The Visa Waiver Countries and What It Means The Visa Waiver program is a United States government initiative that allows passport-holding travelers from a list of specific countries to travel to the United States without a visa. Visa Waiver program travelers must travel to the United States by air or sea, and have received approval on their Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) application, but no longer need to fill out Form I-94W when arriving in the United States.
The US Secretary of Homeland Security designates the list of program countries every year, with consultation and input from with the US Secretary of State. Visa Waiver program countries are chosen partially based on their very low rates of visa refusals for non-immigrants and the strength of their own passport security.
The Visa Waiver program was created at the order of Congress in 1986 in order to reduce the paperwork load for vacationers and short-term business visitors entering the United States and allow the State Department to tackle border risk issues with its consular resources.
The first country to receive visa waiver status, in July 1988, was the United Kingdom, with Japan added that December and France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and West Germany included in October 1989. The program expanded again in 1991, when Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, San Marino, and Spain were added.
Since then, the program has expanded regularly, with the current list also including Brunei, the second Asian country in the program, Ireland, Australia, Slovenia, Portugal, and Singapore. Countries have also been removed from the Visa Waiver program since its creation: Argentina was removed from the program in 2002, and Uruguay in 2003.
The Bush administration tightened the Visa Waiver program's entry requirements after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As of October 2004, Visa Waiver program entrants were required to show a machine-readable passport on entry to the United States. That requirement was upgraded to biometric or electronic passports in October 2006.
In November of that year, the ESTA program was instituted in order to help Visa Waiver program travelers pre-clear their visit online.