department wants to speed up the programme, since half of the visas still in circulation - especially in potential forgery blackspots such as China - are the old, stamped visas.

''As long as we are still using old-style visas somewhere, we are still vulnerable,'' said a State Department spokesman.

''We think that when people are paying US$20 for a visa that lasts 10 years, compared to the total cost of their holiday, it's not that much. It's not something that we relish doing, but at this time it is necessary.'' The visas have traditionally been issued free on a reciprocal basis with those countries (Britain in Hong Kong's case) which do not charge US citizens for their visas.

Air passengers, who currently have US$5 built into the cost of their ticket to pay for the US immigration inspection upon landing, will now have to pay US$6. Airlines are believed to have objected to the plan.

Cruise ship passengers, who used to be exempt, will now be asked to pay the full US$6.

The Government will also use the money to upgrade its computerised checks on the background of all visa applicants.

Various INS examination fees are expected to rise about 10 to 15 per cent, including: re-entry permits (commonly used by spouses and children of a male resident) which now cost US$65; applications to replace an alien registration card, which now costs US$70; and requests for relatives to join family in the US - popular among Hong Kong emigrants - which are now US$75 to process.

Meanwhile, a US Consulate spokesman said any Hong Kong residents intending to hold both Britsh Dependent Territories Citizen passports and British National (Overseas) passports could only receive one visa.

''We recognise both passports but it is still one person one visa, so people must choose which passport they want their visa in,'' he said.