It seems almost certain that Croatia will be admitted to the US Visa Waiver Program, also known as the ESTA programme. Travellers with a Croatian passport will then be able to travel to the USA without a visa.
Croatia official candidate
United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has officially nominated Croatia for participation in the US Visa Waiver Program. Citizens of countries which are part of this programme are allowed to travel to the USA without a visa, either for a holiday or a business trip. Instead, they can submit an ESTA application to travel to the USA. The stay with an ESTA can last up to 90 days, and the ESTA is valid for two years.
Secretary of State Blinken said that the nomination is a recognition of the great progress Croatia has made in meeting the requirements of the Visa Waiver Program. The US government also hopes that this will strengthen ties between the two countries and encourage Croatian investors to invest in the USA as travel to the country becomes easier. Croatia has been trying to get accepted into the ESTA programme for some time now. Until recently, however, it struggled with Americaʼs strict requirements for countries to qualify.
Strict requirements for ESTA admission
Countries cannot just take part in the American ESTA programme. There are strict requirements for this. This is not entirely surprising. The ESTA was introduced partly in response to the attacks on 11 September 2001, as a way to strengthen the national security of the United States.
For example, the number of rejected applications for tourist and business visas for the United States in the applicant country must be less than three percent of visa applications. Three years ago, this percentage was above five percent in Croatia, but in February 2021, Croatia finally reached this milestone (2.69%). In addition, countries must agree to share information with the US government on security matters and issue electronic passports. The latter is important, because without an electronic passport, one cannot use the ESTA. The ESTA is not a paper document, but an electronic travel authorisation. It is digitally linked to the travellerʼs passport.
Romania also hopes to be admitted to the US Visa Waiver Program. However, the US government has not yet made any announcements regarding Romania.
UK and Schengen countries already part of ESTA programme
All Schengen countries are already part of the US Visa Waiver Program, as is the United Kingdom. There are only four countries in the EU whose citizens cannot yet travel to the USA with an ESTA: Cyprus, Romania, Croatia and Bulgaria. With the announced admission of Croatia, this will therefore drop to three countries.
This means that travellers from both the UK and EU are eligible for an ESTA. They do not need to take their passport to the embassy, but can instead submit their application online. After payment has been made, it is just a matter of waiting for the approved ESTA to be sent by email. From that moment on, the traveller can fly to the USA without a visa. At the airport, they only need to show their passport. Based on the passport number, the airline can see if you have a valid ESTA.
Do not think, however, that simply having UK or EU nationality will automatically lead to approval of an ESTA application. The ESTA form asks a number of background questions designed to prevent undesirable persons from entering the United States. If all the background questions cannot be answered with ‘no’, it will not be possible to apply for an ESTA. The only option to still travel to the USA then is to apply for a visa at the embassy.