Being Part Of The Visa Waiver Countries

The U.S. Visa Waiver Program allows travelers with passports from designated countries into the United States using an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) instead of a visa when arriving to the United States by air or sea. Before you travel to the United States, you must complete the ESTA application and be approved. You no longer need to fill out Form I-94W at the U.S. port of entry.

If you do not hold a passport from a visa waiver country, you cannot apply for the ESTA. You would then need to apply for and receive a B-1 (business) or a B-2 (tourism and visit) visitor visa before traveling to the United States.

You must be a citizen of a visa waiver country to travel to the United States using the ESTA. If you are a permanent resident of a visa waiver country but are not a citizen of that country, you will not be eligible for an ESTA. All visa waiver countries are designated as a "program country" by the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security. That department consults with the U.S. Secretary of State to make the designations. Among the requirements for the visa waiver designation are very low rates of visa refusals for non-immigrants and adequate passport security.

More Information about the Visa Waiver Program

The U.S. Congress created the Visa Waiver Program in 1986 to make it easier for tourists and short-term business visitors to enter the Unites States. The Visa Waiver Program also allows the U.S. State Department to use its consular resources to deal with high-risk issues. The first visa waiver country was the United Kingdom, which was granted access in July 1988. Japan was added that same year in December. The next countries to be added were France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and West Germany. All were added in October 1989.

More countries were added in 1991. They were Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, New Zealand (the first visa waiver country from Oceania), Norway, San Marino, and Spain. Brunei, the second Asian country in the program, was added in 1993.

The Republic of Ireland was added to the Visa Waiver Program in April 1995. It was followed by Argentina (the first visa waiver country from Latin America) and Australia in 1996. Slovenia was added in September 1997. In August 1999, Portugal, Singapore, and Uruguay were added.

Just as certain countries can be added to the Visa Waiver Program, they can also be removed. That happened to Argentina, which was removed from the program in 2002, and Uruguay, which was removed in 2003.

The United States, under the Bush administration, tightened entry requirements after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Visitors, beginning on Oct. 1, 2003, covered by the Visa Waiver Program, were required to present a machine-readable passport when they entered the United States. The law was not implemented, however, until Oct. 26, 2004, as several visa waiver countries were still issuing passports that were not machine-readable. For example, over a third of French and Spanish passports fell into that category.

The next change happened on Oct. 26, 2006. At that time, all Visa Waiver Program travelers were required to have biometric, or electronic, passports. Three countries were not issuing biometric passports at that time: Andorra, Brunei, and Liechtenstein.

The ESTA program was announced in November 2006 to provide a vehicle for travelers under the Visa Waiver Program to enter information online about their visit. It also allows electronic authorization for the visit. Applying for an ESTA is not a guarantee of admission to the United States. You must first be approved.