Included in the 2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act (HR 2029), signed into law on December 18, 2015, were significant changes to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). These changes will require “e-passports” of all VWP travelers and additional security standards. This follows “enhancements” to the program announced by the Obama Administration at the end of November.

The VWP permits visa-free travel for 20 million visitors per year to the United States for citizens of 38 program partner countries around the world. VWP visitors are admitted to the US as tourists or business visitors for 90 days. VWP countries include those in Western Europe, Australia, Chile, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. Every prospective VWP traveler undergoes counterterrorism screening and must receive approval through DHS’ Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).

The Consolidated Appropriations Act imposes new restrictions to VWP eligibility for certain individuals who:

  1. Have been present in Iraq, Syria, Iran or Sudan (or other countries designated by the Secretary of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as supporting terrorism or countries “of concern” as designated by the Secretary) at any time on or after March 1, 2011. The law exempts those performing military service in the Armed Forces of VWP countries or those who carry out official duties in a full-time capacity in the employment of a VWP country government. DHS may also wave exclusion from the VWP program if it would be in the law enforcement or national security interest of the US.
  2. The Act also excludes VWP individuals who are nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran or Sudan.
  3. All participating VWP countries must issue electronic- and machine-readable passports.

These new restrictions are more expansive than may be apparent and could result in unintended consequences for not only nationals of VWP countries, but US citizens, as well. It is important to note, nationality typically depends on the laws of the designated country. For example, an individual born in Iran but holding German nationality and a German passport may now be excluded from the VWP even if they have not visited Iran for many years and does not possess an Iranian passport.

As the impact of these changes play out over the next several weeks and months, we could see retaliation by VWP countries that restrict visa waiver travel for certain US citizens. Stay tuned and Happy New Year.