Not everyone who wants to visit the United States needs a visa. If you are the citizen of a country that participates in its Visa Waiver Program, you can travel to the U.S. temporarily without a visa for up to 90 days– provided of course, that you bring all required documents and are otherwise admissible. This may seem like a big privilege, but not everyone is eligible for the program.
My country of birth doesn’t participate in the program, so I’ve never traveled to the U.S. under a visa waiver. But I’m sure it’s a great thing for anyone who wishes to see the States first-hand to be able to travel visa-free. Here’s some basic information I’ve gathered from the Department of State website Travel.State.Gov and also the book How to Get a Green Card (9th Edition).
List of Visa Waiver Program Countries (2012)
As of 2012, according to the U.S. Department of State, there are only 36 countries whose citizens are eligible for the Visa Waiver Program. Of these, 30 are in Europe, 4 in Asia and 2 in Oceania. We can assume these are countries that Uncle Sam deems as having a “clean” track record as far as visiting the States and abiding by its immigration laws go. In alphabetical order, they are:
- Czech Republic
- The Netherlands
- New Zealand
- San Marino
- South Korea
- United Kingdom (full citizens only, says Wikipedia entry)
How Does a Country Become Eligible for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program?
Only countries that meet specific criteria may be considered for the program. Said criteria are set forth by legislation in the Immigration and National Security Act, the Border Security Act and the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act.
For an official account, please see How a Country Qualifies for the Visa Waiver Program at Travel.State.Gov by the Department of State.
Reading the page I give above, we learn that among other requirements for the Visa Waiver Program, the foreign country must:
- Issue machine-readable passports which meet international standards to its citizens
- Grant U.S. citizens the same 90-day visa waiver privilege that the program offers
- Have a low rate of U.S. non-immigrant visa denials (such as tourist visa denials)
- Have a low rate of violation of U.S. immigration laws by its citizens
The State Department also says that even if a country meets all the requirements set by law, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security together with the Secretary of State must still evaluate the candidate to make sure that admitting it to the program won’t badly affect American national interests.
If we may say so, it seems the Visa Waiver Program is meant for those aliens who are the least likely to abuse it.
Losing and Gaining Visa Waiver Program Eligibility
Participation in the program can come to an end if the U.S. government decides it is best for the nation. That is, a “program country” can lose its status if the government believes that its citizens will be more likely to overstay, work without permit or otherwise violate the terms of the Visa Waiver Program than before.
On the other hand, a country previously not admitted to the program may one day become eligible, if it is considered no longer at risk to violate the program’s terms.
Travel Documents for Visa Waiver Program Countries
So how does one enter the U.S. under a visa waiver? Please see What do I need to enter the United States under the VWP (Travel.State.Gov site).
If you want to learn more about the program, check out How to Get a Green Card (9th Edition). The same publisher and author also have U.S. Immigration Made Easy which I haven’t read yet, but I believe it also discusses visa waivers.