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June 25, 2010

The Visa Waiver Program: A Security Partnership

DHS SealThe Program

  • What It Is: The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows foreign travelers from participating countries to come to the U.S. for 90 days or fewer without the need for a visa. Travelers are screened prior to arrival through an online portal called the Electronic System for Travel Authorization.
  • Membership Is Not Forever: If the Department of Homeland Security finds that a country is not meeting the requirements of the program or becomes a security concern, it can (and has in the past) suspended that country’s membership.
  • Low Overstay Rates: VWP travelers do not contribute to illegal immigration. The cumulative overstay rate of VWP is only around 1 percent, a number that is likely overestimated because of matching errors.

A Vital Tool in Fighting Terrorism

  • Promotes Information Sharing: VWP countries must share information with the U.S. on known or suspected terrorists and other serious criminals, as well as lost and stolen passport information. Each country has special insight into which of its nationals pose the greatest risks; the VWP taps into that knowledge.
  • Stops Terrorists and Criminals from Entering North America: By requiring pre-screening of passengers, the VWP prevents terrorists, criminals, and other dangerous travelers from ever setting foot on U.S. soil.
  • Creates Partnerships: VWP membership forms a partnership of trust between the U.S. and the participating country. These partnerships have proven to be a valuable counterterrorism tool. In 2006, the U.S. relationship with the United Kingdom helped foil a terror plot to bring down 10 airplanes at once with liquid explosives.
  • Increased Physical Security Measures: Participating countries are required to meet minimum standards for transportation security, border security, and document integrity. These efforts decrease the ability of terrorists and criminals to travel freely.

More Secure Than Regular Visa Travel

  • Establishes Stringent Standards: VWP travelers are subject to more stringent passport security standards and information disclosure procedures than traditional visa travelers. Each passenger is individually screened against multiple law enforcement and terrorism/security databases prior to boarding any aircraft or vessel bound for the U.S.
  • Decreases the Likelihood of Forgery: Forging documents for VWP travel is more difficult than for non-VWP travel. All VWP travelers must use, at a minimum, a machine-readable passport that conforms to certain specifications.
  • Records Entry: VWP travelers are required to enroll in US-VISIT at the port of entry. This means that their biometric information is collected at the time of first entry to the United States rather than at the time of the visa application, as is the case for visa travelers. This ensures a more accurate picture of who is actually entering the U.S.
  • Advances Aggressive Reporting: VWP countries are required to enter information on lost and stolen passports into INTERPOL’s Stolen and Lost Travel Document database, which is not a requirement for non-VWP countries.

For more information visit www.heritage.org.

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