If you need a visa to get to the US now, you probably always will

With a visa waiver program, we could ditch this line.
With a visa waiver program, we could ditch this line.
Image: Reuters/Edgard Garrido
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Earlier this year, Chile became the 38th country to join the United States’ visa waiver program. The program allows travelers from certain countries to visit the US for up to 90 days without going through the drawn-out process of applying for a visa. With Taiwan joining the program last year, it might seem like the US is set to expand the list.

That is not the case. In fact, the strict requirements the US has in place for countries hoping to qualify mean that Chile might be the last addition for some time.

Visa waivers make tourism and short business trips to the US easier, and reduce processing time for American consulates abroad. They also allow Americans to travel the world more freely, as all visa waiver agreements with the US are reciprocal.

As with any program that allows foreigners to enter America more easily, however, there is a long list (pdf, p. 5) of requirements countries need to meet in order to qualify. They must have “effective border controls,” “political and economic stability,” machine-readable passports, and exhibit a close degree of cooperation with US law enforcement. Here are all 38 countries that have met these requirements and currently participate.


Nearly every country on that map is rich. The OECD, a group of countries with highly developed economies, accounts for 28 of them. Two others—Singapore and Taiwan—are also rich countries. The remaining eight are either very small (Andorra, Brunei, Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino) or are members of the European Union (Latvia, Lithuania, Malta). Canada, while not part of of the visa waiver program, has its own set of even more relaxed rules for entry into the US. Excluding the US itself and Canada, the grayed-out countries are home to over 90% of the world’s remaining population.

The highest bar to entry to the visa waiver program is its requirement that, to qualify for the program, a country cannot have any more than 3% of its visitor visas to the US refused throughout the previous fiscal year. (An applicant can have his or her visitor visa application rejected for any number of reasons, including committing a crime involving illegal drugs or openly going to the US to look for work.) According to the numbers for 2013, only eight countries meet this requirement.


(The rate for Nauru is 0% because it is a tiny island nation. Nauru—population 9,300—was awarded just four visitor visas last year. Its size means it could be brought into the program relatively painlessly, but there is no real incentive for the US to do so. With so few applicants, visa waivers would not speed up processing, and US travelers rarely go there: getting to Nauru is only possible via a thrice-weekly flight from Brisbane, Australia.)

The two South American countries in that chart have actually belonged to the visa waiver program in the past, only to have their membership revoked by the US. Argentina got the axe in 2002 amidst an economic crisis: the US felt this gave too strong an incentive for Argentines to head north. Uruguay was removed because of a high proportion of visitors overstaying the 90-day maximum. Given this touchy recent history, neither of these two looks likely to be brought back on any time soon.

Some reports suggest that the US is considering giving visa waivers to Colombians, but with a refusal rate of over 10%, it isn’t eligible. Brazil, on the other hand, is actually pretty close to the mark, with a rate of 3.5%.

Remaining on the list above are two countries in the Middle East—Qatar and Oman—as well as Mozambique, South Africa, and Hong Kong. Passport holders from Qatar and Oman were recently given electronic visa waivers to the United Kingdom. As politically stable monarchies with a combined population of just over 5 million, they might qualify, but American lawmakers would probably not be willing to deal with the political consequences of loosening visa restrictions on any country in the region. (Even Israelis need to get visas.)

Mozambique and South Africa present other problems. High unemployment in South Africa puts its economic stability in question, and Mozambique is one of the world’s least-developed countries. While South Africa is by far the richer of the two, both countries are much poorer than other visa waiver participants, even the two recent additions. GDP per capita is $40,000 in Taiwan and $19,000 in Chile, compared to just $11,500 and $1,200 in South Africa and Mozambique, respectively.

That leaves Hong Kong. A small, rich, and developed country like Taiwan, it is a good candidate. But its acceptance would depend on American willingness to anger China, which—judging by the US silence over Chinese oil rigs destined for waters claimed by Vietnam—appears to be running thin.

All of this means there might not be any new participants for a while. One workaround is to waive visa interviews for certain travelers, a measure the US has taken in India, but that only goes partway to reducing processing times and doesn’t secure reciprocal waivers for Americans.

In short, unless the US loosens the 3% restriction—a move the Obama administration has indicated an openness to—or countries somehow bring their visa refusal rates down, one of the few American policies that actually made it easier to enter the country will reach a plateau.