Four EU member states are still excluded from the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) but provisions for reform of the VWP were included in the bill for comprehensive immigration reform.
Current US immigration law provides for a visa waiver programme whereby citizens of a country that meet certain criteria can visit the United States for up to 90 days without a visa as long as they register in advance with the Electronic System of Travel Authorization (ESTA) and pay a small fee. The criteria include a refusal rate for visas for citizens of the country in question of less than three percent. Three EU member states far exceed this refusal rate threshold – Poland (9.8 percent), Romania (17 percent), and Bulgaria (18 percent) – and are therefore excluded from the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Cyprus, with a refusal rate of 1.9 percent, is also excluded due to the Cyprus dispute. These states have been actively lobbying for an expansion of the VWP but to little avail.
Although the four states continue to be excluded, there was significant progress on this matter in 2013. The Obama administration backed a bill providing for comprehensive immigration reform and it passed in the Senate although it has since stalled in the House of Representatives. One minor provision in the bill provides for a change in the criteria for the VWP whereby countries with a visa “overstay” rate of less than 3 percent could join as long as they meet a refusal rate of ten percent –over three times that of the current standard. Poland, for instance, has an overstay rate of only two percent and would therefore meet the new standards. In addition to the immigration bill, supporters of an expansion of the VWP introduced additional pieces of legislation that would include some of the excluded EU member states, although none have yet passed.
The fact that a revision of the VWP is included in proposals for immigration reform is an advance for European policy on this issue. The Obama administration is expected to renew its push for the immigration reform bill in the spring of 2014 and even if it fails then it is likely to come back on the agenda at a later stage.