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Heritage Foundation on Visa Waiver Program

August 24, 2010

At the Heritage Foundation Helle Dale has a piece on the US Visa Waiver Programme (VSP) as a public diplomacy tool.  The key point

The VWP has proven to be extremely beneficial by increasing the amount of international visitors to the U.S., a key element of promoting a positive image of America abroad.

As a result Dale advocates extending the number of countries eligible for the programme. Essentially the VWP means that you can travel to the US without applying for a visa in advance instead you  fill in a small form with your personal details and some simple questions on the plane.

As a UK citizen I can travel to the US under the VWP but in 2008 I spent a semester at George Washington University as a visiting fellow which required me to have visa.  US (or UK) visas require you to present yourself for interview (this isn’t true for all countries eg China allows you to do it by post).  It can take several weeks to schedule an interview.  In the UK this has to take place at the embassy in London after having submitted several forms and the necessary fee.  The interview requires you to go through security at the embassy which does give you a particular perspective on how the US sees the world.  With an invitation letter from GWU and a job and a mortgage to go back to in the UK the actual interview was straightforward.  What I didn’t appreciate was that by requiring a visa you come under a greater degree of scrutiny when you actually enter the US than if you are travelling under the VWP.  In the US you need to carry your documents at all times.  Also when I went to a conference in Amsterdam I had to get a letter from GWU certifying that I’d been turning up to teach my classes so I could get back into the US.

I thought that it’s worth sharing this experience becasue if you are used to travelling visa free it’s not obvious what the impact of rigorous (US and UK style ) visa programmes are both in terms of deterring travel and in making visitors feel like objects of suspicion.

The take away is that decisions about visa regimes need to take on board the PD dimension; given the domestic political sensitivity of questions about immigration I suspect that this rarely happens.

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