US Department of Homeland Security Makes Visa Waiver Program Changes

Travelers to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen May Need Visas

US Visa
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In March 2016, the US Department of Homeland Security announced some changes to its Visa Waiver Program (VWP). These changes were implemented to prevent terrorists from entering the United States. Because of the changes, citizens of Visa Waiver Program countries who have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen since March 1, 2011, or who hold Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian or Sudanese citizenship, are no longer eligible to apply for an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).

Instead, they must obtain a visa to travel to the US.

What Is the Visa Waiver Program?

Thirty-eight countries participate in the Visa Waiver Program. Citizens of these countries do not have to go through the visa application process to get permission to travel to the US. Instead, they apply for travel authorization through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which is managed by US Customs and Border Protection. Applying for an ESTA takes about 20 minutes, costs $14 and can be done entirely online. Applying for a US visa, on the other hand, can take much longer because applicants usually have to participate in an in-person interview at a US embassy or consulate.

Obtaining a visa is more expensive, too. The application fee for all US visas is $160 as of this writing. VIsa processing fees, which are charged in addition to the application fee, vary widely, depending on your country.

You may only apply for an ESTA if you are visiting the US for 90 days or less and you are visiting the US on business or for pleasure. Your passport must comply with program requirements. According to US Customs and Border Protection, Visa Waiver Program participants must hold an electronic passport by April 1, 2016. Your passport must be valid for at least six months beyond your departure date.

If you are not approved for an ESTA, you may still apply for a US visa. You must complete an online application, upload a photograph of yourself, schedule and attend an interview (if required), pay application and issuance fees and supply any requested documentation.

How Has the Visa Waiver Program Changed?

According to The Hill, citizens of countries that participate in the Visa Waiver Program will not be able to obtain an ESTA if they have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen since March 1, 2011, unless they were in one or more of those countries as a member of their nation's armed forces or as a civilian government employee. Instead, they will need to apply for a visa in order to travel to the US. Dual nationals who are citizens of Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria and one or more other countries will also need to apply for a visa.

You may apply for a waiver if your application for an ESTA is turned down because you have traveled to one of the countries listed above. Waivers will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, based on the reasons you traveled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen. Journalists, aid workers and representatives of certain types of organizations may be able to obtain a waiver and receive an ESTA.

Because Libya, Somalia and Yemen were added to the list of countries involved in the Visa Waiver Program changes, it is reasonable to assume that more countries could be added in the future.

What Will Happen if I Hold a Valid ESTA But Have Traveled to the Countries in Question Since March 1, 2011?

Your ESTA may be revoked. You may still apply for a visa to the US, but the evaluation process may take some time.

Which Countries Participate in the Visa Waiver Program?

The countries whose citizens are eligible for the Visa Waiver Program are:

  • Andorra
  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Brunei
  • Chile
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Latvia
  • Liechtenstein
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Monaco
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Portugal
  • Republic of Malta
  • San Marino
  • Singapore
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • South Korea
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Taiwan
  • United Kingdom

Citizens of Canada and Bermuda do not need a visa to enter the US for short-term leisure or business travel. Citizens of Mexico must have a Border Crossing Card or nonimmigrant visa to enter the US.