Visa Waiver Program (VWP)

Citizens of VWP countries can travel to the United States for up to 90 days without having to obtain an entry visa; in return, U.S. citizens must also be allowed to travel visa-free to the participating country.  VWP countries tend to be developed economies that are viewed as a low security threat to America, and the program brings substantial economic benefits to the United States and participating nations.

In place of a visa, VWP travelers must fill out the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), when booking travel to the United States.  This online form provides key information on each traveler to U.S. authorities and is screened against terrorist watch lists and criminal databases.  Due to the heightened concerns about foreign fighters, DHS announced in November 2014 that VWP travelers would be required to submit additional information, including aliases, citizenships, parents’ names, national identification number, contact information, employment information, and city of birth.

Additional information makes it easier for law enforcement to identify terrorists and to expedite legitimate travel.

Moreover, ESTA forms are continuously screened against the watch list and other security databases to ensure no new ties to terrorism are detected after an individual has been approved.

There are currently 38 VWP countries, 30 of which are in Europe.

VISA WAIVER PROGRAM (VWP) COUNTRIES 

·         Andorra, Australia, Austria

·         Belgium, Brunei

·         Chile, Czech Republic

·         Denmark

·         Estonia

·         Finland, France

·         Germany, Greece

·         Hungary

·         Iceland, Ireland, Italy

·         Japan

·         Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg

·         Malta, Monaco

·         New Zealand, Norway

·         Portugal

·         San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland

·         Taiwan

·         United Kingdom

To participate, the U.S. government requires that countries meet several standards and implement security improvements, including: issuing their residents secure, machine-readable passports; having less than a three percent visa-refusal rate into the United States; reporting lost/stolen passports; sharing information with U.S. authorities on travelers (including criminals and known or suspected terrorists); requiring its residents to fill out an online authorization form, ESTA, before traveling to the United States and increasing their own airport security requirements.

Pre-Travel Screening

Pre-travel screening allows authorities to conduct advance security checks to identify high-risk individuals who might be connected to violent extremist groups. In some ways, pre-travel security screening is more important than the physical screening of a traveler.

Most terrorist suspects and foreign fighters are not carrying weapons or explosive when they fly.

Authorities are more likely to detect them by searching counterterrorism databases than by searching duffel bags for illicit materials.  We believe additional enhancements can be made to detect threats in the pre-travel phase and to prevent extremists from taking advantage of legal travel routes into our country.

Visa Security Program

In higher-risk foreign countries, the U.S. government has implemented an added defensive measure, the Visa Security Program (VSP).  VSP is run by DHS in 19 countries and aims to do more in-depth counterterrorism screening to keep violent extremists from gaining entry into America.

At these higher-threat locations, visa applications undergo a more rigorous screening process, including an immediate national security review when their immigration application is submitted online, which allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to flag concerns with an applicant even before they show up at the embassy for an interview.  The additional time and manpower of Visa Security Units (VSUs) allows for suspicious applicants to be vetted more thoroughly. Once DHS has made a determination on the applicant, it provides the State Department with a recommendation on the individual’s admissibility.

VSP runs applications through a system called PATRIOT (Pre-Adjudicated Threat Recognition and Intelligence Operations Team) well before State Department officers review the applications. PATRIOT culls through public safety, criminal and national security databases and gives analysts in Washington, D.C. the opportunity to do a deeper review to ensure U.S.authorities do not have information on an applicant that would be reason to deny them entry into the country.  When an application is flagged through the VSP, an officer at the relevant U.S. overseas post is assigned to it and can do additional work on-the-ground in the host country to resolve any concerns.

US GAO Report on Border Security

US Visa Security Program Tracking System