Adding New Countries and Enhancing Security in the Visa Waiver Program

by Joseph McKeown

The popular United States Visa Waiver Program—currently used by nationals of thirty-eight countries to travel to the US—will now have increased security standards for the participating countries. The Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of designated countries to travel for business or tourism to the US without a visa for stays of up ninety days. Travelers must have a valid Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval prior to travel.

In response to the growing threat from individuals who have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight for the Islamic State and other groups, and who are nationals of designated visa waiver countries (the US estimates that approximately 3,000 Europeans have traveled to Syria since the conflict began in 2011), the United States will now require that countries participating in the program make changes, most significantly the following:

  • Require all passengers to use newer biometric passports that incorporate fingerprints and electronic chips that contain a photograph of the passport holder;
  • Allow more American air marshals on flights to the US; 
  • Require use of the INTERPOL Lost and Stolen Passport Database to screen travelers as well as databases that share travel records and passenger information;

In addition, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will conduct reviews of all the countries participating in the waiver program to ensure they are following its requirements. If they find certain countries have weaker screening processes, there may be additional scrutiny for nationals of those countries at border crossings. 

DHS Secretary Jeh C. Johnson said in a written statement that these security enhancements are "part of this Department’s continuing assessments of our homeland security in the face of evolving threats and challenges, and our determination to stay one step ahead of those threats and challenges.”

While the DHS tightens the requirements, a bill introduced in Congress is proposing to increase the number of countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program. The bill, called the Jobs Originated Through Launching Travel Act (JOLT), had eighty-seven co-sponsors, split between forty-seven Democrats and forty Republicans at the end of July.

JOLT proposes to add Brazil, Poland, Israel, and Croatia, to the list of visa waiver countries by providing the DHS secretary the ability to expand the Visa Waiver Program to countries who failed the current “visa refusal” requirement. Currently this requirement bars countries when more than three percent of its citizens’ visa applications are denied. The bill would allow the DHS secretary to admit countries that have refusal rates as high as ten percent.

The bill would also enhance security requirements for countries participating in the program, including requiring the issuance of electronic biometric passports, although it's not clear if that would remain in the bill as the DHS is preemptively implementing this change. While this bill is being pushed by the travel industry which cites the economic advantages to increased tourism, critics may point to the fact that since 2008 the majority of new undocumented immigrants in the US initially arrived legally. The bill would also change the name of the Visa Waiver Program to the Secure Travel Partnership Program.

"Boosting our economy and improving national security are two of the most critical challenges we face as a nation and the JOLT Act addresses them both," Representative Joe Heck, who is co-sponsoring the bill with Representative Mike Quigley, said in a press release. "Expediting the visa interview process and expanding the Visa Waiver Program will bring more international travelers and tourists to destinations around our country and creates jobs."