Published: Jan 23, 2020, Updated: Mar 11, 2020
In January 2016, the U.S. government started to implement changes to the Visa Waiver Program through the Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of the previous year. This act aims to exclude citizens of countries deemed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to be state sponsors of terrorism, including people from Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. The act was amended in 2018 to include additional countries such as Libya, North Korea, Somalia and Yemen.
The enhanced rules also apply to people who may have traveled to those countries, preventing them from qualifying for the VWP even if they would have otherwise been eligible. The new rules do not prevent traveler from visiting the USA. However, individuals with previous travel history or citizenship of these countries will either be denied an ESTA or have their existing authorizations invalidated. These travelers will then need to apply for a United States visa before entering the United Stat. Some exceptions may apply on a case by case basis, depending on the reason for traveling to the excluded countries.
Under the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, individuals who fall into one of the following criteria are no longer eligible to enter the USA with a visa waiver under the Visa Waiver Program:
The new rules do not apply to those traveling on the VWP who may have been present in the proscribed countries above in order to carry out service in the military forces of a VWP country or to perform official roles as a contracted employee of a country that is a member of the Visa Waiver Program.
People who have traveled to any of the countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen) whether for official or military reasons are recommended to bring all relevant documentation with them when entering the United States through a recognized port of entry. These exceptions to the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act will not apply to people with dual nationality of any of the proscribed countries.
The questions that were added or modified on the ESTA form are as follows:
While the new ruling does not prevent these travelers from entering the U.S., travelers will be required to apply for a visa form either a U.S. Embassy or a Consulate. United States embassies and consulates in countries participating in the VWP only have short waiting periods for a visa interview. For more information about applying for a visa, please go to travel.state.gov and to find the address of the U.S. Embassy that has jurisdiction over your country of residence, please visit usembassy.gov
You can request an expedited visa interview appointment if you are obliged to travel imminently for medical, humanitarian or business reasons and your ESTA has been denied or revoked as a result of the new Act.
There are some benefits to a visa over an ESTA: a visa is valid for up to 10 years while ESTA has only 2 years’ validity. A visa also allows you the option of remaining in the U.S. for up to 6 months while the VWP only allows you to remain for 90 days. Travelers with a visa may also request to extend their stay beyond the 6-month period or can apply to change to a different visa class while in the United States; neither option is allowed under the Visa Waiver Program.
The new Act is not expected to affect the vast majority of travelers from VWP countries. Additional countries may be added to the current list at any time by the Secretary of Homeland Security.