USA: White House enhances security of the Visa Waiver Program

The White House announced a plan on Monday to further enhance the security of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks.  The new security measures are intended to thwart similar attacks in the United States by increasing intelligence sharing between VWP countries and information collection about travellers’ past visits to countries considered terrorist safe havens. Though the Obama Administration has taken a series of steps over the past year to improve the security of the VWP, Monday’s announcement is expected to accelerate these changes and add additional safeguards.  
The VWP, which facilitates the travel of over 20 million people per year, allows tourists and business visitors from 38 countries to enter the United States for up to 90 days without first having to obtain a visa at a U.S. consulate. Although VWP travellers undergo counter-terrorism screening through Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), they are not required to appear in person for a visa interview, nor are they subject to a biometrics background check.  
Among the new security measures is a modified ESTA application that will screen applicants on their visits to countries deemed terrorist safe havens.  In addition, the Administration has offered American assistance to VWP partner countries in order to better facilitate information sharing about passengers, broadly combat terrorist travel and enhance border security. The White House also plans to expand the Global Entry program’s trusted traveller program and increase fines imposed against airlines that fail to verify passengers' identities.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will accelerate its review of VWP partner countries and provide a report to the President within sixty days that recommends pilot biometrics programs, identifies VWP partner countries deficient in key areas of cooperation, and recommends compliance incentives, such as ESTA suspension, for non-compliant countries.  
The White House has acknowledged the limitations of these new measures and has called on Congress to pass legislation to further tighten controls.  Specifically, Congress has been asked to: 

  • Enhance mechanisms that identify those who have travelled to conflict zones to train or fight with terrorist organizations or other adversaries and increase information sharing between VWP partners and INTERPOL;
  • Maximize the use of international agencies like INTERPOL to track lost and stolen travel documents and prevent their illegal use; 
  • Accelerate the requirement that VWP travellers use passports with embedded security chips;
  • Expand the use of the pre-clearance program at airports in VWP countries.  

Legislation in these areas is expected this month.

What this Means for VWP Travellers

The increased restrictions on the visa waiver program will undoubtedly make it more burdensome for visitors to travel easily to the United States, impacting tourists and business visitors as well as businesses that rely heavily on foreign tourism.  VWP travellers should expect additional screening measures in their ESTA applications and may also experience more lengthy processing times.