Updated: Jun 07, 2023
Since its inception in 1986, the U.S. Government’s Visa Waiver Program has allowed foreign nationals from over 40 countries to visit the United States without needing to apply for a visa. The program allows travelers to visit the U.S. for a period up to and including 90 days for tourism or business reasons. At the same time, it provides advance information that allows law enforcement and border security to efficiently monitor each traveler who enters the country. While many countries have been allowed access to the program, there have been several who have been excluded from this list for national security reasons as well as economic reasons. This article aims to explain what the U.S. Visa Waiver Program is, how each country can become a member, and why some countries have been banned from the program.
The U.S. Visa Waiver Program is a system that was first implemented by the Department of Homeland Security after consultation with the State Department in 1986. It was designed to screen nationals from foreign countries based on security information provided by those countries that the U.S. is allied with. It also allows those foreign nationals to forego applying for visas when they visit the U.S. for any period of up to 90 days. In return, an agreement between these nations means that U.S. nationals can apply to visit any foreign country with a reciprocal agreement for the same period on their corresponding visa waiver program. Since the program started, 40 countries have been added. Under the program, any traveler from these countries who wishes to visit the U.S. can apply for a valid Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) by providing key personal information along with details of their travel plans. In turn, the information provided is assessed by border security agents and law enforcement officials to determine whether or not the traveler poses a threat to national security.
For a country to be added to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, it must first meet several requirements. Firstly, it must enter a security-sharing agreement with U.S. law enforcement and must have national security measures that are sufficiently enhanced to meet these needs. The country must have a valid electronic passport system in place and be able to deal with lost, stolen, or incomplete passports within an acceptable time frame. When it comes to visa refusal rates, the applying country must have a rate of less than three percent for visitor visas, also known as B visas. Finally, the country must be able to demonstrate that it can maintain high levels of national security, counterterrorism, and law enforcement on an ongoing basis. Countries that meet this criteria can be considered for addition to the program. However, this remains at the discretion of the U.S. government and is not guaranteed.
There are currently 40 countries are part of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, with the possibility of more being added in the future. However, the Visa Waiver Program and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 has restricted nationals from a number of countries from entering the United States under the program. Under this Act, citizens of Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan and Syria are not permitted entry to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program. This also extends to foreign nationals from countries in the program who have visited any of these banned countries, plus Libya, Somalia, and Yemen, at any point from March 1, 2011, onwards. Limited exceptions do apply in certain circumstances such as performing military service or government business on behalf of a country on the program. These waivers are granted on a case-by-case basis and do not apply to dual nationals of restricted countries.
Additionally, Argentina and Uruguay were both briefly members of the VWP. However, they were removed from the program due to mass immigration concern held by the U.S. government during the economic crises, experienced in both countries, in the early 21st century.
While this decision was controversial, the reason countries were excluded from the U.S. Visa Waiver Program under the Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 is due to them being identified as having a significant terrorist presence within their borders. In addition, some of the countries listed have been accused of providing a safe haven for various terrorist organizations. While this restriction is ongoing, other countries can have travel restrictions placed on them at any time if the U.S. government deems any one of them a risk. For example, a temporary travel ban was announced in 2020 in response to the spread of COVID-19 across the world. This ban affected all foreign nationals who had visited China, Iran, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and many countries within the European Union within 14 days of arrival at the U.S. border. This restriction has since been lifted, but it demonstrates that access to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program is entirely at the discretion of the U.S. government based on ongoing national security interests.
In 2002, Argentina's involvement in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP) came to an end due to the financial turmoil within the country, which could potentially result in mass emigration and an increase in its citizens overstaying their visas in the U.S. through the VWP. In 2003, Uruguay also saw its participation in the program revoked for reasons that echoed those of Argentina. Although a nation's political stability and economic prosperity do not directly influence its eligibility for the program, it's generally considered that citizens from stable and economically robust countries have fewer incentives to unlawfully seek employment or violate their visa conditions while in the U.S., factors that consular officers take seriously when deciding to grant or deny a visa.
The U.S. Visa Waiver Program currently allows nationals from 40 countries to enter the United States temporarily without the need for a visa. For a country to be eligible for the program, it must meet stringent national security, border control, and law enforcement measures that are reciprocal with the United States. Even then, acceptance into the program is decided on an individual basis by the U.S. Government and is not an automatic guarantee. In addition, the U.S. Government may decide to restrict certain countries from using the program, such as those affected by the Visa Waiver Program and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, for any national security reasons. This can be an ongoing restriction or a temporary one as in the case of the COVID-19-related travel ban enacted in 2020. In conclusion, it is important for foreign nationals to be aware of their country’s status regarding travel before they enter the United States and make appropriate arrangements before they visit.