With international politics that seem to be changing by the day, might the USA be about to lose visa-free travel privileges to Europe?
As it stands, members of Visa Waiver Programme member countries are able to apply for ESTA online. ESTA stands for the ‘Electronic System for Travel Authorisation’, and citizens apply for this on an individual basis – if they meet the criteria (and the vast majority do), they are allowed to visit the USA without needing to apply for a visa. The UK is very much in this category, and was the first country to participate in the Visa Waiver Programme.
Systems like this tend to be based on the system of ‘reciprocity’. This means that, if country A gives country B certain travel benefits (in this case visa-free access), country B returns the favour to country A. This makes sense, as otherwise what’s the point?
So, it’s this principle of ‘visa reciprocity’ that’s causing problems between the EU and the USA at the moment. To understand this, we need to differentiate between the European Union and Visa Waiver Programme member countries. The latter group includes countries that are not in the EU (Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, etc.), whereas not all of the countries in the former group are VWP member countries… Confused? Well it’s the fact that not all EU countries qualify for the VWP that’s sparking commotion in European Parliament at the moment.
Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania are all EU countries, and yet none of them have been allowed into the Visa Waiver Programme. However, US citizens are allowed to visit all EU member states without a visa. So, there’s reciprocity between the USA and most EU member states, but not these five countries.
So, in light of all this, on Thursday 2nd March, Members of European Parliament agreed on the fact that US nationals should have to have extra travel documents until citizens of these five countries have the same ability to apply for ESTA. This decision was made because, back in April 2014, the European Commission was notified that certain countries (The USA, Australia, Brunei, Canada and Japan) were not following the principle of reciprocity with the EU – this gave them a period of two years in which to act, and so this decision should technically have taken place last year. Most of these countries have since resolved the issue, but the USA has done nothing to incorporate Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania into the Visa Waiver Programme.
So why aren’t these countries in the Visa Waiver Programme, if the rest of the EU is?
It all comes down to the criteria that needs to be met in order for a country to become a member of the VWP. Generally, a country is allowed into the Visa Waiver Programme if its overall visa application responses are very positive (with a low percentage of refusals). Jumbled in with this, there are criteria for migration issues, security of travel documentation, human rights, border management and public safety. For whatever reason, each of these five countries has not met some of the criteria for forming part of the Visa Waiver Programme.
What does this mean for Americans?
The EU Commission now has a period of two months in which it must reintroduce visas for US nationals wanting to visit EU countries. Members of European Parliament clearly states that it is ‘legally obliged’ to suspend its visa waivers for US citizens for twelve months, after the USA failed to meet the reciprocity principle within the deadline that we mentioned earlier. And so, the EU Commission needs to enforce a delegated act to suspend the visa waiver for US citizens for one year (this can still be objected to by Parliament and the Council).
Europe insists that this is a temporary measure, and the USA can still do something about it. If they provide these five countries with the same visa waiver benefits provided to all other EU member states, there’s no reason for this act to go ahead. It’s certainly a significant consideration, as surely the USA don’t want to lose their ease of being able to travel to Europe.
What would this mean for Europe?
Many Europeans are not happy about the decision taken by MEPs. In particular, the European Travel Commission highlighted the negative effect this would have on tourism; a major industry for the region and one that constantly creates new work opportunities. Economic and political consequences are also significant concerns for many.
Without having the benefit of a Visa Waiver Programme (even temporarily), this would require US citizens to apply for visas to come to Europe. Their eligibility to travel would not change, as taking away visa waiver rights in this case is nothing to do with security risks, but the procedure for getting the travel authorisation required would be much more complicated and expensive. Nobody likes applying for visas, and that’s the beauty of ESTA and the Visa Waiver Programme. In other words, having to apply for a visa is an obstacle, and it will put many people off of travelling to a specific destination.
To put it into context, a British citizen can apply for ESTA to travel to the USA. The ESTA application is filled out entirely online, with no need for any physical forms, phone calls or meetings. The application form takes around ten to fifteen minutes to complete, and applicants are informed of the status of their applications within 24 hours of applying, by email, and all at a fraction of the cost of applying for a visa. This makes travelling to the USA an appealing prospect. If, on the other hand, British citizens had to apply for tourist visas to go to the USA, they would need to plan it a few months earlier, attending meetings in US embassies and consulates, sending off much lengthier forms, and paying significantly more. That US holiday no longer sounds so appealing.
So if we flip the coin, and look at the 30 million Americans who visit the USA each year (which amounts to about $50 billion), how much might this figure drop if Americans now had to apply for EU visas? How many jobs would be lost as a result of less tourism? Generally, when a country wants to support or increase its tourism industry, loosening or getting rid of visa requirements is one of the first steps they take!
It seems like a pretty strange decision, but perhaps we’re starting to become numb to all surprise in the arena of geopolitics. In any case, there are still a couple of months in which changes may arise, acts might be adopted, agreements may be made, etc. For the time being, citizens of Visa Waiver Programme member countries (including the United Kingdom) are still just as entitled to enjoy their ability to apply for ESTA authorisation online.
With an ESTA, you can travel to the United States for periods of up to 90 days at a time, provided you are travelling as a tourist or on business (as well as a few other, less common reasons). Your ESTA approval lasts for two years from the moment you are approved, during which you can visit the USA as many times as you like, as long as you never exceed this 90-day limitation, and provided you are always travelling under the conditions of the Visa Waiver Programme (and not trying to work there or move there!). It’s important to know that the 90-day ‘clock’ per visit can never be exceeded – even if you want to apply for a visa once you get to the USA, you cannot remain in the country for more than 90 days if you are travelling under the Visa Waiver Programme. Instead, you would have to return to your home country and apply for the visa there.
The only reasons for which your ESTA can last any less than two years are if, one the one hand, you don’t adhere to the conditions of the VWP on a trip, or, on the other, your passport expires during this two-year period. If your passport has less than two years on it at the time of application, your ESTA authorisation will have the same expiry date. This is because your ESTA application is linked to the specific passport used at the time of application; if you get a new passport, you need to get new ESTA authorisation, simple as that.
Of course, we’ll keep you updated as this situation develops. But in any case, you can still apply for ESTA online, and travel to the USA visa-free!
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.