28 November 2006

Bush vows to expand Visa Waiver Program

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President George Bush has indicated that the United States will look to expand its Visa Waiver Program to accept citizens of central and eastern European countries.

The Visa Waiver Program allows passport holders from 27 countries to travel and enter America without a visa, including 15 European Union states, but not citizens of Malta, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Estonia, Cyprus, Latvia or Lithuania. They are forced to apply for visas to enter the United States.

Ahead of a NATO summit in Latvia, Bush vowed to expand the program to accept more nations, particularly those that had stood by America in its war against terror.

"I am pleased to announce that I am going to work with our Congress and our international partners to modify our visa waiver program," Bush told a news conference during a visit to the Baltic republic of Estonia.

"It's a way to make sure that nations like Estonia qualify more quickly for the program and at the same time strengthen the program's security components."

The news will be particularly welcomed by the ten EU states currently not part of the progam, who have been protesting strongly against their exclusion.

Under current law, the United States may waive visas only when a country meets requirements such as a low rate of visa over-stayers and a visa refusal rate below 3 percent.

Bush said the legislative process to ease visa restrictions would begin soon and likely involve the modification of the 3 percent threshold while ensuring that the new rules do not undermine U.S. security.

The Visa Waiver Program allows holders to travel to the United States for tourism or business and stay for up to 90 days without a visa.

The number of visitors who enter the United States under the Visa Waiver Program is just over 15 million every year, providing an estimated $10bn to $15bn boost to the American economy.

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