Attending an impromptu meeting or organizing a last-minute vacation in the United States is currently no challenge for most Europeans.
Under the so-called visa waiver program, visitors from 38 countries, most in Europe, are allowed to enter the U.S. for up to 90 days without a formal visa as long as they are traveling on business, for leisure or in transit to Canada or Mexico.
The proposal would ban citizens from the 38 countries and islands -- including most of Europe and also Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Brunei and Chile -- from receiving the visa waiver if they report on a travel application that they have visited Syria, Iraq, Iran or Sudan since 2011.
The proposal before the House, whose language was hammered out in talks between lawmakers and the White House, potentially would affect only a small number of passengers. However, some observers fear putting more stringent controls in place could actually make the U.S. less, not more, safe.
He noted that only three people who have been involved in terrorism incidents entered the U.S. via the visa waiver program in the last 25 years, pressing the point that added checks are unlikely to have any real effect on the nation’s overall security.
The Telegraph, another British newspaper, warned that the changes could cause “transport woes” for up to 5 million Britons who do not yet have a new “e-passport” with a biometric chip, which could become mandatory under some plans being discussed.
Permission to enter the U.S. under the current system is obtained via a Web-based system called the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA, which performs basic security checks and requires a minimal processing fee. An applicant is not required to attend an in-person interview or be fingerprinted unless their application is red-flagged because of security concerns.
The ESTA permission is generally valid for two years and multiple trips.
Some nations have been slow to comply with even the existing U.S. visa rules and could face being kicked out of the visa-waiver program altogether if they do not agree with changes to come.
Travel industry representatives have raised concerns that the proposed change in rules could have a similar effect.
“The stakes are high,” the U.S. Travel Assn. said in a statement. “Negative impacts on international travel behavior may be a trade-off that many members of Congress feel like they can live with today, but at the very least they need a clear picture of what those are versus any purported security benefit.”
Boyle is a special correspondent.