Website Reviews: Bureau of Consular Affairs

Reviewed by Brian Gonynor (July 2014):

The Bureau of Consular Affairs is a subdivision of the State Department, with the responsibility of issuing passports and visas, and reviewing the extension of visas for non-immigrant foreign residents of the United States. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (PL 82-414) established the “Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs.”  A decade later, the responsibility for diplomatic security was transferred to its own office, and the bureau would later change its name to reflect this narrowed focus. The Bureau of Consular Affairs’ website has two groups of potential users: Americans considering travel abroad, and citizens of other states who are seeking to travel to the United States. This travel could be for a variety of purposes: tourism, temporary work, education including student exchanges, or even immigration. These users will find a website which meets their needs effectively, while being easily navigated even on most portable electronic devices. 

The opening page of the website is divided into two sections, which are aimed at the two aforementioned groups of users. The left side of the page is labeled, “U.S. Passports & International Travel,” while the right side is labeled “U.S. Visas.” Each of these sections has its own separate website, which can be reached at passports.state.gov and usvisas.state.gov respectively. This division strikes me as a recognition that there is little overlap between the two groups of users and therefore little need for a combined webpage. One is of little interest to U.S. citizens, and the other does not apply to citizens of other states. Most users will find one of the subsidiary pages by searching for “passport renewal,” or “United States visas” in a search engine.

The “combined” page offers links to the major sections of the subsidiary website, for example the “U.S. Passports & International Travel” section features a small search box for information about travel to various countries, whereas the passports.state.gov site also allows users to select destinations from a map. The combined page features the three most recent Travel Alerts and Warnings and a link to the full list of Warnings and Alerts, which leads to a page within the Passports and International Travel website featuring a searchable list of Alerts and Warnings which goes back seven months. In addition, the “Passports” section of the combined Bureau of Consular Affairs page offers links to pages containing information on new and renewed passports, Emergency Assistance for U.S. travelers abroad, and featured content.

On July 5, 2014, these features consisted of information for Americans travelling to Brazil for the World Cup, enrollment in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, and a warning regarding MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) in the Arabian Peninsula. Each of these links leads to a page offering more extensive information elsewhere within the State.gov domain. The “U.S. Visas” side of the Consular Affairs website offers links to information about various categories of visas including employment-based, education-based, business, and tourist, as well as immigration. A link is also provided for the “Visa Wizard,”  a tool which enables users to enter their country of citizenship and purpose for travel to the U.S. and receive suggestions for which types of visas would be appropriate to their situation. The most glaring weakness of the “Visas” section of the website is the difficulty of finding versions of the page in languages other than English. The websites of U.S. Embassies are usually available in the language of the host country, for example that of the U.S. Embassy in France.  A considerable number of users seeking information about visa programs will speak languages other than English, so the lack of an easily accessible option for alternate languages, such as the one available at FEMA’s Ready.gov , qualifies as a significant oversight. Beyond the major sections dealing with Passports and Visas, the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ website features links to websites addressing Intercountry Adoption and International Child Abduction. As with Passports and Visas, these links lead to dedicated pages, in these cases adoption.state.gov and childabduction.state.gov. 

The Bureau of Consular Affairs is responsible for a number of different missions, and their website reflects this reality. Most of the pertinent information is found on the subsidiary pages, with the overall Consular Affairs page primarily serving as a collection of links. Nonetheless, the entire website is well-constructed and users will reliably find the information they seek. My major criticism would be that this information should be made easily available in multiple languages. 

Brian Gonynor is an MLS student at the University of Maryland iSchool enrolled in the eGovernment specialization. Brian is a recipient of a Laura Bush 21st Century scholarship funded by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services.