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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Toll Phone Opened for U.S. Visas

The U.S. Embassy has set up a toll telephone number for visa inquiries in what it says is a bid to ease the process of applying for American visas.

Calls to the number, 258-2525, cost $1.60 a minute and are billed to the callers' residential telephones. Queries from mobile and work phones are not accepted.

The line opened Monday.

The number, which the embassy set up jointly with Russian telephone company Direct Star, is the result of months of research into how to improve services at the consulates, then-Consul General Laura Clerici said at a signing ceremony with Direct Star in June.

She said the research found that the consulate was only able to handle 20 percent to 30 percent of all calls with its telephone lines.

In recent years the U.S. consulate has been repeatedly accused of offering inadequate visa services. The Russian Association of Travel Agencies placed the consulate next to last in a list of 31 foreign consulates in Moscow for neglecting to provide clear guidelines for visas. Italy came in last.

Clerici defended the fee for the telephone calls, saying it was affordable for Russians planning to travel to the United States.

"People applying for a visa are prepared to pay a limited fee in order to get the information required to get a visa," she said. "If you cannot pay $1.60 for a call, how can you afford going to the United States?"

She added that similar systems are used by U.S. consulates elsewhere.

Michel Mertens, general director of Direct Star, said callers should never get a busy signal because the new system has 50 lines.

Calls are immediately transferred to an automated answering system, where callers can select answers to frequently asked questions or request to speak with a consulate-trained operator.

Other embassies in Moscow contacted by The Moscow Times said they have no plans to open similar systems.

German Embassy spokesman Hansj?rg Haber said, however, that the embassy was interested in seeing how the system plays out for the Americans.

"We are open to the idea," Haber said.

A British Embassy spokesman said the British consulate has no intention of charging applicants for giving visa guidelines.

"People pay for the visas, not for information," he said.

The spokesman added that the consulate posts all necessary visa information on its Internet site (www.britemb.msk.ru).

The U.S. consulate's toll telephone number is the latest of several steps the U.S. Embassy has taken to improve visa services.

Earlier this year, the consulate launched a delivery service with Federal Express that picks up passports and returns them with visas within the city limits for 150 rubles (about $5) each way.