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Visa Waiver Program: DHS Has Implemented the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, but Further Steps Needed to Address Potential Program Risks

GAO-11-335 Published: May 05, 2011. Publicly Released: May 17, 2011.
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The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows eligible nationals from 36 member countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for 90 days or less without a visa. In 2007, Congress required the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to implement an automated electronic travel authorization system to determine, prior to travel, applicants' eligibility to travel to the United States under the VWP. Congress also required all VWP member countries to enter into an agreement with the United States to share information on whether citizens and nationals of that country traveling to the United States represent a security threat. In 2002, Congress mandated that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) review, at least every 2 years, the security risks posed by each VWP country's participation in the program. In this report, GAO evaluates (1) DHS's implementation of an electronic system for travel authorization; (2) U.S. agencies' progress in negotiating informationsharing agreements; and (3) DHS's timeliness in issuing biennial reports. GAO reviewed relevant documents and interviewed U.S., foreign government, and travel industry officials in six VWP countries.


Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Homeland Security To ensure that DHS can identify and mitigate potential security risks associated with the VWP, the Secretary of Homeland Security should establish time frames for the regular review and documentation of cases of VWP passengers traveling to a U.S. port of entry without verified ESTA approval.
Closed – Implemented
In response to the GAO recommendation, DHS issued the Electronic System for Travel Authorization Review of ESTA Denied and Non-Compliant Travelers Standard Operating Procedure in April 2011. The purpose of the document is "to establish the requirements and responsibilities for reviewing travelers who arrived under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) as Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) noncompliant, or having been denied an ESTA to determine the level of risk posed to VWP security and identify improvements to minimize noncompliance. According to the document, DHS policy assigns responsibility to the ESTA Program Management Office (PMO) for conducting a quarterly review of all such travelers. To show that it had begun implementing the reviews, DHS provided us a memo sent to the Executive Director for Operations signed in May 2011 with recommendations based on a review of ESTA non-compliant passengers.
Department of Homeland Security To ensure that DHS can identify and mitigate potential security risks associated with the VWP, the Secretary of Homeland Security should take steps to address delays in the biennial country review process so that the mandated country reports can be completed on time.
Closed – Implemented
According to DHS, the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) Office has conducted outreach within DHS and with interagency partners involved in the biennial report (eligibility) review process to discuss new reporting processes and related workflow issues, and to establish timeframes for document production and required clearances. One new step taken is to require that the Intelligence Community (IC) product that is produced in conjunction with each biennial country review be finalized and published at least 90 days in advance of the date of submission of a VWP Report to Congress to allow the VWP Office enough time to review the IC report and incorporate its views. According to DHS, it will send VWP reports to Congress every 2 years, starting in 2013

Full Report

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Eligibility determinationsForeign governmentsGovernment information disseminationHomeland securityInformation disclosureInternational travelNoncompliancePassengersPassportsProgram evaluationRisk assessmentSchedule slippagesSecurity threatsTerroristsTravelVisasWaiversInformation sharing