Updated: Feb 18, 2018
The USA currently has a list of countries that participate in its 'visa waiver scheme'. This scheme enables travellers who fulfil certain criteria (for example, the absence of a criminal record and the absence of any other visa violations) to enter the USA for tourism purposes without a visa at the immigration officer's discretion, and to stay there for up to 90 days. Many of these countries, with one example being the United Kingdom, have to participate in the ESTA scheme in lieu of a visa application. ESTA stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization and it takes the form of an online form that travellers fill out at least 6 weeks before their planned visit to the USA in order to get their entry to the country pre-approved. For the last few months, Malaysia has been quietly dominating ESTA news with claims that they could be the next country on the list.
The Trump administration has frozen the list of countries signed up this particular USA immigration scheme. Shirin Lakhdhir, the Malaysian ambassador to the US, confirmed towards the end of January that there were no plans to end this big freeze and include Malaysia on the list of visa waiver nations. So why all of the fuss and why all of the recent USA immigration news items written about the potential for a visa waiver for Malaysians? Well, in September 2017, the Malaysian president Najib Razak expressly let it be known that his imminent visit to the US that autumn could help to secure a place on the visa waiver list for Malaysia. This was, indeed, one of the key aims of his visit, and the Malaysian media seized on the topic, claiming that this change could be put into effect sometime in 2018. When Lakhdhir stated that Malaysia would not be added to the visa waiver list, therefore, there was considerable outcry in Malaysia - both among the general public and in certain sections of the government. As a result, on February 15th 2018, the Malaysian government resolved to ask the USA formally why Malaysia had not been added to the list.
In order to qualify for USA visa waiver status, a country must convince the USA that it fulfils certain criteria relating to, for example:
to name but a few requirements. Malaysia's argument is that it does fulfil all of these requirements and thus that its continued exclusion from the Visa Waiver Program (which is often simply shortened to VWP) is - quite simply put - unjust and unreasonable.
Currently, the vast majority of visa applications to the USA from Malaysia are approved. There is a minimum approval quota of 97% for business and tourist visas for Malaysians travelling to the US, for instance (i.e. B1 and B2 visas). When it comes to Malaysians studying in the USA, currently around 99% of student visa applications are approved. Approval rates are very healthy, then, when it comes to USA immigration from Malaysia. Nevertheless, filling out visa applications and waiting for them to be approved and/ or for interviews to be held costs time and money. Participation in the visa waiver scheme would definitely come as a relief to Malaysians wishing to visit the USA whether to study, to work, or to see the sights.
As Malaysia prepares its formal request to the USA to explain precisely why Malaysians will not be allowed to participate in the USA visa waiver programme. As such, you can expect Malaysia to be cropping up once more in USA visa news in the near future. Both the Trump administration and the Malaysian ambassador Lakhdhir are expected to provide a response as to why the freeze on the list of VWP countries continues (though Lakhdhir has already provided some form of response, citing the high visa success rate statistics enumerated in the paragraph above). It is clear that Malaysians are hoping that they will indeed be allowed to benefit from participation in the VWP. However, what the Trump administration's response to this visa related issue will be is not yet entirely crystal clear.