A good number of European countries that were once inside the Soviet Union's sphere of influence have chafed for years under visa restrictions that don't affect other European allies of the United States.
But that patience paid off on October 17 for Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, when U.S. President George W. Bush announced to ambassadors from those countries -- plus South Korea -- that their citizens would no longer have to "jump through bureaucratic hoops" to visit the United States for business or tourism.
Bush noted that the leaders of those countries had complained for years that the requirements -- not shared by most other U.S. allies -- were simply unfair.
"I told them I agree with them; I also told them that in the world after [the attacks of] September 11 , we could only expand travel opportunities if we increased security measures at the same time," Bush said. "So nearly two years ago, my administration asked Congress to modernize our Visa Waiver Program in a way that accomplished both of these goals. I appreciate the bipartisan support that this initiative has received on Capitol Hill."
The seven countries now in the Visa Waiver Program must, however, take some security steps, including developing high-tech passports. They've also agreed to share with Washington information they have about security threats to the United States.
The frustration of having to apply for a visa was especially galling to some new members of NATO who have contributed forces to U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One country that has been especially supportive of Bush's foreign policy is Poland, but it hasn't yet been able to meet the visa-waiver requirements. But Bush said he hopes it will be in the next round of program.
Bush told the assembed diplomats that the announcement opens a new chapter in good relations between the United States and their countries. But he stressed that it was only the start.
"A number of America's other close friends are participating in a process called the Visa Waiver Roadmap that is helping them qualify for the Visa Waiver Program," Bush said. "I welcome the ambassadors from these Roadmap countries: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Poland, and Romania. We thank you for coming today. We thank you for your friendship. And we look forward to the day when your countries join the Visa Waiver Program."
The number of countries whose citizens don't need visas to visit the United States now stands at 34. That includes most of Western Europe.