Israeli citizens will be allowed visa-free entry into the United States by the end of November when Israel officially becomes the 41st member of the US Visa Waiver Program.
Bilateral negotiations for Israel’s entry into the program have been ongoing since 2021, when the US opted to support the moderate Israeli governing coalition formed after then-former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election loss. Any government in power when the visa waiver deal takes effect will score significant political points, so it is not surprising that Netanyahu opted to move forward once he returned to power, despite stringent American demands.
Israel has committed to take the difficult step of allowing all Americans of Arab origin, with a few specific security-linked exceptions, free transits of Israeli territory. This was an important condition demanded by Americans who are of Palestinian background, and their domestic political supporters, since longstanding Israeli security restrictions have established different categories of American citizens visiting Israel, with non-Muslims receiving vastly preferred treatment at Israel’s border crossings.
Even so, some lobbyist groups in the United States have filed fresh lawsuits against the US Government, demanding more Israeli concessions for their constituents. Few observers see these new challenges as potentially successful.
Israel also undertook to improve its border screening procedures which were actually seen as below current US’ standards, and to tighten procedures for granting passports to new citizens. This is due to Washington’s fears that new Israeli citizens arriving from Russia since the Ukraine War started could actually become security risks as potential Israeli espionage in the US – which could be guided by Soviet/Russia-born Israelis, who have deep rooted anti-American sentiments – has also been a concern for some in the law enforcement community, as well as visa overstays by young Israelis.
The US has a tough limit on the tourist visa “overstay rate” that a country must reach (under 3 percent) before it can qualify for the visa waiver program.
On September 27, the text of the following statement was released by the US Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security:
Today (September 27), Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas, in consultation with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, announced the designation of Israel into the Visa Waiver Program.
By November 30, 2023, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization will be updated to allow citizens and nationals of Israel to apply to travel to the United States for tourism or business purposes for up to 90 days without first obtaining a US visa, a step which further strengthens the security, economic and people-to-people ties between the United States and Israel.
Following updates in Israel’s travel policies, all American citizens may request entry to Israel for up to 90 days for business, tourism, or transit without obtaining a visa.
“The designation of Israel into the Visa Waiver Program is an important recognition of our shared security interests and the close cooperation between our two countries,” said Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas. “This designation, which represents over a decade of work and coordination between the United States and Israel, will enhance our two nations’ collaboration on counterterrorism, law enforcement, and our other common priorities. Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program, and the stringent requirements it entails, will make both of our nations more secure.”
“Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program represents a critical step forward in our strategic partnership with Israel that will further strengthen long-standing people-to-people engagement, economic cooperation, and security coordination between our two countries,” said Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. “This important achievement will enhance freedom of movement for US citizens, including those living in the Palestinian Territories or traveling to and from them.”
The Visa Waiver Program is designed to enhance the security of the United States and partner countries while encouraging legitimate travel and commerce. The program builds comprehensive security partnerships between the United States and designated countries that meet strict requirements related to counterterrorism, law enforcement, immigration enforcement, document security, and border management. These requirements include confirmation that a country issues secure travel documents, extends visa-free privileges to all American citizens without regard to national origin, religion, or ethnicity; works closely with law enforcement and counterterrorism authorities; and for initial designation, has a rate of nonimmigrant visitor visa refusals below 3 percent during the previous full fiscal year. Israel put forth a significant whole-of-government effort to meet all program requirements, including passing multiple new laws, establishing information sharing systems, and implementing new entry procedures for all American citizens.
In advance of this designation, Israel made updates to its entry policies to meet the visa waiver program requirement to extend reciprocal privileges to all US citizens without regard to national origin, religion, or ethnicity. The Department of Homeland Security monitored Israel’s compliance with these requirements and engaged with Americans of Palestinian origin, both living in the West Bank and living in the United States, who now have the ability to enter Israel visa free, and fly in and out of Ben Gurion airport, reducing barriers to travel for these Americans.
Today’s designation is not the end of the process. As is the process with all vis waiver countries, the US Government will continue to engage with the Government of Israel while monitoring its continued implementation of all program requirements, including the reciprocity commitments it made to the United States on July 19, 2023.
Under the visa waiver program on November 30, 2023, citizens and nationals of Israel will be able to apply online for authorization to travel to the United States. These authorizations are generally valid for two years. Israeli citizens with valid B-1/B-2 visas may continue to use them for business and tourist travel to the United States.
Israel is the 41st member of the visa waiver program. More information can be found at https://www.dhs.gov/visa-waiver-program.