U.S. Department of State
Bureau of Consular Affairs

Visa Waiver Program - How a Country Qualifies

How does a country qualify for Visa Waiver Program (VWP) participation?

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) enables citizens of certain countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for 90 days or less without obtaining a visa. Not all countries participate in the VWP. There are a number of requirements which must be met, as explained below, for a country to be considered for the Visa Waiver Program.

Refusal rate

In order to qualify for VWP participation, the nonimmigrant visitor ("B-1/B-2" visa category) refusal rate for nationals of a country who have applied at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate in that country must average less than 3% for the previous fiscal year.

Once a country meets the refusal rate criteria, a number of other factors must be evaluated before a decision on VWP nomination can be made:


  • VWP candidate countries must provide reciprocal visa-free travel for U.S. citizens.

Passport security

  • A country must have a machine readable passport (MRP) program in place in order to qualify for VWP participation.
  • In addition, VWP candidate countries must demonstrate that adequate safeguards against fraudulent use of their passports are in place, including proper storage of blank passports and sufficient screening of passport applicants.
  • Consideration will also be given to the ease with which host country citizenship can be obtained.

Political and economic stability

  • Countries under consideration for VWP participation must be sufficiently stable to ensure that conditions which could affect VWP qualifying criteria (such as overstay rates in the U.S.) are not likely to change dramatically in the future.

Border controls

  • VWP candidate countries must demonstrate that effective border controls are in place for all territory under their control.
  • Factors taken into consideration include the thoroughness and consistency of entry checks as well as the extent to which the country's territory is used as a transit point for alien smugglers.

Law-enforcement cooperation

  • The degree to which host country law enforcement agencies cooperate with U.S. counterparts as well as international entities such as Interpol will be considered.
  • The Attorney General, in consultation with the Secretary of State, must evaluate the nominee country's interest in enforcement of U.S. immigration laws, and the existence and effectiveness of extradition agreements with the U.S., including extradition of its own nationals who violate US laws.
  • The Attorney General must submit a report to Congress on the country's qualification for designation that includes an explanation of a favorable determination.

Security concerns

  • Any security concerns that could be raised by a country's admission into the VWP program will be considered.

Is there a probationary program for VWP entry?

  • No. The probationary status entry program, designed for countries with a refusal rate of less than 3.5 percent but more than 2 percent, was eliminated by the new immigration legislation signed into law in September 1996. Therefore, no more countries may be admitted in probationary status.

How does the nomination process work?

  • The nomination process is based on a 1997 protocol established between the Departments of State and Justice. Under this protocol, the State Department initiates the process by advising the Department of Justice of its intent to nominate a country for consideration for inclusion in the VWP.
  • The Department of State may only nominate a country once it determines that each the first three qualifications listed above (including refusal rate below 3%, reciprocal treatment for American citizens, and machine readable passport program in place) have been met. If all three of these criteria have not been met, or if the Department of State believes that deficiencies in the other qualification areas are significant, the Department will not nominate a country.
  • Once the Department of State has advised the Department of Justice of its intent to nominate a country, an interagency team reviews the nomination, focusing on the impact inclusion of the country in VWP would have on law enforcement, national security, and immigration control. If no clearly disqualifying objections are raised during this prenomination review, the Secretary of State submits a formal written nomination to the Attorney General.
  • After a country is formally nominated, BCIS leads a site team of representatives from interested agencies to visit the nominated country. The team reviews the nominee country’s political, social, and economic condition; the security of its passport and national identity documents; its border controls, immigration and nationality laws, and law enforcement policies and practices; and other matters that nay be of law enforcement, immigration, or national security concern. Based on the prenomination review and site visit, the interagency working group submits a recommendation to the Attorney General, who then makes the ultimate decision on VWP participation.

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(April 2003)