Israel continues to take steps towards admission to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, a regulation that allows travel with an ESTA. Recently, the country has met two important requirements and as such there are hopeful reports regarding the expected admission period. However, there is still one critical requirement the country has to meet.
Israeli interest in the Visa Waiver Program
For well over a decade, there have been serious voices among politicians in Israel in favour of the country joining the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. After all, this would make it a lot easier for both tourists and business travellers from Israel to travel to the USA. For travellers from VWP countries, in many cases, a visa is not required for a trip to the USA. For stays of up to 90 days in the United States, travellers who meet all the requirements can apply for an ESTA.
No ESTA application for Israelis yet
Despite the progress made, Israel does not yet meet all admission requirements. The U.S. State Department recently reiterated this. In practice, this means that Israelis are not (yet) eligible for the ESTA. As such, they have to apply for a physical visa for a trip to the USA and therefore often face extremely long waiting times. The average waiting time for the required interview at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem alone is now at least six months.
Hurdles for a quick admission
Late September 2022, e-Visa.ie has already reported on the potential hurdles for Israel regarding admission to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. These included the exchange of traveller data and the possibility for Americans to travel freely to Israel. Another requirement and possible barrier to entering the program had to do with the percentage of rejected visa applications for the USA from Israeli travellers.
Some steps have been taken
Last January, Israel met the latter requirement for the first time. The country managed to prove that less than 3% of the U.S. visa applications submitted by Israelis were rejected. This was an important moment, as it met one of the absolute requirements for admission to the ESTA system.
In addition, on 29 March this year, an Israeli law was passed to meet another critical requirement. This law ensures that the biometric data of Israeli travellers who apply for the ESTA in the future can be exchanged with the U.S. government authorities. This data exchange allows almost all correctly submitted ESTA applications to be approved within several days. This is in comparison to visa applications, which have to be screened more thoroughly and therefore have a longer processing time. With the passing of this law, only one of the previously mentioned requirements needs to be met.
Important obstacle to admission to the ESTA program
Early April this year, the U.S. ambassador in Israel indicated that he is confident that the steps taken so far will lead to approval by July or August 2023. However, the requirement that all US citizens must be able to travel freely to (or through) Israel (including the West Bank) remains a point of discussion. This is because it must apply to all U.S. citizens, including those of Palestinian origin and US citizens registered in the population register of Palestine. This is a non-negotiable requirement. There is still great uncertainty on this point, despite the fact that there are currently only a few months left to meet this US requirement as well.
At present, Israel still expects to officially join by 30 September 2023 and thus before the start of the new fiscal year. If this practical deadline is not met, Israel's entry into the Visa Waiver Program could be significantly delayed for this administrative reason alone.
Nationalities who are eligible for the ESTA
Travellers from most European countries can easily apply for an ESTA with an online form for some time now as long as they meet the requirements. The admission of Israel to the U.S. ESTA system would make the country the ninth country outside of Europe to enter into the program. Other countries outside of Europe who take part in the Visa Waiver Program are Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Brunei.