Visa Waiver Program Enhancements

  • December 9, 2015
  • Richard Newman

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) permits visa free travel for 20 million visitors per year to the United States for citizens of 38 countries around the world including Japan. VWP uses a layered system of security to detect and prevent terrorists, serious criminals, and other potentially dangerous individuals from traveling to the U.S. Every prospective VWP traveler undergoes counterterrorism screening and must receive approval through the Dept. of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). Through ESTA, DHS evaluates whether individuals pose a security risk to the U.S. before they board the airplane. The system has been enhanced repeatedly to improve security and identify individuals who might pose a threat to the United States. Recent security enhancements to the ESTA system were made in November 2014 and August 2015.

On 12/01/2015, in the wake of the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, DHS announced new enhancements to the VWP security system. These include:

DHA will immediately takes steps to modify ESTA applications to capture information from VWP travelers regarding any past travel to countries that constitute a safe haven for terrorists.

US government agencies will evaluate and offer assistance to better facilitate terrorism information sharing between the United States and VWP partner countries.

House of Representatives Passes Bill to Tighten VWP Security.

On Dec 9, 2015, the House of Representatives voted to increase security requirements to the VWP. The bill would require all VWP travelers to present an e-passport with a biometric-enabled chip by April 1, 2016. I would also bar most travelers who have visited Iraq and Syria since March 2011 from entering the US under the VWP. Instead, they would have to go through the formal visa application process, which includes an in-person interview. An exception would be available to those who traveled to these countries to perform military service for the VWP country or to carry out official duties as a full-time employee of the government of the VWP country.

What the Legislation Means for VWP Travelers.

If the House bill is enacted as written, VWP travelers would need to ensure that they have an e-passport with a biometric-enabled chip. These passports are currently issued by all VWP countries including Japan. However, older travel documents may not contain the biometric chip, so these travelers would need to apply for new passports before using the VWP to travel to the US. ESTA registration will remain a requirement.

A similar bill was introduced in the Senate.

For more information or questions, please contact:

Law Office of Richard A. Newman

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New York, NY 10175