Many foreign travelers who wish to enter the United States must first obtain a visa. Obtaining a visa requires that individuals submit written applications and may require interviews and background checks by U.S. Department of State personnel. These interviews and checks are designed to minimize national security threats and prevent illegal immigration.

In contrast, visitors traveling for business or pleasure under the Visa Waiver Pilot Program (VWPP) do not have to obtain a visa to request entry into the United States. They are not required to submit the written visa applications or undergo the interviews or background checks that are designed to minimize illegal immigration and national security threats to the United States. Instead, VWPP applicants present their passports and completed I-94Ws (Nonimmigrant Visa Waiver Arrival/Departure Forms) to Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) inspectors at U.S. ports of entry. The INS inspectors observe the applicants, examine the passports, and conduct checks against computerized databases to make decisions on whether to allow applicants entry into the United States. The work of the INS inspectors is the principal and, in many cases, the only means of preventing illegal entry; the INS inspectors have, on average, less than one minute to check and decide on each applicant.

This inspection assessed INS's efforts at air ports of entry to minimize national security threats and decrease the potential for illegal immigration posed by mala fide VWPP applicants.1 We focused on areas related to the VWPP for which INS has direct responsibility, recognizing that issues outside of INS's control can affect INS's operation of the program. In addition, we realize that issues we describe in this report may not be restricted to VWPP applicants; however, we highlighted the issues because the VWPP provided another -- most likely easier -- avenue for mala fide applicants to enter the United States.


The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 created the VWPP, which the federal government first implemented in 1988. The VWPP allows citizens from 26 countries to enter the United States as visitors for business or pleasure withoutobtaining a visa.2 The law allows VWPP visitors to stay in the United States for up to 90 days per visit and requires that they possess a round trip transportation ticket and waive their rights to appeal immigration officers' determinations of admissibility or contest any deportation actions. In addition, VWPP visitors must maintain a foreign residence and are prohibited from working while in the United States.

Congress created the VWPP to improve U.S. foreign relations, to promote effective use of resources of the government agencies involved, and, without posing a threat to the welfare or security of the United States, to facilitate international travel, thus increasing the number of foreign travelers visiting the United States. Over the last several years, millions of visitors have arrived under the VWPP (see Table 1).

Table 1: VWPP Visitors for Fiscal Years (FY) 1993 Through 19973

  FY 1993 FY 1994 FY 1995 FY 1996 FY 1997
COUNTRIES IN THE VWPP 22 22 23 25 26
VWPP VISITORS 9,264,403 9,756,143 10,349,792 14,012,815 14,469,539
TEMPORARY VISITORS4 19,879,443 20,318,933 20,886,867 24,607,820 25,985,310
PERCENT VWPP VISITORS 46.6 48 49.6 56.9 55.7

Source: INS Statistics Division


For a country to qualify for the VWPP, it must meet statutory requirements for a low refusal rate for its citizens who apply for U.S. nonimmigrant visas, and it must have a machine-readable passport, or be in the process of developing one. The law, as revised, states that "[t]he government of the [VWPP] country certifies that it has or is inthe process of developing a program to issue machine-readable passports to its citizens" 8 USC 1187 INA 217 (c)(2)(C). No time frame is specified for actually developing a machine-readable passport. At the time of our review, six countries had been in the process of developing a machine-readable passport for more than seven years (see Appendix I).5

The Secretary of State is responsible for nominating countries to the VWPP and the Attorney General is responsible for determining whether nominated countries should be allowed to participate in the program. The Attorney General must certify that a country nominated for the VWPP does not compromise the law enforcement interests of the United States, and also must monitor the continued eligibility of member VWPP countries.

INS has several responsibilities related to the VWPP. Once countries become participants in the VWPP, INS must provide the Attorney General with information regarding the countries' continuing eligibility.6   INS also must handle the day-to-day operations of the program, including inspection of VWPP visitors at ports of entry.

The Arrival/Departure Form and the Nonimmigrant Information System

To facilitate the inspection process at airports of entry, airlines supply I-94Ws to all VWPP applicants while en route to the United States.7   VWPP applicants present these, along with their passports, for INS inspectors' review during the inspection process.

The applicants must complete the front of the I-94W (i.e., provide their name, country of citizenship, passport number, and location of stay in the United States) and answer "yes" or "no" to a series of questions on the back. The questions includewhether the applicants have criminal histories, have ever been involved in espionage or terrorist activities, are seeking to work in the United States, and have ever been deported from the United States. Below the questions is a notice that applicants who answer "yes" to any questions may be refused admission.

INS sends the collected portions of the I-94Ws to a data entry center.8  Data entry clerks enter selected information from these forms into the Nonimmigrant Information System (NIIS), which tracks arrivals and departures of nonimmigrant foreign nationals and, if operating as envisioned, could provide INS information on whether visitors are overstaying their periods of admission.

Methods to Prevent Fraudulent Entry

During the inspection process, the primary tool available to INS inspectors to prevent applicants from making fraudulent entry into the United States is the Interagency Border Inspection System, which is maintained by the U.S. Customs Service (Customs) and commonly referred to as the lookout system.9   This computerized system allows access to various automated databases that contain records of individuals who should not be allowed entry into the United States and records of stolen blank passport numbers. INS and other federal agencies (e.g., Customs and the U.S. Department of State) have access to and can enter data into the lookout system.

During primary inspection, an INS inspector examines the applicant's passport and checks the applicant against the lookout system. If the passport is machine-readable, the INS inspector runs it through a reader, and the applicant's first name, last name, date of birth, and passport number are electronically checked against the lookout system. When a passenger does not have a machine-readable passport, the INS inspector types in the applicant's first name, last name, and date of birth -- the only elements INS requires for primary inspection -- and these elements are checkedagainst the lookout system.10  INS inspectors told us that they enter and check passport numbers of passports that are not machine-readable only if they are suspicious of the applicants.

Other INS efforts to prevent applicants from fraudulently entering the United States include:

Fraudulent Use of VWPP Passports

As the VWPP has grown, so has the potential for its abuse. Because a passport is the only document required for a VWPP applicant to enter the United States, passports of VWPP countries are in demand on the black market. For example, INS reported that the price of Slovenian passports increased tenfold on the black market when Slovenia -- the most recently designated country -- joined the VWPP in September 1997. INS has already intercepted mala fide VWPP applicants using stolen Slovenian passports.

INS has stated that the theft of passports, especially blank passports, is a problem related to the VWPP. According to INS, few countries reported significant problems with thefts of passports prior to creation of the VWPP. Now, even countries being proposed for nomination into the VWPP are experiencing problems with thefts of passports.11

There are several types of fraudulent passports being used by mala fide VWPP applicants: stolen blank passports, altered passports, and counterfeit passports.

Stolen blank passports, altered passports, and counterfeit passports may be used by impostors who falsely claim to be citizens of VWPP countries. For example, Polish citizens have presented themselves as Germans; Albanians have posed as Slovenians; Nigerians have falsely claimed to be citizens of the United Kingdom. Other impostors present genuine passports -- often stolen -- that belong to other citizens of their own country and attempt to pass themselves off as those individuals. If INS inspectors do not identify impostors when they present themselves for inspection, these mala fide VWPP applicants will gain entry into the United States.

1 We are using the term mala fide VWPP applicants to refer to individuals who use fraudulent VWPP passports or who use valid VWPP passports with fraudulent intent to violate VWPP restrictions.

2 See Appendix I for a list of current VWPP countries.

3 These statistics include admissions from air, land, and sea ports of entry. Land and sea ports of entry account for only 4.9 percent of all VWPP admissions. In FY 1997, four air ports of entry accounted for 46.9 percent of all VWPP inspections: Honolulu International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport, and Miami International Airport.

4 Temporary visitors include those who entered with business or pleasure visas and those who entered under the VWPP.

5 France and Switzerland also do not have machine-readable passports; however, they joined the VWPP prior to October 1, 1991, when countries were not required to have machine-readable passports.

6 In our September 1997 inspection report entitled Immigration and Naturalization Service Monitoring of Nonimmigrant Overstays, DOJ/OIG I-97-08, we found that INS was unable to perform its responsibility under the VWPP because it could not accurately report the number of VWPP visitors who overstayed their authorized periods of admission. We recommended that INS ensure the completeness and reliability of its overstay data; INS concurred. Although INS reported on its efforts to address our recommendation in a May 18, 1998, memorandum, it also reported that its Office of Statistics "...still [had] concerns about the correctness of the data and the validity of any overstay statistics [produced from these data]." Therefore, the Attorney General still cannot make informed decisions about countries' continued eligibility for participation in the VWPP using the overstay data.

7 All other nonimmigrant passengers complete an I-94 (Nonimmigrant Arrival/Departure Form).

8 After determining admissibility, INS inspectors stamp the I-94W with the port of entry and date, and indicate whether they are allowing the applicant entry (WT for visa waiver tourist or WB for visa waiver business) or refusing entry (WR for visa waiver refusal). If allowing entry, INS inspectors retain the arrival portion of the I-94Ws and return the departure portion to the VWPP visitors; visitors are to turn in this portion of the form to airline personnel when they depart the United States. If refusing entry, INS inspectors retain both portions of the form.

9 See Appendix II for a more detailed explanation of the lookout system.

10 At the time of this review, 9 VWPP countries did not have machine-readable passports: Belgium, France, Iceland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, San Marino, and Switzerland. Norway, which issues passports that meet the requirements for machine-readability, does not include necessary information in the machine-readable portion of the passport.

11 According to INS, since 1997 Portugal has reported approximately 3,000 lost or stolen passports and Greece has reported approximately 1,000. These countries are not VWPP countries; however, the U.S. Department of State has proposed their nomination for the VWPP. INS concludes that blank passports are being stolen in anticipation of these countries being included in the VWPP.

12 Visa Waiver Pilot Program Analysis of Passports and Volume, INS Headquarters Office of Inspections and the Forensic Document Laboratory, August 1998. During the course of our field work, INS inspectors informed us that some countries are reluctant to provide data on stolen passports. Therefore, this number may underrepresent the number of stolen blank VWPP passports.