Although Israel is a close ally of the United States, Israeli citizens still need a visa if they want to travel to America. Israel is not part of the US Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens of certain countries to travel to America without a visa.
7-month delay in processing visa applications
Every year, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens travel to America for tourism, business, or study. Because Israel is not part of the US Visa Waiver Program, also known as the ESTA programme, the majority of these travellers have to apply for a visa at the US Embassy in Jerusalem. And this leads to long waiting times. The current backlog at the embassy regarding visas for America is about 7 months. Corona has only made the situation worse. Currently, visas are only granted for exceptional situations, such as medical emergencies, and not for business trips, for example.
Admission to the ESTA programme would relieve this pressure. An ESTA can be used for both tourism and business trips, and it is not necessary to visit an embassy to apply for an ESTA. An ESTA is applied for completely online, which saves both time and money.
Potential ESTA for Israel
In a recent conversation between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet, the parties agreed that more progress needs to be made on visa-free travel between the two countries. According to Bennet, the issue has been stuck in bureaucracy for years without any real progress being made. A "push" is needed from the US side, and it seems that, after Bennetʼs insistence, Blinken will give this "push". According to Israel, there is no reason why it should not be admitted to the ESTA programme. After all, it is a very close ally of the United States. Currently, 40 countries are part of this programme, some of which, Israel claims, do not have such close ties with America as Israel does. However, the American government, does see some problems.
Despite the words of the Israeli government, according to the American government, there are indeed problems that prevent Israel from being part of the ESTA programme for the time being. One of the requirements for a country to be admitted to the ESTA programme is that the number of rejected visa applications must be below the threshold of 3% of all visa applications to America. Israel does not manage to get below this threshold. A relatively high number of Israelis are rejected when applying for visas to America. But according to the Israeli government, this is largely due to cultural differences. Most rejected visa applications come from people in their early 20s. These people have often just finished their military service in the Israeli army and want to travel for a few months before continuing their studies or starting their jobs.
However, the American embassy sees a profile of an unemployed young person who wants to travel to America. These are automatically labelled high-risk profiles. In such cases, the fear is that, for economic or political reasons, they will want to stay in America longer than their visas allow. Israel, however, points out that it has one of the lowest percentages of citizens overstaying their visas, at about only 0.5%.
Another problem is that Israel itself rejects many visa applications from Palestinian-American citizens who want to travel to Israel, which is displeasing to America. The Israeli government has said it is prepared to make changes in this area if it leads to admission to the ESTA programme.
ESTA or visa application
It is not surprising that Israel is so eager to be admitted to the US Visa Waiver Program. The possibility of applying for an ESTA makes it a lot easier to travel to the United States. There are many advantages to the ESTA compared to the visa: it is cheaper, easier to apply for, and it is granted much faster than a visa. Applying for a visa can take months in some cases, whereas an ESTA application is sometimes approved on the same day. With an ESTA, a traveller can stay in the United States for 90 days.
Both the EU and the UK are part of the Visa Waiver Program. Citizens of these countries may submit their ESTA application online.