On Dec. 8, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 407 to 19 to tighten restrictions on travel to the United States under the country’s Visa Waiver Program (VWP)— which allows passport holders of 38 countries, many of them European, to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without having to obtain visas. Approximately 20 million people take advantage of the program to travel to America every year.
What Do These Visa Waiver Changes Mean?
These changes would require visitors from the visa waiver countries to obtain visas to travel to the United States if they’ve been to Syria, Iraq, Iran, or Sudan during the last five years. These visitors would be required to follow the standard visa approval process that requires an in-person interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate.
It also would require countries that take part in the VWP to share information with U.S. authorities about suspected terrorists as well as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to gather additional information from travelers to prevent terrorists from attempting to use lost or stolen passports to travel to the United States.
The bill may also allow DHS to start increasing fines for air carriers that don’t verify passport information and/or requiring passports with embedded security chips with information such as fingerprints or photographs. Additionally, the VWP updates call for the expanded use of “pre-clearance programs” in foreign airports—which may include Belgium, Japan, Norway, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom—to allow U.S. border agents to collect and screen biometrics before visa waiver travelers board planes to the United States.
Stricter Visa Regulations Mean Tougher Travel for Many Tourists
Some opponents of the bill, however, argue it may exclude certain people who don’t have have ties with or who have loose connections to Syria, Iraq, Iran, or Sudan from using the visa waiver program. For instance, a person who was born and raised in Spain, but whose father is a Sudanese citizen, would be required to get a visa before visiting the United States, even if that person has a Spanish passport and has never been in Sudan.
Furthermore, NIAC Action, a group that lobbies on behalf of Iranian Americans, said that the bill threatens to harm Americans of Iranian descent in the long run.
The White House first announced changes to the VWP on Nov. 30 to strengthen national security in light of the series of coordinated attacks in Paris on November 13.