U.S. visa–free travel arrives

U.S. President George W. Bush announced on October 17 that the United States is rescinding visa requirements for the citizens of six formerly communist European countries and South Korea.

U.S. President George W. Bush announced on October 17 that the United States is rescinding visa requirements for the citizens of six formerly communist European countries and South Korea.

Bush said that Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and South Korea will be added to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) in about a month. Each of those countries allows U.S. citizens to visit without obtaining a visa. The countries have agreed to share information about threats, use tamper-proof biometric passports, and register with the U.S. Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) before travelling.

“This is a significant achievement,” Bush told journalists, as quoted on the White House website. “In a post-9/11 world, we could only expand travel opportunities if we increased security measures at the same time.”

He added, “These countries have agreed to share information about threats to our people. They have also agreed that their citizens will use a new system that requires travellers to register online ahead of their visits to the United States.”

While speaking to the media on October 17, Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič called the development good news for the country.

“This means a lot,” he said. “Maybe it seems insignificant, but anyone who has ever travelled to the US knows what kind of torture [applying for a visa] was.”

“That no longer exists from today on,” he continued. “Students, entrepreneurs, and salespeople, all have more space and a better chance of easy travel to the U.S.”

But while speaking on the STV public television station on October 19, Gašparovič criticised the European Union (EU) for not negotiating more heavily on its members' behalf.

“It was repeated that the EU was a partner of the U.S. and that EU members deserved to receive this decision collectively,” he said. “But the EU did not do much in this sphere.”

This allowed Slovakia to qualify for the visa–free regime by itself, Gašparovič added, which he said was positive.

Prime Minister Robert Fico, on the other hand, was sparing in his praise of the decision. He said it should have happened much earlier, as the visa requirement for Americans travelling to Slovakia was waived years ago.

“I don’t see anything special about it and I don’t understand why everybody is so excited,” he said at a short briefing on October 17. “I think there must be balance in international relations, whether the countries are big or small.”

Parliament acted on October 22 to approve the last agreement required for cancellation of the visa duty to the United States.

The agreement enhances cooperation on preventing and combating crime by improving the exchange of information on known and suspected criminals.

It also enables Slovak and American representatives to share information, including fingerprints and DNA profiles, on suspected and convicted criminals.

The decision to rescind the visa requirements adds Slovakia to the 27 countries that participate in the VWP, which allows the citizens of those countries to visit the U.S. visa–free for tourism and other non–business purposes for up to 90 days at a time.

Most VWP countries are from the European Union, but others include Japan and Brunei.

Slovaks travelling to the U.S. will have to follow the new procedure that comes into effect for all citizens from VWP countries as of January 12, 2009, the SITA newswire wrote.

The procedure requires that each traveller has a biometric passport and obtains travel authorisation from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization at least three days prior to arriving in the U.S.

Travellers apply for authorisation by submitting an application through the Department of Homeland Security’s website. The applicant will receive an e-mail notification soon after stating whether authorisation has been approved.

The Interior Ministry has been issuing biometric passports since January 15, 2008.

“This means that everyone who applies for a passport these days will get one that’s biometric,” Ľudmila Staňová, a spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, told The Slovak Spectator.

So far, Slovak passports have just one biometric feature, face recognition. Staňová said the deadline for introducing a second biometric feature – a fingerprint scan – is June 29, 2009, which was set by the EU.

“The Interior Ministry will do its best to accomplish this even sooner,” Staňová said. “But even the passports with just one biometric feature fulfil the criteria for travel to the U.S. without a visa.”

After arrival in the U.S., a Slovak traveller’s documents and fingerprints will be inspected by an immigration officer. Permission to enter the country does not mean permission to work there, the agencies emphasised.

Any Slovak who is turned down for travel authorisation can still apply for a visa at the U.S. Embassy in Bratislava.

The decision to move quickly toward lifting the visa requirement came after a report showed that the rejection rate for Slovak visa applicants had dropped below 10 percent.

The countries have also successfully signed two important agreements.

The final agreement, which enhanced cooperation in preventing and combating crime, was signed on October 8. The signatories included U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Mark Filip, and Kaliňák.

“I commend our Slovak partners for this important step toward an expanded and more secure Visa Waiver Program,” Chertoff said, as quoted in a press release dated October 8.

“Sharing law enforcement information is fundamental to combating transnational crime and discouraging criminal and terrorist travel.”

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