ESTA And The US Visa Waiver Program: A History

ESTA And The US Visa Waiver Program: A History

What do Andorra, Brunei, Chile, and Denmark all have in common?

They all have status as members of the Visa Waiver Program, or VWP. Citizens from the 38 VWP countries and territories are eligible to enter the United States without a visa.

VWP member countries are designated by the US Department of Homeland Security, working with the advisement of the US Secretary of State. They are countries that collaborate with the United States in establishing effective travel security infrastructures. They also have high placement on the Human Development Index, a composite statistic based on lifespan, education level, and per capita income. New countries may be admitted to the VWP if they achieve the necessary standards, just as member countries may be dropped from the list if they fall below the criteria threshold.

Citizens from VWP countries are evaluated as posing little risk of either committing criminal acts within the United States or abusing the rules regarding the length of their stay in the US. Most VWP citizens and nationals can stay in the United States for up to 90 days to engage in tourism or business activities, with the only requirement being that they have valid Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval prior to traveling.

Legislation creating the VWP was enacted by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. The objective was to facilitate convenient travel between developed countries and the United States in order to support tourism and business. The VWP also freed State Department resources from visa processing work and allowed a greater focus on more significant threats to national security.

Following the New York attacks of September 11, 2001, people were concerned that the VWP could be exploited by those wishing to harm Americans. The 19 alleged 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia and were required to enter the US with visas. However, the cases of alleged 19th hijacker and French citizen Zacarias Moussaoui, and British citizen Richard Reid, who tried to ignite an explosive in his shoe on a trans-Atlantic flight in December 2011, caused some Senators to propose shutting down the VWP.

Fortunately, leaders in America and the EU recognized a common interest in encouraging lawful travel while collaborating to stop the movements of terrorists. International efforts resulted in an updated VWP supported by advancements in travel document technology as well as in methods for intelligence gathering and sharing. The result was the Electronic Travel Authorization System, designed and launched under President George Bush in 2006. The system supported VWP travel by connecting people to State Department travel information and allowing for the development of databases that would verify authorization to travel under the VWP and speed up processing times at US border crossings.

The ESTA is foundational to supporting the revamped VWP, and now nearly 20 million visitors come to the United States from VWP countries every year. At the same time, passing through American Customs and Border Protection has become faster and easier. Meanwhile, thousands of travelers who present risks or attempt to use fraudulent documents have been blocked from entry, greatly adding to the safety of all legitimate travelers.

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