The Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) announced Thursday, February 18, 2015, that it is expanding the list of countries that will restrict travel with the Visa Waiver Program (“VWP”). The program lets citizens of certain countries travel to the US without a visa for visits of 90 days or less. As previously mentioned, DHS is taking this action pursuant to provisions that Congress passed as part of the spending omnibus package in December 2015. In addition to the four countries originally listed in the bill, DHS added Libya, Somalia and Yemen. Travel to these additional countries after March 2011 will prevent an individual from using the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (“ESTA”). Individuals will start to feel the impact of these changes as early as the end of February, when US Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) will implement a newly designed ESTA application to address the provisions in the new law.
Many individuals may have already received notifications of the ESTA revocation. These travelers are advised to apply for a nonimmigrant visa at the US consulate. In some instances, CBP may grant a request for a waiver, but such approvals will be determined on a case-by-case basis. The Department of State has set forth scenarios that may allow an individual that is restricted from VWP travel to continue to use the VWP. CBP references those situations in the agency’s FAQs.
As the US continues to increase travel restrictions that affect Europeans, there may be a response from the European Union (“EU”). The EU is monitoring the situation closely as reciprocity agreements between nations could lead to visa restrictions for some Americans traveling to Europe. In a January letter to the National Iranian American Council, the Deputy Chief of Mission for the EU Delegation to the US noted that reciprocity mechanisms exist that would suspend visa-free travel for US travelers to EU countries. The letter stated that ultimate responsibility for enactment of any such legislation rested with the European Parliament. If the EU does follow through, US travelers would be required to obtain a visa before traveling to Europe. It is premature to speculate what action will be taken by the EU, but the adoption of the new US law has certainly placed the visa-free travel partnership in a delicate position.