US restricts visa-free travel

Published December 19, 2015

WASHINGTON: Congress on Friday tightened the programme that allows millions of foreign nationals to travel visa-free to the United States, as lawmakers demand heightened security following terrorist attacks in Paris and California.

The restrictions were part of a sprawling federal spending bill and tax relief package that easily passed the Senate shortly after earlier clearing the House and now heads to President Barack Obama’s desk for his signature.

It bars people who are citizens of the 38 countries that participate in the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP) and who are also dual nationals from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Sudan from using the visa-free system.

It also prevents those who have travelled to those four countries since 2011, or to a country Washington has listed as supporting terrorism, from participating, deeming them a risk and requiring them to apply for a standard visa.

The effort reflects calls by US lawmakers and authorities to reduce security vulnerabilities in the aftermath of the deadly terror strikes last month in Paris, where some of the attackers were French and Belgian nationals who could have traveled unrestricted to the United States to carry out attacks.

The affected foreign nationals will not be barred from travelling to the United States, but they will be required to obtain a visa prior to their visit through standard means, which includes a face-to-face interview at a US consulate.

About 20 million people each year come to the United States without a visa for stays of less than 90 days, including about 13 million Europeans.

They apply online, presenting biographical data through the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation, or ESTA, and pay a small fee.

European diplomats, led by European Union ambassador to Washington David O’Sullivan, have warned of potential retaliation against the United States, arguing the program is based on reciprocity. Officials in Europe — where five of the 28 EU nations have yet to join the Visa Waiver Program — have planned a review of VWP next year, and the US action could complicate that process.

Published in Dawn, December 19th, 2015

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