The Biden administration’s recent announcement that travel restrictions from Europe would be eased for vaccinated travelers was long overdue.
As trans-Atlantic air travel stands to pick up again in earnest, the continued exclusion of some European NATO allies—Romania, in particular—from the Visa Waiver Program remains a glaring omission in need of a swift solution.
The Visa Waiver Program works by allowing citizens of approved countries to come to the U.S. without a visa for up to 90 days with a travel authorization that is good for two years.
In exchange, the 39 member nations taking part share information with the U.S. on serious criminals, terrorists, and lost and stolen passports.
In addition to these obvious security dividends, the Visa Waiver Program facilitates business travel and tourism between foreign countries and the U.S., and further strengthens the trans-Atlantic bond.
The experience of Europeans from Visa Waiver Program nations and non-participant nations wanting to travel to the U.S., as The Heritage Foundation has written, is the difference between night and day:
The VWP allows citizens of member countries to come to the U.S. without a visa. Instead, they must complete an online application on the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), similar in concept to an e-visa.
ESTA travel authorization is similar to the vetting process for a visa, but does not include an interview at a U.S. consulate, making it significantly less time-consuming.
Recently, the U.S. has expanded membership in the program, including the inclusion of Croatia earlier this year. Today, six European NATO allies remain outside the program: Albania, Bulgaria, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, and Turkey.
Romania is by far the most striking omission. Bilateral ties between the U.S. and Romania have strengthened in recent years, including with the signing of defense cooperation and 5G agreements, procurement of U.S. equipment, and frequent military exercises.
Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s description of Romania as an “anchor of Black Sea security” is accurate.
Yet, on the Visa Waiver Program, Romania remains on the outside looking in, due to a visa-refusal rate above 3% (10.14% in fiscal 2020). Countries are required to have a visa-refusal rate of less than 3%. Romania’s visa-overstay rate, however, is similar to—and in some cases better than—those of nations already in the program.
Congress for its part has options for addressing Romania’s exclusion from Visa Waiver Program, including allowing the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the program, the latitude to invite nations to join with a slightly elevated visa-refusal rate, provided that they have a concurrently small visa-overstay rate.
Congress could also evaluate alternative eligibility criteria that consider other national security objectives, such as defense spending by NATO members. (Romania meets both NATO spending benchmarks.)
Still, a nation’s final inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program, even after meeting all the criteria, is at the discretion of the Department of Homeland Security and the president. Ultimately, how quickly Romania is included in the program may rest on the administration signaling that program expansion is a priority.
In the case of Romania, expansion of the Visa Waiver Program should be prioritized. Romania is a valuable U.S. ally that invests in defense and that continues to seek ways to deepen the partnership with the U.S.
It’s exclusion from the Visa Waiver Program leaves a false impression that Romania is a second-tier ally, a message that Romanians hoping to travel to the U.S., who must navigate the visa process, can surely attest to.
Announcing Romania’s inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program would go a long way towards rectifying this impression, helping to further cement bilateral ties, while also improving U.S. security. It’s a win-win for the U.S. and Romania, and it should be a no-brainer for the Biden administration.
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