New restrictions for those traveling into the U.S.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced the implementation of new restrictions on the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) under the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 (the Act). In accordance to these changes to the Act, certain visitors are no longer eligible to enter the U.S. through the VWP, including:
- Nationals of VWP countries who have traveled to Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan at any time on or after March 1, 2011.
- Individuals who are nationals of both a VWP country and also Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan.
Those entering the U.S. from VWP countries receive permission to travel faster than those who apply for a B-1/B-2 tourist of visitor visa, which requires the traveler to pass through an interview process at the U.S. Consulate. Travelers who intend to enter the United States through the VWP are required to apply through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). This allows the Department of Homeland Security to review applications, complete background checks, and screen for counterterrorism activity.
Exceptions include members of the military of a VWP country or federal government employees who have been to Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria on official orders. Additional exceptions include individuals who traveled on behalf of international organizations, regional organizations, sub-national governments on official duty, humanitarian NGO’s, as journalists for reporting purposes or those who have traveled specifically to Iraq for business-related purposes. In these instances, waivers are granted on a case-by-case basis and travelers will not be able to apply separately for a waiver of these new restrictions.
An updated ESTA application form is now available, which includes additional questions in regards to the new requirements under the Act. Although the majority of travelers will not be affected, those who are current ESTA holders and plan to travel to the U.S. should check their ESTA status prior to travel on CBP’s website, esta.cbp.dhs.gov. Those who have visited any of the specified countries in the last 5 years or hold dual citizenship should not rely on the VWP for travel and instead should contact the CBP Information Center, www.cbp.gov/contact, their closest US Embassy or Consulate, or begin the application process for the B-1/ B-2 visitor visa.
Additionally, as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security continually reviews the threat environment around the world, it could at any point could determine other countries as areas of concern, imposing similar restrictions as the ones mentioned above. Libya, Somalia and Yemen have recently been appointed as areas of concern, specifically for anyone who has traveled to those areas in the past 5 years. This means that travelers should expect an updated ESTA application including questions regarding travel to these countries in the spring of 2016.