Details of the US Visa Waiver Program
The US Visa Waiver Program enables travellers with passports from 38 eligible countries to travel to the United States by air or sea using an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) instead of a visa when arriving to the United States. The United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales) is part of the Visa Waiver Program, which means that any UK passport holder can visit the United States for short tourism or business trips very easily. UK citizens no longer need to visit the U.S. Embassy to apply for a Tourist Visa, for visits of less than 90 days that are for reasons of business, tourism or medical purposes.
If you do not hold a passport from a visa waiver country, you are not eligible to apply for ESTA. Travellers from countries not participating in the VWP need to apply for and receive a B-1 (business) or a B-2 (tourism) visa before visiting the United States. Permanent residents of a visa waiver country who are not a citizen of that country are also ineligible for an ESTA. All visa waiver countries are designated as such by the U.S. government. Requirements for a country’s visa waiver designation include having a history of low rates of visa refusals for non-immigrants and having adequate passport security.
History of the Visa Waiver Program
The United States Government created the Visa Waiver Program in 1986 to make it easier for tourists and short-term business visitors to enter the United States while allowing the U.S. State Department to use its consular resources to deal with certain high-risk security issues. With its long history and strong diplomatic ties with the USA, the United Kingdom was the first visa waiver country to the join the programme. It was followed by Japan in December 1988 and France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and West Germany in October 1989.
In 1991, the VWP expanded to include Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, New Zealand (the first visa waiver country from Oceania), Norway, San Marino, and Spain. In 1993, Brunei became the second Asian country to be included in the programme.
In April 1995, the Republic of Ireland was included in the Visa Waiver Program followed by Argentina and Australia in 1996, Slovenia in 1997 and Portugal, Singapore and Uruguay in 1999.
Just as member countries can be added to the Visa Waiver Program, they can also be removed. For example, in 2002, Argentina was removed from the programme, followed by the removal of Uruguay in 2003.
In October 2003, the United States Visa Waiver Program introduced the requirement that VWP visitors to the United States had to have a machine-readable passport when they entered the United States. This tightening of entry conditions was made during the Bush administration, after the terrorist attacks on 11th September 2001. However, this new requirement could not be implemented until October 2004, as several countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program did not issue machine-readable passports. This affected around one-third of all French and Spanish passports.
The next significant change in the Visa Waiver Program was introduced on 26th October 2006 when all VWP travellers had to have biometric passports containing an electronic chip. At that time Andorra, Brunei, and Liechtenstein did not issue such high-tech passports and consequently had to comply.
In November 2006, the online Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) was announced, providing a quick and easy means for travellers under the Visa Waiver Program to enter their personal and passport information online and be pre-approved for their visit to the USA. However, ESTA approval only permits the holder to travel to the United States. It does not automatically guarantee entry, as travellers must first have a short interview with an Immigration Officer on arrival at the U.S. border.