Visa Waiver Restrictions Tightened in Response to Islamic State Threat

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has added new restrictions to the Visa Waiver Program. Under the Visa Waiver Program, citizens of the 38 participating countries can travel to the United States for 90 days or less without applying for a visa. Instead, prior to travel, citizens of these countries can register online using the DHS Electronic System for Travel Authorizations (ESTA) system. The current Visa Waiver countries are predominantly European nations, as well as South American and East Asian allies.

The new restrictions add Libya, Somalia, and Yemen to the “countries of concern” list, which includes Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria. “Countries of concern,” are designated by the Secretary of the DHS if an individual’s presence in that country increases the likelihood the he or she poses a threat to the United States. Individuals who have been present in these countries after March 1, 2011 are ineligible to travel under the Visa Waiver Program. The addition of Libya, Somalia, and Yemen means that certain citizens of the participating Visa Waiver Program countries who have traveled to Libya, Somalia, or Yemen since March 11, 2011 will no longer be able to take advantage of the Visa Waiver Program, and will have to apply for a visa to travel to the United States. According to the DHS, waivers may be granted, particularly for those who traveled to one of these countries on behalf of international organizations or humanitarian NGO’s, as well as journalists. The DHS intends to update the online ESTA application this spring to streamline the process for those eligible for a waiver. See the full announcement for the full details. Importantly, the restrictions will not apply to individuals who are dual citizens of one of these three nations and a Visa Waiver country. At this point, travel within the past five years triggers the new restrictions.

This action was taken pursuant to the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, which passed in response to the November 2015 attacks in Paris carried out by Islamic State. The DHS, in consultation with the Department of State and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, intends to consider whether other countries should be added to the list.

Categories: Immigration Blog