The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) is open to citizens of 39 countries around the world. Croatia will be the 40th member and is expected to be added to the VWP by September 2021. VWP citizens are allowed to travel to the USA for business or tourism for a period of 90 days without a visa. Similarly, visa-free travel is reciprocated to US citizens who are allowed to travel to each of these 39 countries for at least 90 days without a visa. The Visa Waiver Program, also known as VWP, is managed by the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department.
The list of VWP eligible countries is as follows:
The program was started towards the end of the 1980s and has become an important institution in the country. The US government uses the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) to check whether or not the individuals traveling to the USA are terrorists, or if they are likely to pose a danger to the US public.
Security bodies in the country run the regular checks on individuals entering the country, and they also scrutinize people using the VWP program to come into the USA more thoroughly. The people are vetted before leaving their home countries, once they land in the USA, and even as they take trips from one US location to another.
Advantages of the VWP to the US Economy
One reason why the Visa Waiver Program was introduced was to boost the US economy. This program has helped to increase tourism, and this has led to an uptick in the country’s economic output. With a larger number of people entering the country, the US has been able to sell more goods and services as a nation.
Here are some requirements a country must fulfill in order to join the program:
- The overall refusal rate of tourism or business visas from the VWP country must be under 3 percent. Alternatively, the US government can check the refusal rate over the past two fiscal years and determine whether it is lower than average.
- VWP members must accept its citizens who are deported from the USA. These could also be former citizens. This action must be taken within three weeks of the last order of deportation.
- VWP members must work with the US government to track passport information and report it to INTERPOL or the US government.
- VWP members must send information on security threats to the USA.
- It must offer its citizens passports that can be read by a machine, and they must also use biometrics to identify citizens.
- VWP members are subjected to an assessment by the Department of Homeland Security. In this procedure, the department will determine the impact of the security of the USA. Other things that will be considered include the impact on immigration enforcement in the country and maintenance of law and order.
- VWP members must go through an intelligence assessment that will be managed by the Department of Homeland Security.
Evaluating Risks to the USA
Once a country enters into the Visa Waiver Program, the US government will require it to maintain high levels of security in their country. The Department of Homeland Security carries out regular evaluations of the countries’ security standards for as long as they are part of the program. The DHS works with the State Department to gather relevant facts on the members of the VWP. Generally, they analyze the impact of the countries’ VWP on the immigration state of the US, the enforcement of law and order, passport security, border management, and fighting against terrorism. The departments also check how thoroughly the VWP nations inspect their air and seaports, borders, and production of identification cards. This information can be collected from various US bodies, including the Intelligence Community and Departments of State and Justice.
The major inspections are carried out every two years, but on a continuous basis, the security departments have to ensure that the VWP countries never negatively affect the security of the USA. In case there are security threats, the US government would always be prepared to keep its citizens and residents safe.
In case there are serious threats from a specific country, the Secretary of the DHS, along with the Secretary of State, can take a country out of the VWP program. They are not required to give notice before taking this action. This way, the USA is able to keep everyone on its soil safe.
Thorough reviews are carried out once every two years. Once this evaluation is completed, the Department of Homeland Security and State Department have to present their findings to Congress.
Thorough Vetting of Visitors
The Department of Homeland Security does not just run assessments of the security threats posed to the nation- they also monitor individual travelers from VWP countries. This inspection is done at various points of their trips. Although the travelers do not need to apply for a visa before entering the USA, they still need to get a go-ahead from the Customs and Border Protection, as well as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).
Another body that is involved in the individual vetting of travelers is the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). This body runs checks to ensure that the ESTA approvals are not given to people of questionable character.
By the end of 2014, the Department of Homeland Security had already started asking for more information on the ESTA applicants, and this means they are able to more accurately identify people on the US terrorist watchlist. The information provided is automatically compared to that in many databases in the USA, as well as those from the INTERPOL. At the same time, the government protects the privacy of travelers. Scanning of the information is done every day since new updates may be posted to the databases.
In case the system detects an issue with the travelers, the Customs and Border Protection will go through the data to determine how accurate it is. It is worth noting that the Customs and Border Protection has used its power to deny thousands of ESTA applications since it was formed a decade ago. Recently, the improvements in technology and methods employed have made the process more reliable.
For extra security, the government has asked all airlines and sea carriers that travel to the USA to offer Advance Passenger Information and Passenger Name Records. This data must be handed to the Customs and Border Protection. With information on the travelers’ reservations and biographics, the protection body will be able to identify individuals that are likely to commit crimes in the USA. Their information is quickly compared to that from law enforcement to check for any matches. This has to be done for all people traveling with the Visa Waiver Program.
Working with VWP Countries to Improve Security
Before a country gets approved for the Visa Waiver Program, it has to be willing to work with the USA to counter-terrorism and crime. This means the countries will need to share data on suspects and criminals from their own nation. This arrangement has been highly beneficial since the USA has been able to collect data on thousands of known and suspected criminals, some of who might have had opportunities to commit crimes on US soil.
Another major benefit of this system is the fact that the Department of Homeland Security has been able to add a lot of information to the Stolen and Lost Travel Document Database. This database is owned by the INTERPOL, and it is extremely helpful in the vetting of ESTA applicants. With the information provided by VWP countries, the Department of Homeland Security has been able to find terrorists and stop them before they can settle in the USA. This generally ensures security in the USA.
Improvements to the Visa Waiver Program
Security threats evolve on a regular basis, and the Department of Homeland Security needs to adapt to these changes. The VWP has been enhanced many times since it was first introduced. Some of the most important changes have touched on the vetting of travelers and the sharing of data.
One of the earliest enhancements to the program was the agreements on Homeland Security Presidential Directive 6 (HSPD-6) and Preventing and Combating Serious Crime (PCSC). This enhancement made it a requirement for the members of the VWP to share crucial data on terrorism and crime.
Another change was the introduction of e-passports that are used by all people taking advantage of the VWP program. All VWP countries must implement these passports, regardless of the year the country joined the program. In case the e-passport was issued before 2007, citizens may get a pass if it is not machine-readable.
By 2016, all people in the VWP countries were required to have e-passports in order to enter the USA. These passports are quite secure. The issuing bodies must adhere to the standards set by the international community when making the passports. Otherwise, they will not be valid.
The government also VWP countries that use the USA as the final point of departure have to conclude the federal air marshall agreement.
Other key changes to the program include:
- Gathering and evaluating travel data as per the resolutions of the UN Security Council 2178
- Using the Lost and Stolen Passport Database from the INTERPOL to evaluate traveler entering the USA. The same procedure is used for members of the Schengen area. They are analyzed before entering or leaving the Schengen area.
- Sending crucial information on Foreign Fighters to the relevant international or regional security bodies.
- Working with the US government to evaluate the security risks posed by refugees and people seeking asylum.
The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State have worked together with the members of the VWP to make the program a success and reduce security threats in the US and VWP countries.
The Visa Waiver Program has allowed many people to travel to the USA seamlessly, and that has helped to increase tourism and the GDP of the country. Besides that, the program has helped the USA collect data on security threats and terrorists from different parts of the world. The program is enhanced regularly to accommodate changes in security needs. At the end of the day, the VWP helps to boost the security of the country while increasing the wealth of the citizens and residents.