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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Visa Waiver Program



Alison Siskin
Specialist in Immigration Policy

The visa waiver program (VWP) allows nationals from certain countries to enter the United States as temporary visitors (nonimmigrants) for business or pleasure without first obtaining a visa from a U.S. consulate abroad. Temporary visitors for business or pleasure from non-VWP countries must obtain a visa from Department of State (DOS) officers at a consular post abroad before coming to the United States. Concerns have been raised about the ability of terrorists to enter the United States under the VWP, because the VWP bypasses the first step by which foreign visitors are screened for admissibility to enter the United States. Nonetheless, the current economic climate has heightened interest in the VWP as a mechanism to promote tourism and commerce. In addition to increasing tourism, the inclusion of countries in the VWP may help foster positive relations between the United States and those countries, facilitate information sharing, and ease consular office workloads abroad. As of December 2012, 37 countries participate in the VWP. Taiwan, the most recent entrant, was designated a program country on October 2, 2012.

In FY2011, there were 18.3 million visitors who entered the United States under this program, constituting 40% of all overseas visitors. To qualify for the VWP, statute specifies that a country must offer reciprocal privileges to U.S. citizens; have had a nonimmigrant refusal rate of less than 3% for the previous year or an average of no more than 2% over the past two fiscal years with neither year going above 2.5%; issue their nationals machine-readable passports that incorporate biometric identifiers; certify that it is developing a program to issue tamper-resident, machinereadable visa documents that incorporate biometric identifiers which are verifiable at the country’s port of entry; and not compromise the law enforcement or security interests of the United States by its inclusion in the program. Countries can be terminated from the VWP if an emergency occurs that threatens the United States’ security interests.

All aliens entering under the VWP must present machine-readable passports. In addition, passports issued between October 26, 2005, and October 25, 2006, must have a digitized photo on the data page, while passports issued after October 25, 2006, must contain electronic data chips (e-passports). Under DHS regulations, travelers who seek to enter the United States through the VWP are subject to the biometric requirements of the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program. In addition, aliens entering under the VWP must get an approval from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), a web-based system that checks the alien’s information against relevant law enforcement and security databases, before they can board a plane to the United States. ESTA became operational for all VWP countries on January 12, 2009.

Under statute, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has the authority to waive the nonimmigrant refusal rate requirement, provided certain conditions are met. The waiver became available in October 2008; however, it was suspended on July 1, 2009, because DHS did not implement an air-exit system that incorporates biometric identifiers. The waiver will not be available until such a system is implemented, and it is unknown when and if a biometric exit system will be implemented. In 2008, eight new countries were added to the VWP who needed the nonimmigrant refusal rate waiver to be part of the program. There are other countries (e.g., Poland, Romania, Chile) that have expressed interest in being a part of the VWP who would need a waiver of the nonimmigrant refusal rate. Legislation was introduced in the 112
th Congress that would have reinstated the waiver authority and made other changes to the VWP, such as allowing DHS to use overstay rates to determine program eligibility. It is possible that the 113th Congress will consider similar legislation.


Date of Report: January 15, 2013
Number of Pages: 25
Order Number: RL32221
Price: $29.95

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