What is the Visa Waiver Program?

The Visa Waiver Program, in short VWP, is a program for the visa-free entry to the US, which was initiated by the US Congress in 1986. ESTA is part of this program. In the following, you will get to know the most important aspects of this agreement.

ESTA

The official travel authorization for your trip to the USA!

Definition and objective of the Visa Waiver Program

The Visa Waiver Program is a partnership that allows citizens of participating countries to travel visa-free to all 50 US states as well as Guam, Puerto Rico, and the American Virgin Islands.

The goal is to improve American foreign relations and to make it easier for a larger number of short-term tourists and business travelers to enter the US without a visa for up to 90 days. In return, participating VWP partner countries should also enable U.S. citizens to enter their country without a visa under comparable conditions.

The VWP was created by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and is administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in cooperation with the U.S. State Department. Originally, the scheme was intended to run for only 3 years. In the meantime, however, it has existed for over 30 years. The Visa Waiver Permanent Program Act finally anchored the VWP as a permanent legal agreement in October 2000.

 

As a result, since its inception, the Visa Waiver Program has evolved into a comprehensive security partnership that is bound by strict and fairly detailed security standards. This is to ensure the protection of the American people. No other program thus enables the U.S. government to conduct such comprehensive and consistent assessments of foreign security standards.

Since 2009 you need a valid ESTA confirmation for the visa-free entry to the US under the Visa Waiver Program.

You need a valid ESTA confirmation to travel under the VWP

 

The ESTA application enables the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to check each applicant online in advance for potential terrorist threats and to ensure that the applicant for instance is not on a "no-fly" list. It is checked that the ESTA applicant is not a threat to the well-being, security or survival of the United States.

Economic advantages of the Visa Waiver Program

The Visa Waiver Program is an economic enrichment for the US and all participating partner countries, as it simplifies and promotes holiday and business travel.

In the American fiscal year of 2018, more than 22 million people travelled to the US under the VWP, and the trend continues to rise. This means that more than 28% of all non-immigrant entries into the USA took place under the VWP. 

Travellers as economic advantages of the VWP

VWP tourists spend over 84 billion dollars on goods and services in the US every year. VWP travelers thus provide the United States with approximately $231 million in daily income.

Requirements of participation in the Visa Waiver Program

To be eligible for the Visa Waiver Program, a country must meet several criteria. The aim is to ensure that it poses no or only a negligibly small security risk to the national interests of the USA.

Among others, the following conditions must be met:

  • Political and economic stability
  • Established laws on law enforcement, counter-terrorism, and border control
  • Consent to a security relevant data exchange with the United States
  • Strict passport security conditions
  • Issuance of biometric passports
  • Low number of reported passport frauds
  • A time efficient tracking system for lost or stolen passports
  • Low refusal rate of B visas to the US (less than 3%)

There is no guarantee of participation in the Visa Waiver Program. The United States reserve the right to exclude countries from the VWP even though they meet the requirements.

Exclusion from the Visa Waiver Program

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in conjunction with the U.S. State Department, reviews at least every two years the political and economic stability as well as security of all countries participating in the VWP.

If it is determined that a country no longer meets the required security standards, it subsequently can be excluded from the Visa Waiver Program.

In February 2002 this affected Argentina due to its national economic crisis. It was feared that the financial destabilization could pose a security risk to the US by increasing the incentive for illegal immigration. Uruguay was also removed from the VWP in 2003.

Both Argentinia and Uruguay were removed from the Visa Waiver Program in the early 21st century

 

However, exclusions may be temporary in nature. Therefore, there is a good chance that both nations will again be admitted for visa-free travel in the future.

Possible future VWP countries

Poland is the youngest member of the Visa Waiver Program and was officially accepted at the end of 2019. There is currently speculation that the following countries will also be included or re-included in the Visa Waiver Program:

  • Argentina
  • Brazil
  • Bulgaria
  • Israel
  • Romania
  • Turkey
  • Uruguay
  • Cyprus

Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Visa Waiver Program has repeatedly been criticized. The effectiveness and protection of national security has been questioned not only by the US Congress, but also by the administration and the public. It was feared that terrorists and other potentially dangerous persons could abuse the visa-free travel for their own purposes.

In response, the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act was passed in 2015 to better respond to new sources of risk. The Act excludes certain categories of persons from visa-free travel even though they are citizens of a participating country.

Those affected must necessarily apply for a US visa:

  • Citizens of a participating country who travelled to North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011

or

  • Citizens of a VWP partner country who are also citizens of North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria.

Few stays of a diplomatic, journalistic, and military nature are excluded.

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