The U.S. State Department has added seven countries to its Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens of selected U.S. allies to visit the country for up to three months without a visa.
The new additions to the program are South Korea and six Eastern European nations: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Slovak Republic.
Visitors traveling under the Visa Waiver Program must possess a passport with a biometric element, and must also register for each trip through U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization, which supports travel under the program.
The program spares foreign travelers application, interviews, and a 4- to 6-week processing period required for some U.S. visas.
The U.S. travel and hospitality industries, both feeling the affects of the worldwide economic crisis, lobbied heavily for the program’s expansion and applauded the change.
Writing in USA Today, Roger Yu reports that Korean Air plans to add between 5 and 7 percent more seats to its transpacific flights in 2009, while the Czech embassy expects the number of citizens visiting the United States will double to 90,000 in 2009.
Not everyone is celebrating the program’s expansion. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) Monday threatened legislative action to rein in the program, which she called the country’s “Achilles’ heel.”
“By not requiring visas and background checks, it enables terrorists to easily come to this country and do our citizens harm. By not accurately tracking those who enter and exit this country, this program allows foreign visitors to exploit our immigration laws,” Feinstein said.
The 27 countries already covered by the Visa Waiver Program are: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Monaco, Norway, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.