Snowden Incident May Sink Hong Kong Participation in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program

hong kong visa waiver snowdenA Senate bill would allow Hong Kong to be considered for the U.S. visa waiver program, facilitating entry for residents of this special administrative region of China.

But Congress may not be willing to pass the bill in light of Hong Kong’s 2013 decision to let NSA leaker Edward Snowden depart for Moscow despite a pending U.S. extradition request.

The U.S. visa waiver program allows visitors to get travel authorization online, allowing multiple visits for stays of up to 90 days, instead of going through the visa process at a U.S. embassy or consulate.

Under current law only “countries” are eligible for the program.  INA § 217(c). Because Hong Kong is not a sovereign country, but a special administrative region of China, a special provision needs to be added to the law to make Hong Kong eligible for the visa-waiver program.

This bill, S.2218, is entitled the Subnational Visa Waiver Program. It was introduced in the Senate on April 8, 2014. Its author is Mazie Hirono (D-HI). Her state, Hawaii, would appreciate additional Hong Kong tourist dollars. The three co-sponsors are Mike Lee (R-UT), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).

Enactment of the bill wouldn’t make Hong Kong participation in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) a foregone conclusion. The VWP also requires close security cooperation with the U.S. For example, a country or region must:

  • accept the repatriation of citizens within three weeks after ordered deported;
  • share terrorist watch lists and criminal databases with the U.S.; and
  • be determined by DHS not to compromise the law enforcement or security interests of the U.S. by its inclusion in the program.

It’s conceivable that Beijing involvement in Hong Kong foreign affairs could complicate such security cooperation.

In particular, Hong Kong’s decision to allow NSA leaker Edward Snowden to depart for Moscow rather than face extradition back to the U.S. is a sore spot for the American government. White House spokesman Jay Carney slammed that decision, saying it “unquestionably has a negative impact on the US-China relationship”. “We are just not buying that this was a technical decision by a Hong Kong immigration official. This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant,” Carney said.

This isn’t the first legislative attempt to include Hong Kong in the VWP.

  • Senator Hirono introduced a similar bill in 2013 (S. 703). It was referred to the Judiciary Committee but no further action was taken. The bill had attracted two co-sponsors, Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). And the bill received support from the American Hotel and Lodging Association, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Travel Association, and the National Tour Association.
  • A corresponding bill, H.R. 1923, was introduced in the House, but the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security took no action on it.
  • A similar provision was included in S.744, the 2013 comprehensive immigration bill which cleared the full Senate but the House refused to take up. § 4506(h).

(Text of the bill is not yet available online at

Taiwan was added to the visa-waiver program on Nov. 1, 2012. See my article, Taiwan Joins U.S. Visa Waiver Program: What’s China to Think? (Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, Pub. L. No. 96-8, Section 4(b)(1) and (6), Taiwan is considered a “country” for purposes of the Immigration and Nationality Act.)


2 responses to “Snowden Incident May Sink Hong Kong Participation in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program”

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  2. SC Avatar

    Thanks for this in-depth analysis. I am a Hong Konger who hates everything about the US visa application process. So sad to see the US is not likely to include HK in the program soon. I am keeping my fingers crossed for a miracle now…

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