Visa Waiver Program Update: EU Sets Deadline for Recommendations Concerning Whether to Impose Visa Restrictions on Americans Wishing to Visit the EU

April 15, 2016

By Caitlin Steinke and Tina Monshipour Foster, Law Firm of Tina Foster

On April 12, the European Commission debated whether American tourists and business travelers should be required to obtain visas before visiting the European Union.  The discussion was partly in response to changes the US government made to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) earlier this year, which many consider to be discriminatory restrictions that create second-class citizens among Europeans.

The VWP allows citizens of 38 countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business - and stay for up to 90 days - without first obtaining a visa. The success of the program depends on its underlying principle of reciprocity; in exchange for allowing citizens of participating countries to visit the United States visa-free, the VWP also allows US citizens to travel to any of the other 38 countries visa-free.

Due to recent changes implemented by the US Congress, the VWP now prohibits visa-free travel to the United States for any citizen of a VWP country who is also a citizen of Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Sudan. The changes also prohibit visa-free travel for any citizen of a VWP country who has visited Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Sudan on or after March 1, 2011, unless such travel was to perform military or official government service for a VWP country.

Since the VWP is based on reciprocity, the European Union would be well within its rights to respond in kind, and deny visa-free travel to certain American citizens. This is a very real concern among Iranian-Americans,  who fear reciprocal discriminatory treatment on the basis of their Iranian heritage. There is also the possibility that the European Union could back out of the VWP all together and impose visa restrictions on all Americans. In addition to concerns about the discriminatory visa restrictions imposed by the United States, the European Union is also considering how to respond to the United States’ refusal to admit five EU member states to the VWP.

The debate within the European Commission this week did not result in a decision on whether to implement reciprocal visa restrictions, or whether to scrap the program entirely. Instead, the Commission instructed the European Parliament and the 28 EU member states to submit their recommendations by July 12, 2016. Our attorneys will continue to monitor the situation, and provide updates as they are available.