LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 10: International air travelers are processed by US Customs and Border Protection agents upon arrival to Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), on December 10, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. December is the busiest time of the year for international travel and CBP is trying to educate the public on ways to get through the customs process efficiently. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

The US government’s visa system, crippled by a technical glitch, will not be back up and running until next week, forcing thousands of business travellers and others to postpone or cancel travel plans.

The State department said a hardware failure on June 9 was preventing it from processing and transmitting the mandatory, security-related biometric data checks routinely carried out at embassies and consulates.

“This is a global issue and we’re working around the clock to fix it,” said John Kirby, a State department spokesman. No evidence indicated that the problem was related to cyber security.

But Mr Kirby said he did not expect the system to be back “online before next week. I can’t give you any more specific detail with respect to timing on that.”

The glitch is having a knock-on affect for those people who have already submitted their documents because their passports have become locked up in the system.

Documents are normally returned within four to five working days. But after the system went down applicants who needed their passports for other foreign travel have struggled to retrieve their documents.

A spokeswoman for the US embassy in London confirmed that they were being “overwhelmed” with requests from applicants for their passports to be returned.

“It is most definitely an issue and regrettable,” she said, adding that the consular section was dealing with “over 500 email requests a day” from applicants requesting that their documents be returned.

She urged anyone affected, who needed their passports for other travel, to fill out the visa contact form on their respective embassy’s website.

She said that if people ticked the box entitled “my inquiry concerns non-immigrant visas and is not covered by your website” and also stated the type of visa they had applied for “we will do our best to reply”. But she warned that “we are trying to manage expectations and get back to people when we can, but in some cases it just isn’t possible”.

She also cautioned that anyone who had their passport returned would “likely have to start any visa application process over again”.

US diplomatic missions handle an average of 50,000 visa applications a day. Overseas and domestic passports were still being issued normally.

“Domestic passport operations are functioning, with some intermittent processing delays. While some of these issues have affected same-day service at our passport agencies, we continue to issue passports to US citizens with urgent overseas travel needs,” the department said.

This is the second technical glitch to hit the US visa system since last year, when a data-processing system failed last July, stranding thousands of business people, foreign workers and athletes who had planned travel to the US.

The State department said it was prioritising visa applications for temporary agricultural workers and in urgent humanitarian cases, and would clear the backlog of pending visa cases as soon as possible.

“We regret the inconvenience to travellers and recognise that this is causing hardship to those waiting for visas, and in some cases, their family members or employers in the US,” the department said.

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