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How does a country get admitted to the Visa Waiver Program?

Updated: Aug 25, 2023  | Tags: Visa Waiver Program, Border Security


The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows visa-free travel for over 20 million visitors annually to the United States for citizens of 41 participating countries globally. The VWP uses a multi-layered security system to stop potentially dangerous individuals from entering the USA. These security measures include comprehensive screening before a traveler departs to the United States and upon arrival to the USA. Following Croatia’s 2021 admission into the VWP, and Israel's imminent membership, there has been renewed interest from the public in learning more about the eligibility criteria for a country to join the program. This article discusses the factors that determine a country's eligibility to be admitted to the VWP.

How does a country get admitted to the Visa Waiver Program?
How does a country get admitted to the Visa Waiver Program?

What are the economic benefits of adding a country to the VWP?

Not all countries can become admitted into the Visa Waiver Program, but those that can look forward to a positive impact on their economy. A strong and healthy economy is vital for ensuring the security of the United States. In 2014, the United States welcomed an average of 20 million VWP travelers who spent an estimated $84 billion on consumer goods, according to the Department of Commerce.

The VWP program also encourages travel growth between the USA and other nations leading to a positive economic impact for all countries involved.

There are many economic benefits of adding a country to the VWP. One benefit is that it can help to improve trade relations between the two countries. Additionally, it can help to boost tourism and travel between the two countries, help to create jobs in the tourism and hospitality industry in both countries. Membership can help to promote economic stability and growth, and can also lead to increased foreign investment. Lastly, it can help to improve the country's image and reputation, and can increase its competitiveness in the global marketplace.

What are the VWP requirements for individuals and countries?

To travel to the US without a visa under the VMP, the following requirements apply for individuals:

You must be a citizen of one of the member countries: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Malta, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom

All travelers must carry a valid Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) before boarding transport headed to the USA. A new ESTA must be obtained if you apply for a new passport or have changed your country of citizenship, name or gender.

Your passport must be valid for at least six months after your intended departure date from the USA. An e-passport is also a requirement for the VWP, which is a more secure type of passport with an embedded chip.

What are the conditions that must be met for a country to join the VWP?

To be eligible to join or remain in the VWP, each participating country must adhere to the following:

  • Have a low yearly non-immigrant visitor visa refusal rate of under 3% over the last two financial years;
  • Be prepared to accept the repatriation of its citizens expelled from the USA within three weeks of being requested to do by the DHS;
  • Agree to share details about lost or stolen passports to the USA;
  • Enter into a formal agreement with the USA to share information about terrorism and other types of organized or serious criminal activity;
  • Provide e-passports with biometric identifiers;
  • Submit to a DHS assessment of the outcomes of the VWP designation on the country's security, police control, and immigration effects on the USA;
  • Submit to an independent intelligence evaluation instigated by the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis.

How are travelers from VWP countries screened?

The VWP utilizes a security risk-based, multi-faceted approach to find and prevent terrorists, criminals, and other wanted persons from entering the United States.

National risk assessments are carried out before a country is even permitted to join the VWP. Moreover, solo VWP travelers must be checked before they leave for the USA, when they arrive at US ports or airports, and during any additional flights within the USA.

Thorough traveler vetting is important to increase levels of security of the USA and is a key counter-terrorism initiative. Vetting is done by checking ESTA information. The Department for Homeland Security (DHS) checks ESTA data each day for terrorist information and works closely with the Customs and Border Service (CBS) and other agencies to check the validity of ESTAs at various points.

For more information on how the ESTA identifies security risks, visit: How does the ESTA identify security risks?

What are the information sharing agreements among countries?

VWP are mandated to adhere to information-sharing agreements with the USA relating to known and suspected criminals, terrorists. The VWP requirements boost the vetting of individuals and enhance overall homeland security.

VWP countries have provided the United States with information on more than 6,000 known or suspected terrorists as a result of VWP information-sharing arrangements.

This flow of information bolsters the existing information dialogue between the security services of the USA and VWP countries. In fact, VWP member countries have supplied over two-thirds of the records in the INTERPOL Stolen and Lost travel Databased which is used each day in the ESTA checks performed by the DHS.

This information significantly enhances the ability of the DHS to recognize and interrupt the movement of all those who may potentially want to cause harm to the USA. Countries that would like to join the VWP must commit to fully complying with enhanced security measures and a range of other obligations.

What have been the recent Visa Waiver Program improvements?

New requirements are constantly being revised and updated. The ESTA website underwent a modernization in November 2019. A new user interface was released along with new features such as the ability to save applications for completion at a later date. Another round of significant enhancements occurred under the Obama administration in August 2015. Changes included enhanced traveler vetting, information sharing, and other security requirements to enable VWP countries to deal with the threat posed by foreign terrorists.

In December 2022, the ESTA website has added mandatory passport identity verification which enables DHS to confirm the details of an applicant's passport through digital image processing. This information is then checked to determine if the passport details provided on an ESTA application are genuine. ESTA applications with incorrect or inconsistent passport information will be canceled.

Additional ESTA improvements may include liveness checking as well as a mobile app.

What countries have recently joined the Visa Waiver Program?

Croatia was admitted recently in 2021, Poland in 2019 and Chile in 2014. It is expected Israel will join the VWP as the 41st country within the next 12-18 months.