The Background of the U.S Visa Waiver Program

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) permits citizens of 38 countries to travel to the United States for business or tourism purposes, for a period of up to 90 days, without a visa. The VWP is underpinned by the concept of “reciprocity”; countries which benefit from the U.S VWP are required to provide a reciprocal program for U.S nationals.

Countries party to the program include the majority of EU countries, Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. Currently over 14 million European citizens travel to the U.S every year without a visa, under the VWP.

However, all of this could be about to change. In recent weeks there have been two major developments, which appear to threat the future of the VWP for E.U nationals.

Plans to Review the VWP

On April 18, 2017, the Secretary of Homeland Security, John Kelly, reportedly told an audience at George Washington University “We have to start looking very hard at [the visa waiver] program. Not eliminating it and not doing anything excessive, but look very hard at that program.

Mr. Kelly stated that a review is necessary, due to the heightened security threat the U.S currently faces. Thousands of E.U nationals have reportedly travelled to Iraq and Syria in recent years, in support of ISIS. Mr. Kelly has expressed grave concerns that radicalized E.U nationals could use the VWP to obtain entry to the U.S, without the rigorous scrutiny associated with the visa application process.

While the nature of the review and subsequent reforms is unclear at this stage, any reform of the current system will affect the tens of millions of foreign nationals who travel to the U.S every year, without a visa.

The EU-US VWP Dispute

Similarly, the E.U and U.S are, unfortunately, currently engaged in a dispute over the future of the VWP.

The E.U has entered into the VWP with the U.S, on behalf of all E.U member States. Under the VWP, U.S citizens are at liberty to travel to any of the E.U’s 28 member States without a visa. However, in recent years, the E.U has expressed growing frustration that citizens of five E.U member States (Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania) are ineligible to travel to the U.S under the VWP, despite being E.U citizens.  The E.U has previously given the U.S administration a deadline by which to achieve reciprocity in respect of the five E.U member States in question. Unfortunately, the deadline was not met.


In March 2017, the European Parliament voted to suspend its VWP with the U.S and require U.S citizens travelling to the E.U to apply for visas. The European Parliament found it was “legally obliged” to suspend the VWP, due to a lack of reciprocity by the U.S in respect of the five E.U member States.

The U.S State Department affirms that the VWP is available to countries that have very low non-immigrant visitor visa refusal rates, issue secure travel documents and work closely with U.S. law enforcement and security authorities. The Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs has reportedly stated that Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania do not currently meet security requirements for the US VWP, hence the lack of reciprocity.

Fortunately, the resolution of the European Parliament was non-binding and the European Commission has refused to comply with the European Parliament’s request for visa requirements to be re-introduced for U.S nationals traveling to the E.U, on the basis that the resolution of the European Parliament would not serve the E.U’s objective of achieving visa-free travel for all E.U citizens. Indeed, the European Commission noted it was likely the U.S would retaliate to any such action by simply imposing a visa requirement on all E.U citizens.

While rescission of the E.U/U.S VWP appears to have been averted on this occasion, it is clear the future of the program is in doubt.

The Impact of VWP Reform on the U.S

Economists have warned that major reform of the VWP could place further pressure upon the U.S. tourism industry, which has suffered a significant decline in recent months.

According to statistics published by Global Business Travel Association, international travel to the U.S declined dramatically in January 2017, in the wake of President Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration, resulting in an estimated loss of $185 million in business travel bookings from January 28, 2017 to February 4, 2017. It is feared the decline in U.S tourism, dubbed “a Trump slump” by the media, will damage the U.S economy and result in job losses.

Tourism Economics, a forecasting firm used by the travel industry, has forecast a 7% decline in U.S visitors over the forthcoming year, equivalent to a loss of 10.6 million visitors. It is estimated that reduced U.S tourism will cost the U.S. economy more than $18 billion in lost revenue and will result in approximately 107,000 job losses. Indeed, it is reported that New York City is currently planning a $3.5 million international advertising campaign, in a bid to stem the decline in tourism.

Kindly note, at Davies Legal we do not provide assistance with ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) applications. You should not require a lawyer’s assistance to complete the ESTA form, unless you have a specific question about your eligibility to travel under the VWP.

We will endeavor to provide updates regarding the VWP, if there are any further developments.

Davies Legal

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Published: 12th May 2017