Rumors circulated that PM George Papandreou’s visit to the United States to meet President Barack Obama on March 9, 2010 implied entry to the U.S. visa waiver program (VWP), though there had been no confirmation. At a press conference and reception celebrating Greek Independence Day in Washington DC, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that Greece was indeed accepted and now a member.
The U.S. VWP entitles Greek citizens to 90 days visa-free travel and temporary stay in America without a fee or formal application. However, those seeking to live and work in the United States will continue to need an immigrant visa and go through the formal process detailed at USCIS.
Greek Parliament ratified the bill, which was published in the official journal of the EU to finalize and start the program on April 5, 2010.
Greek citizens wishing to travel to the USA must:
a) have a biometric passport (issued after August 26, 2006) that won’t expire for six months,
b) fill out the online ESTA application at least 72 hours before a trip and,
c) as of September 8, 2010, pay the equivalent of $14 with a credit card.
These requirements apply to everyone in the Visa Waiver Program.
The American Embassy in Athens has prepared an excellent page for Greek citizens, which answers questions about who is eligible to travel on VWP, if an extension is possible, what modes of transport are acceptable, and what happens if you overstayed or were denied a U.S. visa in the past. See, “Greece and the Visa Waiver Program — Frequently Asked Questions.”
Greek citizens who are unsure of their status can also use the U.S. Embassy’s Visa Waiver Wizard to determine their eligibility. And anyone with an ‘old’ unexpired, 10-year American visa in their Greek passport can use it without applying for an ESTA travel authorization.
Greece was the first of five countries to receive formal nomination after former President Bush signed a law in August 2007 that enabled new countries to join VWP, which had been frozen since 9/11. Negotiations stalled between Athens and the United States because Greece would not disclose its list of suspected terrorists or include fingerprints in Greek passports, citing protection and privacy of personal data. But these obstacles were cleared.
Have a nice trip!
* Article last updated on November 28, 2012
Removing Greece from the waiver program
As part of continued membership in the U.S. visa waiver program, Greece must pass DHS inspection every two years. It is not a done deal.
The country’s passive stance on counterterrorism, the rise of unrest and violence (neo-Nazi or otherwise), continued economic decline fueling migration, and possible exclusion from Schengen and the euro zone are all reasons Greece could lose its status.
How to apply for a regular U.S. visa
Greek citizens in Greece who do not qualify for the visa-free status for any reason can get an American visa by visiting the U.S. Embassy in Athens’ “Non-immigrant visa” section to make an appointment. Be aware that DS-160 applications must now be completed online in English from June 1, 2010. No exceptions. See “The New DS-160 Visa Form” for more information.
Greek citizens outside Greece should visit or call the American Embassy or Consulate nearest their current residence. Click, “List of U.S. Embassies/Consulates Worldwide,” call information or look in the phone book for a convenient location.
To read a story about a Greek getting his U.S. visa at the American Embassy in Athens in 2007, see “Deksi xeri, sas parakalo.”
Why did it take so long for Greece to enter the visa waiver program? Does the United States discriminate against Greece?
It is a commonly held belief that the United States discriminated against Greece by not allowing it in the VWP, thus earning it the designation of being the only EU country not in the program of the first 15 members. Is that true?
Take a look at the timeline.
VWP and Greece
Pre-1986: The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) does not exist. All visitors to the USA need visas, except Canadian, Mexican and Bermudan citizens.
1987: The USA tests the VWP with a few countries. Primary criteria are:
a) Centralized passport security;
b) no more than 3% refusal rate of those applying for non-immigrant visas;
c) reciprocal program with the USA;
d) low rate of overstays and violations of non-immigrant visas, and
e) internal security and political stability.
1998: Of 20 countries in the VWP, 13 of 15 EU countries had qualified and entered.
1998: Greece is invited to join VWP, provided it meets the same requirements demanded of all countries accepted to the program. Deadline is 1999.
1999: Greece fails to centralize the passport issuance system, which is a primary VWP requirement, in addition to scoring poor marks in internal security regarding terrorism. Without strict control and accurate records of blank passports, stolen Greek passports make it into the hands of Iraqis sneaking over the Mexican border into the U.S. and criminals trafficking Eastern European women into Western Europe (see source list for a number of articles).
2000: The National Commission on Terrorism advises the U.S. to consider sanctions against Greece for “not cooperating fully on terrorism.” U.S. Ambassador to Greece Nicholas Burns recommends against sanctions and instead concentrates on bilateral relations and cooperation.
September 2001: The attack on 9/11 halts VWP. There is no U.S. Congress consensus on how or if the VWP will continue to shrink, expand or exist.
June 2002: Failed bombing in Piraeus, Athens finally leads to first arrest of November 17 members, after 27 years of terrorism and assassinations.
2002-2003: Law requires that the newly established Department of Homeland Security (DHS) review a country every two years for continued participation; Argentina and Uruguay are booted from VWP.
2003-2006: Five bombings and one assassination attempt by Revolutionary Struggle are carried out; added to EU terrorist list in 2007.
2004: EU sets security guidelines for all passports issued in member states, which includes Greece, namely that they be biometric. Greece takes no action to meet new guidelines.
October 2005: New U.S. VWP passport requirements take effect:
a) All passports issued before October 2005 must be machine readable;
b) all passports issued after October 2005 must be machine readable and a digitized photo OR be biometric.
October 2005: New Greek passports continue to be issued and renewed without digitized photos and are not biometric.
January 2006: Greece finally agrees to comply with 2004 EU passport security guidelines, but the procedure for passport issuance is not ready.
February 2006: The United States announces that all passports issued or renewed after October 2006 must be biometric to meet ICAO standards; this mirrors EU security guidelines set in 2004.
September 2006: Greece begins issuing biometric passports, two years after the EU first asked and seven years after the U.S. VWP deadline had passed.
October 2006: New biometric passport requirement takes effect in the United States.
October 2006: The EU suggests that members not in VWP retaliate by forcing American diplomats to secure visas; Greece does this by early 2007, instead of organizing police stations to contend with the demand for Greek passports.
January 2007: Deadline set by Greece for all citizens to have/use biometric passports. Backlog and procrastination make it difficult for Greek citizens to comply.
January 2007: Rocket attack on U.S. Embassy in Athens.
August 2007: Bush signs a law directing Homeland Security to enact a VWP pilot program to admit up to five countries cooperating with the USA on counterterrorism, and change the non-immigrant visa refusal rate from 3% to 10%.
September 2007: DHS announces “progress has been made,” and Greece is nominated as the first of five countries to “possibly” enter the VWP.
February 2008: U.S. Homeland Security completes a second visitation in Athens.
May 2008: Greece backs out of a draft agreement to enter VWP, while other nations signed the same agreement and prepared to enter VWP in November 2008. The United States again enters negotiations with Athens in late May, which produces no result.
July 2008: A memorandum of understanding was drafted, but Greece rebuffed the disclosure of information on airline passengers with suspected links to terrorism.
October 2008: Greece holds steady in its refusal to cooperate with the United States on disclosing information on terrorism, which is required to enter VWP.
November 14, 2008: South Korea, Hungary, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Slovak Republic enter the U.S. visa waiver program, marking the first time any country has entered since 9/11. All countries signed the same agreement that Greece declined in May 2008.
November 27, 2008 (post U.S. election): In a U.S. State briefing, Condoleezza Rice expressed hope that Athens would cooperate on issues of terrorism, so Greece could enter VWP under the Obama administration.
December 2008: Greek riots attracts the world’s attention (mostly negative), and Greece’s chances of entering the U.S. visa waiver program diminish.
April 2009: Another group in Greece is added to Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs): Revolutionary Struggle. And the status of 17N was maintained.
May 2009: On May 18, Sofia Echo and MakFax (wrongly) said that the Kathimerini Greek edition reported the United States would lift the visa requirement for Greek citizens starting September 22, 2009. There was no such story (I read Greek and checked), plus news this big would have appeared in their English edition and never did. This is why I independently verify all stories. On May 20, the Athens News Agency reported, “Progress has been made.”
June 2009: On June 28, two documents — a memorandum of understanding (MoU) and a cooperative agreement to fight crime — were signed as steps toward Greece entering the U.S. visa waiver program.
July 3, 2009: The Athens News published a misleading headline that made it sound as if it was a done deal and a “new era” had begun. It was not and did not.
August 2009: Greek passports will now (and finally) include a digital fingerprint, which is a VWP requirement for travel documents from all countries wishing to be in the program. See, “New Greek passports.” Why wasn’t this incorporated in 2006-2007 when Greek citizens were forced to swap old passports and kill two birds with one stone? It’s a mystery.
September 2009: Parliament ratified an agreement to cooperate with the USA in combating crime and terrorism, a requirement of all countries entering the U.S. waiver program.
February 2010: In the ministry of foreign affairs’ first press conference for 2010, MFA Spokesman Gregory Delavekouras said: “According to the information we have from the U.S. side, this process has essentially been completed, and formal finalization is all that remains.” U.S. diplomats expressed two concerns — impact on security after the Delta incident on Christmas, plus Greek officials not sending a representative to finalize signatures in November 2009 — but the U.S. side announced that they are awaiting the internal process to complete. Deputy Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas visited the USA and would not answer to rumors that his visit implied entry, and indeed nothing happened.
March 2010: A Hellenic association hails entry to visa waiver program, but criticizes America for delays, saying Greece exceeded program requirements though no specific examples were given and there is no proof of such.
April 5, 2010: Greece official enters the visa waiver program. American ambassador to Greece sees off first Greek citizens traveling on VWP at the Athens Eleftherios Venizelos Airport.
June 3, 2011: Greece tops Europol’s terrorism list.
As two-thirds of all visitors and tourism income come from VWP member countries, it is not in the United States’ interest to discriminate against anyone and is therefore without motive. It has more to do with Greece’s continued non-compliance of established requirements, ill timing of terrorist attacks in both countries and a VWP freeze on all countries since 9/11.
Now that Greece has entered the U.S. VWP, it must continue to meet requirements and pass DHS inspection every two years to continue in the program, and it’s worrisome that terrorism is still an issue.
“U.S. Visa Waiver Program” – U.S. Department of State
“Will Greece ever enjoy visa-less travel?” (link broken) – Athens News
“Rate of Refusal by Nationality in 2007” – U.S. Department of State
“Expand the Visa Waiver Program to Eligible Countries” – Free Trade
“Iraqi with forged Greek passport is jailed” – York Press
“Iranian assassin enters Canada with Greek passport” — National Post
“Six Iraqis (with Greek passports) detained at Mexican border” – San Diego Union Tribune
“21st century slaves” (article removed) – The Sunday Herald
“Migrant women forced into cheap $ex trade” – The Guardian
“Iraqi refugee crisis deepening” – Washington Post
“Eleventh victim discovered in Superfast III garage” – ANA
“Man only helping Iraqis” – Sydney Morning Herald
“Landmark ruling boosts political refugees” – BBC
“Issuance of Greek passports” – Greek Consulate, Washington DC, USA
“Greek and American Perceptions Compared” – Kathimerini
“U.S. Visa Waiver Program Passport Requirements Timeline” – Department of Homeland Security
“Non-Immigrant Visa Stats” – U.S. Department of State
“EU terror list 2007”
“Greece is a terrorist transit route” – Kathimerini
“MFA Briefing of diplomatic correspondents January 22, 2010” — ISRIA.com
“Περιμένουμε τις ΗΠΑ για τη βίζα” — Ta Nea
“Πάλι στο ράφι η βίζα” — Ta Nea
“Σε ένα μήνα καταργείται η βίζα για ΗΠΑ” — Ta Nea
“Από πότε και για ποιούς ισχύει η κατάργηση της βίζας” — Eleftherotypia
“Hungarian nationals caught with fake Greek passports”
“Shouldn’t we drop Greece from the visa waiver program?” — Center for Immigration Studies
“Man with fake Greek passport obtains six driver’s licenses in Australia” — The Age