The Congressional Research Service (CRS) recently issued a report providing updated information about the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The VWP enables foreign nationals from 39 countries to travel to the United States as temporary visitors for pleasure or business without applying for a visa.
The June 29, 2020, CRS report noted a consistent increase in international visitor arrivals to the United States in most years over the past decade. Traveler admissions are predicted to decline significantly in 2020, though, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Participant nations include Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco,
Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and United Kingdom. Nationals of VWP countries who have traveled to or been present in Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia and Yemen on or after March 1, 2011, are prohibited from entering the United States under the VWP, although there are limited exceptions.
While there is general consensus that the VWP helps the U.S. economy by encouraging tourism, critics argue that the program poses significant security risks as travelers are not required to undergo in-person screenings or interviews to receive a visa. A key concern is about the possibility of terrorists entering the United States via the VWP. All VWP applicants must clear the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA system. It is an automated system that determines the eligibility of visitors to travel to the United States by collecting biographic information and applicant responses to VWP eligibility questions.
The program’s supporters claim it strengthens U.S. national security by establishing standards for travel documents and intelligence sharing on criminal and security matters. VWP membership could be used as an incentive to encourage other nations to share information with the United States. According to the CRS, many countries have expressed a desire to join the program as membership is viewed as evidence of a close relationship with the United States and comes with potential economic benefits.
The VWP also has important restrictions. It does not allow foreign nationals to extend their stay or adjust their immigration status in the United States, with a few exceptions.
The Secretary of Homeland Security has the authority to remove a country from the VWP if it is deemed to pose a threat to U.S. national security. The last nation to be suspended from the program was Uruguay in 2003.