Visa Waiver Countries

Current Visa Waiver Program participants
Europe
• Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France (including French overseas territories), Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the U.K.
Asia
• Brunei, Japan, Singapore
Oceania
• Australia, New Zealand

Participants to be added this year
Europe
• Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia
Asia
• South Korea

Note: Canadian citizens and citizens of Bermuda are also admitted to the U.S. without requiring tourist visas, but under different legislation than the Visa Waiver Program. Mexicans holding a 10-year Border Crossing Card also do not require a visa to enter the U.S.

The government could be giving the travel industry a small shot in the arm next month when it admits seven more countries into the Visa Waiver Program: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and South Korea.

The program allows citizens of participating countries to visit the U.S. for tourism or business for up to 90 days without a visa. Those countries, in turn, offer the same privilege to U.S. citizens.

The addition of the seven new countries is expected to become effective in mid-November. A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said the government was shooting for Nov. 17.

President Bush announced the move at a Rose Garden event last week, flanked by representatives from the seven nations. He referred to them as "these close friends of America."

He also said the administration was continuing to work with other countries seeking to join the program, including Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Poland and Romania.

The U.S. is expanding the Visa Waiver Program in accord with new security legislation that sets additional standards for participating countries, including document security and information-sharing requirements.

To qualify for visa-free travel, citizens of the seven new countries, for example, must have a biometric passport and must use the new Electronic System for Travel Authorization, even though it doesn't become mandatory for other Visa Waiver countries until January.

Under the ESTA procedure, prospective visitors from Visa Waiver countries must log on to a secure U.S. website, transmit biographical and itinerary information, and wait for an electronic authorization before they travel. The information is similar to what is required in writing on the I-94W immigration forms.

The program is up and running on a voluntary basis, and the DHS said in a recent progress report that 99.6% of ESTA requests have been approved, the majority "within one minute."

The DHS expects it to become mandatory for all Visa Waiver travelers on Jan. 12.

The DHS said it has, or will have, information and instructions on the Web in all the appropriate languages.

Government and industry officials last week said the move would help boost travel and travel-related expenditures, but reliable forecasts were hard to come by.

The Travel Industry Association said the addition of the seven countries could mean up to 1 million additional visitors per year, but it could not say whether that threshold might be reached in the first year or later.

One estimate about the inbound market from South Korea, which sends some 800,000 visitors a year to the U.S., said the market might double under Visa Waiver, but it didn't say how quickly.

There is considerable anecdotal evidence, however, that visa requirements can be a deterrent. TIA Executive Vice President Geoff Freeman said that when Argentina was removed from the program, inbound travel fell 50%.

Freeman commended the administration's willingness to expand the Visa Waiver Program, and the travel industry's acceptance of the need for additional security.

The next step, he said, is a communication and advertising program to keep prospective visitors informed about U.S. procedures and to promote travel.

Those goals would be addressed by the Travel Promotion Act, which has passed the House but which has not yet come to a vote in the Senate.

Freeman said the bill remained the TIA's top legislative priority, and he said industry lobbyists were determined to bring it to a vote in the Senate during the lame-duck session after the election.

A key provision of the Travel Promotion Act would enable the DHS to assess a fee on travelers using ESTA, with the proceeds used to underwrite information and tourism promotion activities in foreign markets. 

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