As part of ongoing changes within the Trump administration, the USA is looking to tighten its border and enhance travel security on the whole. As a result, this has led to new requirements for Visa Waiver countries.
These requirements primarily involve greater sharing of information and more stringent monitoring of threats, in line with consistent strengthening of security measures in the United States.
Visa Waiver countries are states that are members of the ‘Visa Waiver Program’. As it stands, there are 38 countries that participate in the program, which allows their citizens to apply for ESTA – the ‘Electronic System for Travel Authorization. ESTA is an alternate form of travel authorization, eliminating the need for a visa and facilitating travel for tourism and business. The application process takes place entirely online, and is hugely beneficial to millions of travelers each year.
The benefits of ESTA make it hugely popular among the millions of visitors who travel to the United States each year. It allows people to travel to the US as tourists, or on business, for periods of up to 90 days at a time. It works as a great alternative to traditional U.S. visas, which involve long waiting periods, expensive application processes and in-person meetings in US embassies or consulates. It is important to understand, however, that citizens of Visa Waiver Program member countries still need to apply for this travel authorization, and are not automatically granted these visa waivers.
Nevertheless, the Visa Waiver Program is not an easy club to join. Essentially, the countries that are allowed to join are deemed . high value and low risk, to the extent that their citizens are not vetted in the same way that visa applicants are. That said, extensive screening does still take place, but in an automatic way. Because of this, there are very strict requirements for countries to be able to join the Visa Waiver Program. In order for countries to join the Visa Waiver Program, they need to respect certain human rights parameters, GDP levels, levels of compliance with US immigration law, overstay statistics and visa acceptance/refusal rates.
As well as the visa acceptance/refusal rate, participation in the Visa Waiver Program is dependent on certain factors within the applicant country. To qualify for the program, countries need to have a "High Human Development Index", which incorporates factors such as life expectancy, years of schooling, gross national income per capita, etc. The country needs to have a high-income economy, a low level of passport fraud, strict passport security requirements (with biometric passport systems), very low numbers of citizens overstaying visas, and credible counterterrorism, law enforcement and border control organizations, among other security-based entities.
Furthermore, membership in the Visa Waiver Program is not a permanent thing, and is constantly reassessed. In the past, countries have seen their Visa Waiver Program memberships revoked; Argentina and Uruguay were removed from the program following their financial crashes at the start of the 21st century. Because of the crises, the US feared that there could be increased immigration from those countries to the USA, which would be easier to do illegally via the Visa Waiver Program. And so, as part of this constant monitoring process, the requirements themselves are also updated from time to time.
The 38 countries that currently participate in the Visa Waiver Program will now need to use US counterterrorism information to screen travelers that cross their borders from other countries. This forms part of a pre-existing requirement to share information with the USA. Indeed, the need to share security information is a fundamental component of the Visa Waiver Program. This is partly because when you apply for ESTA online, the automatic process involves cross-referencing your details via the databases shared between VWP member states.
The USA will also start to assess how well countries protect against threats to aviation security. This will involve ensuring that member countries vet their airport employees thoroughly. In this regard, administration officials in the USA have said that certain member countries already comply with these requirements, and that they expect other countries to comply voluntarily with the new requirements. The USA does not want to end VWP membership for any country, as it is mutually beneficial, however it has made it clear that this would be a last resort if necessary to ensure optimum safety and security for US citizens.
One of the things that the US monitors is visa approval rates, and another is citizens who stay in the country longer than the program allows. Last year, four countries saw overstay rates of two percent or more. These countries were Hungary, Greece, Portugal and San Marino. There is already a penalty in place for individuals who overstay the 90-day limit in place with the Visa Waiver Program, which is the possibility of not being able to travel visa-free again in the future. However, when the US can observe this phenomenon taking place on a larger scale for a high proportion of citizens of a given country, it is important for them to take measures to rectify the situation at the source. In this case, the US is requiring these countries to launch public information campaigns to educate their citizens on the Visa Waiver Program, how it works and what the consequences are of violating its conditions. We are sure that these countries and the implementation of such campaigns will be closely monitored with a view to continually assess their participation in the program.
Of course, as well as the requirements that countries need to adhere to to remain part of the Visa Waiver Program, it is also important for individual citizens to adhere to the conditions. First of all, the person travelling under the VWP to the USA cannot work whilst in the country, paid or otherwise. The exception to this is if you are traveling . Whereby your employer at home is sending you to the USA for a conference, meeting, etc. What you cannot do is carry out work while in the country as if you were a US citizen.
The second main condition is that you must not spend any longer than 90 days in the USA during any one trip that you take under the Visa Waiver Program. As soon as you spend 91 days in the US with your ESTA, you are in breach of the program conditions, and will probably not be allowed back into the US in the future under the Visa Waiver Program.
It’s also important to highlight the other key time frame associated with ESTA, which is its validity. The validity period of an ESTA approval is generally two years, but never any longer than this. These two years begin as soon as you receive your ESTA approval, which is sent to you via email, and the validity end date is clearly communicated to you in this email. Nevertheless, it is also possible for an ESTA to have a validity period of under two years. This will be the case if your passport expires within the two years following your ESTA application’s approval. This is because your ESTA approval is closely linked to your passport, not you as a person. As soon as your passport reaches its expiry date, if you have an ESTA that was valid until that point, you will no longer be able to use this ESTA with a new passport. Instead, you will have to apply for ESTA online again, following the same procedure you carried out the first time.
Applying for ESTA online is a simple procedure, and all you’ll need to do it is your passport and a payment method. The application is just an online form, in which you will need to provide some personal details and some information about your trip. Some of these questions are optional, while others are compulsory. The whole application takes around ten minutes, and you will find out whether or not you have been ESTA approved within 24 hours. Using the email address provided in your application, your approval status is emailed to you directly, and it’s as simple as that.
Travelling to the United States? Do you have your pre-planning checklist in order? Visit our ESTA Guide for more information about obtaining your travel permit. We'd love to hear from you. Send us your comments or questions for travel assistance.