The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows the citizens of a specified country outside the United States to visit for purposes of tourism, business or simple transit for up to 90 days without having to pay for a Visa. The program itself applies to all of the states and US territories such as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. However, other territories or properties belonging to the US have more limited application of the waiver program.
The US Visa Waiver Program includes countries that are considered developed, feature robust economies and have a high status on the Human Development Index as well. Currently, 38 countries are included in the VWP which means that their citizens can travel in the US without having to obtain a Visa.
The History of the Visa Waiver
The Visa Waiver Program was created and passed by Congress in 1986 to help promote tourism and more business-oriented visits from selected countries. The very first country to appear on the list was the United Kingdom in 1988 and quickly followed by Japan in the same year. By 1989, France, the Netherlands, Italy, West Germany, Sweden and Switzerland were added.
A number of other countries were added in 1991, including the following;
• Andorra, Austria and Belgium
• Denmark, Finland and Iceland,
• Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Monaco,
• Norway, San Marino, Spain and New Zealand
Until 1995, only one country, Brunei was added to the program which occurred in 1993. Ireland followed in ’95 along with Argentina and Australia in 1996. However, Argentina was later removed in 2002. Over the course of the next few years Slovenia, Portugal, Singapore and Uruguay was added, although Uruguay was subsequently removed in 2003.
The attacks by terrorists on September 11th, 2001 caused a tightening of restrictions in terms of entry requirements which affected various countries in certain ways, particularly passports that were not machine-readable.
Since 2006, those entering the US under the VWP must have a biometric passport if it was issued after October 26th of that year. Also in 2006, the US started planning the Electronic Travel Authorization which was modeled after one used in Australia for many years. This allowed advanced information of travel plans to the US from VWP approved countries and Australia now uses their version for US visitors which allows for the electronic storage of their Visa.
Guam & Northern Mariana Islands
Unlike Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, the US territory of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands have their own specific waiver program. While entry to these islands is the same as any other destination in the US, there is a 45 day restriction not 90 days. Plus, travel is not permitted from either location to the US and travel between the island of Guam and the Northern Marina Islands still requires a complete immigration inspection.
Overall, the US Visa Waiver Program is considered a success in terms of travel for citizens of the approved countries as it has opened up more tourism and business opportunities.