What is the United States visa waiver scheme that envoy Kurt Tong wants to be applied to Hong Kong?

Visa-free access would make life considerably easier for Hong Kong SAR passport holders but Donald Trump’s policies are likely to make it highly unlikely

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 June, 2017, 7:50pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 June, 2017, 6:05pm

The US Consul General in Hong Kong, Kurt Tong, has promised to push for visa-free entry for Hongkongers visiting his country.

Hong Kong has been left out of the US visa waiver programme while regional countries and regions such as Singapore and Taiwan have long been given the privilege.

The main hurdle remains with the US Congress, where attempts to add Hong Kong to the list have in the past failed. A 2014 amendment bill has languished in Congress ever since.

With the Trump administration introducing “extreme vetting” procedures in March to tighten screening of people wishing to enter the US, the prospect of Hong Kong winning visa-free treatment looks ever more unlikely in the short to medium term.

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Here is how the waiver programme works and what it means for Hongkongers if the city is admitted.

What is the Visa Waiver Programme?

The Visa Waiver Programme allows most citizens from participating countries or regions to travel to the US for business or tourism without a visa.

The travellers can stay for up to 90 days.

In return, the countries or regions offer similar visa-free benefits for US nationals.

What are the states and regions that are in the programme?

A total of 38 countries and regions are included in the Visa Waiver Programme, many of them high-income European states.

In the Asia-Pacific region, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan are on the visa-free list.

What are the criteria for a country to join the waiver programme?

According to the US government, a country or region is required to have a visitor visa refusal rate of less than 3 per cent to participate.

The place must have enhanced law enforcement and share security-related data with the United States.

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It should maintain high counterterrorism, law enforcement, border control and document security standards.

It also has to issue e-passports and report blank, lost and stolen passports in a timely manner.

Meeting the objective requirements does not guarantee a place in the programme, according to the US government.

Why is Hong Kong not included in the visa waiver programme?

Attempts to add Hong Kong to the list have not borne fruit and there has been speculation about whether whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s stay in Hong Kong and the increasing number of mainlanders living in the city were reasons behind it. Tong said in the interview with the Post that mainlanders were not the reason.

In 2013, Senator Mazie Hirono, who wanted to boost her constituency’s tourism, inserted an amendment to an immigration reform bill to include Hong Kong in the programme. Her amendment was co-sponsored by a bipartisan group. But the House of Representatives refused to take up the bill after it was passed in the Senate.

At the time, State Department officials indicated that Snowden’s unimpeded departure from Hong Kong, which took place just a few days before the Senate vote, could have repercussions for Sino-US relations and the visa waiver amendment. Congress in the end did not pass the immigration bill.

Hirono introduced the same amendment again in 2014, but nothing has happened after it was referred to the Senate’s judiciary committee.

Tong said if Congress passed the bill, he would work hard to implement it as soon as possible.

How low is the visa refusal rate for Hong Kong?

The refusal rate for business or tourist visa applications for Hong Kong SAR passport holders was 4.61 per cent last year.

It was the 11th lowest among regions that were not in the waiver programme.

Cyprus showed the lowest rejection rate of 2.03 per cent.

Malaysia, Israel and Saudi Arabia also had lower refusal rates than Hong Kong in 2016.

Afghanistan had the highest refusal rate of 73.8 per cent.

Applicants can be denied a visa if they use fake materials, lack financial support or have entered the US illegally during previous trips.

The refusal rate shows the proportion of failed applications among all applicants who are citizens of a particular country.

What difference does it make to SAR passport holders if Hong Kong is included in the programme?

At the moment, SAR passport holders are required to apply for a visitor visa if they are going to the US for business or travel.

They need to fill in an online form, pay a processing fee of US$160 and attend an in-person interview at the US consulate in Hong Kong.

The waiting time for an interview can be long ahead of the high travel season. The current appointment waiting time is 12 days.

If they pass an interview, a 10-year-visa will be issued after about three working days.

If Hong Kong is included in the programme, SAR passport holders will only need to complete an online application called the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation before getting on a plane bound for the US.

The application costs US$14 per person. Applicants are usually informed within 72 hours whether the travel authorisation has been approved.