US likely to drop visa requirements for Czechs later in 2008

Twenty years after the fall of communism Czechs are on the verge of being included on a list of countries in the US visa-waiver programme. It allows tourists and businesspeople from abroad to travel visa-free to the US. Although the move was expected, a US senior official in Prague on Wednesday, confirmed it could come sooner: as early as this autumn. A bilateral agreement still needs to be signed, as well as a new electronic system implemented, before the change takes place, but essentially there is nothing that should now prevent the move from going ahead.

The Czechs are close, indeed closer than ever, to visa-free relations with the US. Until now, visiting the United States was impossible without obtaining a visa first, which, many Czechs will admit was at times a complicated and painful procedure. Not long now. US Department of Homeland Security official Richard Barth in Prague for talks on Wednesday made clear the US could drop visa requirements for Czechs as early as this fall. That would bring an earlier pledge by US President George W. Bush, in Prague last year full circle. Then, the president reaffirmed a commitment to seeing the Czech Republic added to the US programme.

“I know this is a frustrating issue for you leadership. People in the Czech Republic say ‘Get it done now, we’re tired of waiting’. I know that, Mr President.”

Richard Barth and Richard Graber,  photo: CTK
On Wednesday, US Ambassador to Prague Richard Graber spoke to Czech Radio, expressing optimism that negotiations now on a final agreement would be a success:

“I feel very optimistic that at long last Czech citizens will be able to travel to the US without a visa and I think that’s a wonderful thing.”

Details remain, but it is important to stress that many of the most difficult conditions have already been met, with the US Embassy in Prague rejecting fewer than 10 percent of visa applications annually. Along with a final bilateral agreement, the other significant step that still needs to be completed is the implementation of a new internet registration system called Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA). Modelled after a system already in use in Australia, the US programme should simplify protocol for Czechs wishing to visit the United States, while satisfying US security needs. Mario Mesquita is the Deputy Consul General at the US Embassy in Prague.

“When Czechs are allowed to travel under the US visa-waiver programme they will have to use the Electronic Travel Authorisation system, which will mean registering on-line before trips to the United States. The system is still in development, but most likely one registration will be valid for a two-year period. It will replace of course having to come to the US Embassy to apply for a visa. We anticipate it will be much less complicated than the visa procedures.”

The US now will have to implement the ETA system before Czechs, or other contenders like Estonia, for example, can be added to the visa-waiver programme. Mario Mesquita again:

“Of course that’s a prerequisite for the Czech Republic joining: we, the United States, have to have the system in place.”