During remarks in Tallinn, Estonia on 28 November, American President Bush announced that the United States would be making changes to its visa waiver program, indicating that one of the changes would be to add several countries to the program.
The U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP) currently is an agreement with 27 countries that allow citizens of those countries to travel to the United States without the need for a visa. Details are different with different countries but, in general terms, persons eligible under the VWP are allowed to visit and travel the U.S. and U.S. territories for up to 90 days.
There are additional requirements as to the type of passport a person must be using, including embedded RFID chips and other advanced security measures.
Persons are not allowed to work or study while using the program, although business travelers may take advantage of it. Violators can be banned from the U.S. for five or more years and be required to obtain visas.
Usually, other countries have some reciprocal arrangement for U.S. citizens.
This year a number of problems were noted with the program, including the possibility that some countries on the list might not actually qualify under new security policies implemented since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S.
The U.S. Congress and all participating countries have indicated that there is no desire to remove any of the current countries from the program. However, some adjustments to U.S. law are required to ensure that all current countries remain eligible.
Under current law, the United States may waive visas only when a country meets requirements such as a low rate of visa over-stayers and a visa refusal rate below 3%. The legislative process to ease visa restrictions will likely involve the modification of the 3% threshold while ensuring that the new rules do not undermine U.S. security.
Negotiations within the U.S. Congress and between the U.S. and various interests have been ongoing throughout the year.
In addition to the legal adjustments, other arrangements have been discussed, including changes in security arrangements, agreements on data provided on travelers, and the possibility of adding several countries to the program.
With Bush's remarks on Tuesday, he has indicated that a number of Eastern and Central European nations are likely to be added. Given the remarks made in Estonia while on a trip of North Europe and to Latvia for a NATO summit meeting on 28 and 29 November, the clear implication is that the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and possibly Lithuania will receive some support and strong consideration.
All three nations, formerly occupied Soviet republics, have repeatedly requested inclusion in the program for quite a number of years.
"I am pleased to announce that I am going to work with our Congress and our international partners to modify our visa waiver program," Bush told a news conference during a visit to the Baltic republic of Estonia.
"It's a way to make sure that nations like Estonia qualify more quickly for the program and at the same time strengthen the program's security components," he said on the eve of a NATO summit in neighboring Latvia.
Eight ex-communist countries that joined the European Union in May 2004 have long pressed Washington to include their citizens in the visa waiver program enjoyed by Western European states.
Polish diplomats have said it is unjust that the United States keeps strict visa requirements for Poles after Warsaw sent troops to Iraq to help topple Saddam Hussein and attempt to restore peace thereafter. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Estonia and Latvia have also sent troops to Iraq.
The United States does not require visas from citizens of 15 mainly longer-standing European Union members, but the VWP excludes Greece and the mostly ex-communist newest members, except for Slovenia.
The European Commission, the EU's executive, proposed in October that member states force U.S. diplomats to apply for visas in retaliation for Washington's refusal to waive visa requirements for EU newcomers.
Roughly 15 million visa waiver program travelers visit the United States each year. Travel industry sources say the U.S. economy earns between $10 billion and $15 billion a year from these visitors.
Currently, 27 countries participate in the Visa Waiver Program:
Visa Waiver Program - Participating Countries
• the Netherlands
• New Zealand
• San Marino
• United Kingdom