CRS Reports on the Visa Waiver Program

Visa Waiver Program

The Congressional Research Service, on October 12, 2021, released a report evaluating the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows nationals from certain countries to visit the United States for business or pleasure without having to obtain a visa. The program aims to boost tourism and strengthen national security. 

While the consensus is that the VWP fosters U.S. economic growth, there is disagreement on how the program affects national security. The events of 9/11 have raised concerns about terrorists using the VWP to enter the United States. 

Supporters of the VWP claim the program enhances national security by setting standards for travel documents and requiring the reporting of lost or stolen travel documents. For example, all VWP travelers must present e-passports, which are harder to alter than other passport types. The program also facilitates sharing information about criminal matters and security concerns between the United States and member countries.

The Department of State has maintained that the VWP helps significantly reduce consular workloads. The program has resulted in cost savings, streamlined visa processing and shifted focus to higher-risk nations.

Critics of the program argue that the VWP poses a security risk because travelers do not have to undergo the in-person screening generally required when applying for a visa at a consular office abroad. During the interview process, a database flags any issues that may make the individual ineligible for a visa. Additionally, there are concerns about whether VWP countries are reporting data on lost and stolen passports to the United States in a timely manner.

The VWP has 40 member countries as of October 2021. The newest participants are Poland and Croatia. Recent legislative proposals in Congress have sought to add more countries to the VWP by altering the membership criteria or giving the Department of Homeland Security more leeway to include nations that otherwise fail to meet the existing criteria.