The Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which permits citizens of certain countries to visit the United States for up to three months without a visa, has two explicit goals: to improve national security and to boost the U.S. travel and tourism sectors. On November 8, 2019, the United States introduced Poland into the VWP, bringing the total number of participating countries to 39.
A concern for Congress is whether the VWP reveals the United States to security risk, despite implementation of strict security requirements over the las decade. Simultaneously, many lawmakers support adding more countries to the VWP, because of longstanding congressional interest in promoting the U.S. travel and tourism sectors.
Visa Waiver Program Designation
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), with the Department of State (DOS), has the power to choose the participants into the VWP. The Secretary of State must formally make the nomination; DHS then carries out a final review and accredits that the aspiring participant meets all the requirements. To be eligible, a country must comply with an extensive list of conditions:
- offer reciprocal privileges to U.S. citizens
- have had a nonimmigrant visitor visa refusal rate of less than 3% for the previous year or a lower average percentage over the previous two fiscal years;
- issue electronic, machine-readable passports that contain a biometric identifier
- certify that it issues tamper-resistant, machine-readable visa documents that incorporate biometric identifiers, which are verifiable at the country’s port of entry
- certify that it has in place mechanisms to validate machine-readable passports and e-passports at each port of entry;
- enter into an agreement with the United States to report or make available through INTERPOL information about the theft or loss of passports no later than 24 hours after a theft or loss is reported to the VWP country;
- certify, to the maximum extent allowed under its laws, that it is screening each foreign national who is admitted or departs, using relevant INTERPOL databases and notices, or other means designated by the Secretary of Homeland Security (this requirement only applies to countries that have an international airport);
- accept the repatriation of any citizen, former citizen, or national against whom a final order of removal from the United States is issued no later than three weeks after the order is issued;
- enter into and fully implement an agreement with the United States to share information regarding whether a national traveling to the United States represents a threat to U.S. security or welfare;
- be determined, by the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State, not to compromise the law enforcement or security interests of the United States by its inclusion in the program.
As of March 2020, 31 European countries, 7 Asia-Pacific countries, and 1 country in South America are in the program
Aspiring VWP Countries
Since 2010, DHS has recognized four countries into the VWP . The rest of countries would like to join the program to make it simpler for their citizens to visit the United States. In 2005, the George W. Bush Administration began providing countries interested in joining the VWP with “roadmaps” and “guidelines” to aid them in reaching the program’s requirements.
The original 13 aspiring countries were Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, South Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.
Of these, 10 have since been admitted.
Nowadays, this is the list of aspiring VWP countries: Brazil, Argentina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Israel, Romania, and Uruguay
These four aspiring countries — Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, and Romania — are in the European Union (EU). They are the only EU countries not in the VWP yet. Citizens of United States are allowed to visit all the EU member states for short-term without a visa, whereas citizens of the four EU countries outside the VWP need a visa to travel to the United States.
The European Commission remains engaged in a result-oriented process to bring the four EU Member States into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, indicating that the United States is the only country on the EU’s visa-free list that does not fully reciprocate, adding that “visa reciprocity is a fundamental principle of the European Union’s common visa policy.”
The European Union considered suspending its visa waiver for U.S. nationals in 2017, but decided not to do so, since it would be counterproductive and would not help achieve visa-free travel for all EU citizens.
Israel has also been wanting to enter the VWP, but it has faced challenges meeting the criteria required. For example, Israel’s Biometric Database Law prohibits sharing fingerprint data with foreign authorities, though according to sources, the United States and Israel achieved an agreement to share data for citizens with criminal records.
Another obstacle for Israel is that to become a VWP member, foreign countries must treat all American visa applicants with the same policy; however, Israel has been blamed of discriminate against Arab Americans. Additionally, Israel has yet to meet the 3% nonimmigrant visitor visa refusal rate criterion; its rate was 5.33% in FY2019.
Brazil is often included in reports about aspiring VWP countries. It has recently made changes to its visa policy for U.S. citizens. In June 2019, Brazil introduced visa-free entry for U.S. citizens and citizens of three other countries, reportedly to stimulate tourism.