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US Tightens Visa Waiver Program Restrictions

BG0316E | Date: 2003-06-20

For a number of years the United States has had an agreement with certain countries to allow their citizens to enter the U.S. without having to obtain a visa. Beginning October 1, 2003, all citizens of those countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) who wish to enter the U.S. visa-free must present a machine-readable passport (MRP). Machine-readable passports are designed to be swiped across passport reading equipment eliminating the need for keying information into a database. This significantly reduces errors in data entry and increases the speed at which travelers may be processed at port of entry. VWP nationals who do not have MRPs must obtain a U.S. non-immigrant visa. US non-immigrant visas are machine-readable.

This new restriction will apply to all travelers even those holding diplomatic and official passports that are not machine-readable will need visas beginning October 1, 2003, if they seek to enter the U.S. under the VWP.

Families and groups will need to obtain an individual passport for each traveler, including infants. MRPs typically have biodata for only one traveler in the machine-readable zone (MRZ), and families may be denied visa-free entry into the U.S. if the biodata for only one traveler is machine-readable.

In order for a country to remain in the VWP, it must have already certified the implementation of a machine-readable passport program. However, some citizens of those countries may not yet have acquired an MRP. Those who have old passports or passports that were issued outside of their home country should check their passports for machine-readability.

This change affects only visa waiver travel. Applicants for visas at U.S. consular sections are not required to obtain MRPs, regardless of the category of visa being sought. Non-machine-readable passports will remain valid for Transit without Visa (TWOV) purposes.

The 27 countries participating in the VWP are: Andorra, Australia, Austria, 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.