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With the expansion of the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) this spring to 36 countries, overseas travel to the US is expected to grow.
The 27 countries already on the VWP roster were: Andorra, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom (for citizens with the unrestricted right of permanent abode in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man).
Tourists on the VWP do not need a visa to travel to the US for short-term or leisure travel of 90 days or less. Over 13 million visitors using the program - equivalent to about two-thirds of all overseas guests - enter the US each year. It is, therefore, imperative that "we protect and grow this program," said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the US Travel Association.
Alongside the expanded VWP, the reduced visa wait times have benefited visitors from non-VWP countries, such as India (now 14 days today to 110 days a few years back) and Brazil (2 days from 75 days).
Visitors on the VWP only have to present machine-readable passports, which have biometric identifiers, for which the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) has readers for all its ports of entry. Homeland Security uses this system of processing visitors under the US-VISIT (since September 2004) at all air and sea ports of entry. Since its launch, this program has helped DHS and airport officials intercept more than 200 persons with prior or suspected criminal or immigration violations. These included convicted rapists, drug traffickers, individuals convicted of credit card fraud, a convicted armed robber, and numerous immigration violators and individuals attempting visa fraud. Experience has shown that the visa enrolment process is fast and easy for travelers and works as an added layer of security. Since deploying the program's entry capabilities at 115 airports and 14 seaports in 2004, more than 2.5 million foreign nationals have been processed without adversely impacting wait times.
Dow also said that model ports of entry have been launched as top priority programs of US Travel. Twenty top international airports in the US now create a more efficient and hospitable environment without compromising security. "More than 1,000 new customs officers have also been added," Dow said.
Steve Joyce, president and CEO, Choice Hotels International, and US Travel Association national chair, said they are looking to expand the VWP as soon as they possibly can. South American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Chile are the top candidates for the VWP expansion. "To aid our efforts in Washington, these countries must more actively communicate and express their desire to be included in the VWP, as to request specific steps they can take to increase their likelihood of inclusion," said Joyce.
Today, most foreign visitors traveling to the US on a visa and arriving at an air or sea port, have their two index fingers scanned and a digital photograph taken to verify their identity at the port of entry. Today, worldwide use of biometric technologies is the basis of an extensive array of highly-secure identification and personal verification solutions.
Expanding the enrollment of foreign nationals traveling under the VWP builds on the Department's progress to secure its ports of entry without harming US economic security.
"The US government is looking for creative but secure solutions. We don't want to jeopardize security; we believe there are ways to make this better. Hence, we are also working with Congress on a test program for secure video conferencing," said Joyce at the International POWWOW 2010, adding: "This will allow visitors to the US without the need to travel hundreds of miles to the nearest embassy or consulate for their interview. Over secured video connection, this will allow them to apply for entry at their remote locations, with the advantage of speed and less wait time."