January 22, 2016

U.S. Imposes New Visa Requirements, Removes Eligibility for Visa Waiver Program for Some Travelers

Effective January 21, 2016, certain individuals are now required to apply for a visa at a U.S. consulate or embassy instead of traveling to the U.S. visa-free under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The change affects Europeans who hold dual nationality with Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria, as well as anyone who has traveled to one of these countries within the last five years (except those who have traveled for diplomatic or military purposes in the service of a VWP country).

Visa Waiver Program

The U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows nationals of 38 participating countries to travel to the U.S. for 90 days or less without first obtaining a visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate. These countries, in return, permit U.S. citizens to travel to their countries for a similar length of time without a visa for business or tourism. Tourists and business travelers from these countries may submit online applications via the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) and can then travel to the U.S. for business or tourism without first obtaining a visa from a U.S. embassy or consulate.

Restrictions to the VWP are being implemented as part of the budget deal passed by Congress last month. Although the 38 participating ESTA countries have not yet announced reciprocal changes to their visa programs in response, it is anticipated that they will. This means that U.S. citizens who are dual nationals of Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan may be required to obtain a visa before visiting a VWP country for business or tourism.

Travelers who have valid ESTAs may receive notification that they are no longer eligible to travel under the VWP. These individuals are still eligible to travel to the United States with a valid nonimmigrant visa issued by a U.S. embassy or consulate and will be required to appear for an interview and obtain a visa in their passports before traveling to the U.S. Individuals with U.S. travel plans who may be affected by the changes to the VWP are encouraged to check their ESTA status prior to travel on CBP’s website. The State Department has also announced an updated ESTA application will be released in late February 2016.

Waiver of Restriction

The Secretary of Homeland Security may waive the restriction on dual nationals and travelers if he deems it to be in the law enforcement or national security interests of the U.S. This might include those who have traveled to one of those four countries on official duty on behalf of international or regional organizations or humanitarian NGOs or as a journalist in a reporting capacity.

The list of travelers potentially eligible for a waiver also includes those who have traveled to Iran for business-related purposes following the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or those who have traveled to Iraq for business-related purposes. Waivers will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

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