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20 years ago, visa-free access only had one meaning: you hop on a plane, reach your destination and then proceed to the immigration counter. That's how it worked for EU citizens visiting the US, Japanese citizens visiting the EU, Australian citizens visiting Egypt, etc. But ever since the US introduced the ESTA program in 2007, things have generally moved towards restrictions on truly visa-free travel:

  • Australia has the Evisitor program
  • Canada introduced the ETA for air travel
  • The EU will soon introduce the ETIAS for all visa-free travelers
  • When liberalizing the visa regime, Iran chose to introduce e-visas rather than true visa-free access
  • India likewise scrapped their visa free program in favor of e-visas

If the trends continue, it will no longer be possible for citizens of any country to just hop on a plane and go abroad without prior authorization. What are the political reasons behind this shift in policy? Is it fear of terrorism, negative attitudes towards tourists, bureaucrats trying to invent extra work for themselves, etc?

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    One factor has to be the fact that it became technically doable: 20 years ago you could not count on travellers having access to the Internet to submit their information and matching it to various databases would have been more difficult. Now it's possible to perform additional screening without the costs (for both parties), hassle and economic effect (reduced tourism, etc.) of a full visa. – Relaxed Dec 16 '18 at 21:12
  • On the flip side, ETIAS is annoying but the trend is more nuanced than that: Nationals of over 60 countries can visit 26 EU countries with minimal formalities, way more than would have had access to the region 20 years ago. Same thing for Iran or India: the changes fall short of a traditional visa-free regime but things are not “moving towards restrictions”. – Relaxed Dec 16 '18 at 21:18
  • @Relaxed it is now easier to obtain a visa to Iran or India, but at the same time you still need a visa before you leave. I've edited the question to address this. – JonathanReez Dec 16 '18 at 21:36
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    I get what you are saying but the direction of travel is clearly towards freeer movement so I am still not entirely in agreement with the new formulation. For the Schengen area, it's moving towards more restrictions in the short term, with a more complex picture over a longer period. For India and Iran, it's moving towards more freedom/fewer restrictions, even if it stops short of being completely hassle free. Even the US VWP is becoming more extensive. – Relaxed Dec 16 '18 at 22:09
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    I would say that the more "unadmissible" people you can stop (by not giving e-visa) before they reach the immigration counter, the better (they have not taken a flight, they do not have to be deported, you need less officers because there are less travellers). So the e-visas do give some benefits in relation to the previous situation; of course people who were used to just get admitted will not profit from it directly (they may have to wait less to pass through immigration, but since there is no "standard", they would not even notice). – SJuan76 Dec 16 '18 at 23:07
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I would say it is fear of terrorists, compounded by a fear of illegal immigrants and some degree of reciprocity.

  • If country A requires citizens of country B to show permits, then B might retaliate and require permits from citizens of country A. Country B might consider the importance of tourism to their economy and stay visa-free, but the government also has to look at the indignation of their voters, especially if B is almost as well developed as A.
  • Many rules regarding refugees and migrants were drafted in response the Nazi atrocties and the initially delayed reaction by the Allies, e.g. the St. Louis affair. That has faded in living memory.
    • 60 years ago, one might have seen people fleeing across the Iron Curtain. The Cold War was in full swing and they were welcomed in the West.
    • 30 years ago, Communism was breaking down and the Balkan troubles were starting up. Again there were significant migrant streams within Europe.
    • Today migrants who would have stayed in their region in earlier times are trying to get into the United States and Europe.

Going out on a limb, the problem is compounded by the inability of the United States to institute a national ID card system for their citizens, which makes it easier for illegal immigrants, which leads to exaggerated fears of illegal immigrants.


Follow-Up: If there are no standard ID cards for citizens, and if the citizens use a hodge-podge of driver's licenses, SSNs, and birth certificates to identify themselves, or just an utility bill with their name and address on it, then it becomes easier for illegal immigrants to move in society -- get a job, open a bank account, rent a flat. If day-to-day living gets easier for illegal immigrants, then citizens will presume that the number of unreported cases is even greater than it actually is. The result: fear, uncertainty, and support for more restrictive measures at the border.

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  • The US already has a national ID for travel, the passport. The US and EU are quite similar here, in that a general national US ID would be like a general EU citizen ID. I know a US State ≠ EU country. The commonality lies in the lack of support among all the member states and the general structures of the governments not making it easy. – David S Dec 17 '18 at 21:18
  • @DavidS passports are not required for traveling within the US, unlike ID cards in the EU. – JonathanReez Dec 17 '18 at 21:47
  • @JonathanReez Yes and no. An ID is required to drive within the US or by many methods of travel. And many states include laws requiring ID to be presented upon request by law enforcement. Similar to how Norway, Ireland, Denmark, Switzerland, and other EU member states have differences in their ID laws too. – David S Dec 17 '18 at 22:02
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    @JonathanReez Sometimes reality is different from expectations. ID requirements are not for drivers only. Either way, I see little relation to National IDs curbing illegal immigration as a major motivator to moving away from visa free access. – David S Dec 17 '18 at 22:57
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    There's another angle, noted in SJuan76's comment, which is that ESTA and similar programs spare travelers, airlines, and the government the pain of an inadmissible traveler being turned back. Formerly, a VWP traveler who was inadmissible to the US might find out only after flying to the US and approaching the immigration desk. With ESTA, such a person won't even get on the plane, possibly saving hundreds or thousands of dollars in air fare. – phoog Dec 18 '18 at 10:03

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