The Visa Waiver Program, or VWP, is a laudable example of how sound immigration policy can strengthen American economic interests, fortify our security initiatives, and increase our diplomatic capital. 

This program allows nationals of a select group of countries to enter the U.S. for 90 days for business or tourism purposes without needing to apply for a visa. Travelers from these countries must still complete an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) application but otherwise face significantly shorter wait times to visit the U.S. than non-VWP nationals.

To qualify for the program, a country must first meet a stringent set of criteria related to security agreements and irregular immigration metrics and agree to issue mutual visa-free reciprocity upon admission to the program. A complete list of criteria is included later in this article.

Since its inception, the VWP has been a resounding success. Each country that joins enters into a formalized agreement with the U.S. to share security screening and passport control data, which has enhanced our ability to detect possible threats. The decrease in obstacles to visiting or doing business in the U.S. has resulted in an economic boon, with one study estimating that adding new countries could generate as much as $5.3 billion per year for the U.S. economy and support 31,600 additional jobs in the U.S. Diplomatically, the reciprocal ability of American travelers to visit more countries freely and our ability to expose more international travelers to American customs and values through first-hand experience has boosted our international image.

Forty-one countries currently participate in the VWP. Only two countries–Argentina in 2002 and Uruguay in 2003– have ever been removed from the program. In both instances, increased visa overstays after a significant regional economic crash and the heightened security atmosphere following the 2001 terrorist attacks led to their participation being revoked.

Now two decades after its removal, there are many compelling reasons to re-admit Uruguay to the visa waiver program. The country is uniquely democratic and stable, it has meaningfully deepened cooperation with the United States on immigration control, already meets most of the program’s admission requirements, and does not pose any significant security risks.

Moreover, declining American soft power and rapidly changing political dynamics within Uruguay and the wider region make this seemingly minor but essential step in strengthening our bilateral ties an increasingly urgent matter.

Uruguay is an outlier among countries not in the VWP

While not an explicitly stated requirement, nearly every country in the VWP is a stable democracy with an established track record of democratic participation and respect for human rights and the rule of law. As such, Uruguay stands among the few high-functioning democracies not currently in the VWP.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index, a widely used barometer for the democratic conditions within a country, Uruguay ranks considerably ahead of the average for VWP countries.  It is also one of only two full democracies in Latin America under this analysis.

In the latest study by Freedom House, Uruguay has a Global Freedom rating of 96, indicating a high level of respect for civil liberties and individual rights. The average Freedom House rating for VWP countries was 89. Uruguay’s score was the highest in South America. Chile, the South American country with the second highest score, is also the only one on the continent currently in the VWP.

The inclusion of Uruguay into the VWP would strengthen the program’s reputation as a travel benefit for strong democracies and encourage other aspiring countries to undertake democratic reforms to qualify in the future.

Uruguay already meets most of the criteria for being included in the VWP

Uruguay already fulfills or is close to fulfilling most of the qualifications for VWP inclusion. The table below shows Uruguay’s progress on each metric necessary for admission to the VWP.

Of the criteria Uruguay does not currently meet, its B-visa refusal rate poses the most significant barrier. To qualify for the program, Uruguay must have a rejection rate of 3%. This serves as a sign that future visitors from Uruguay admitted through the VWP will not abuse the benefit of using it as a means of immigrating to the U.S. illegally. 

Uruguay came close to meeting this benchmark in FY 2023, missing the required rate by only .21%. Given the downward trajectory of Uruguay’s rejection rate since 2020 and its recent history of low rejection rates, we should feel confident in Uruguay’s ability to reach this marker.

This metric determines the likelihood of the program being abused.  Strong empirical evidence indicates that it’s highly unlikely that admitting Uruguay into the VWP would lead to irregular immigration.

Uruguayan overstay rates are low – and connections to other countries are high

Two additional measures used to gauge levels of irregular migration are tourist (B-visa) overstays and encounters with U.S. Customs & Border Protection at the Southern border. In fiscal year 2020, Uruguay had an estimated B-visa overstay rate of 1.2%, which is lower than the 2.2% overstay average for non-VWP countries in the same year. Only 10 Uruguayan citizens were encountered during the same period at the Southern border. Both indicators point to Uruguay having negligible rates of irregular migration, especially compared to other countries in the region.

Several additional factors indicate Uruguay will not appreciably contribute to irregular migration. First, it is a country of only 3 million people, which dramatically limits the possible volume of potential irregular migrants. 

Second, traveling to the United States from Uruguay is relatively complex. The distance between the U.S. and the southernmost country in Central America, Panama, is 2,400 miles, compared to the 5,700 mile distance between the U.S. and Uruguay. There is only one direct flight between the U.S. and Uruguay, which operates on a limited and seasonal basis.

Third, in the worst-case scenario of a severe economic downturn that spurs emigration, the U.S. is not necessarily the first country that Uruguayans would consider for relocation, given its location between the two largest South American economies (Brazil and Argentina). 

Moreover, many Uruguayans have dual citizenship with European countries like Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy. According to Spanish census data, at least 66,000 Spanish passport holders lived in Uruguay in 2023, roughly 2% of the population. This makes it more likely that a Uruguayan with dual citizenship would relocate to their other home country before considering the U.S.

Uruguay leads in several security areas

Since the start of the 21st century, Uruguay has logged only two incidents in the Global Terrorism Database. The 2023 Global Terrorism Index gives Uruguay a terrorism impact score of .11 out of  10, and Uruguay is not even mentioned in the 2022 Country Reports on Terrorism.

Violent crime activity is also low in Uruguay, especially compared to the regional average. The 2023 Global Peace Index, which ranks countries based on the estimated impact of violence on their economies, rates Uruguay as the safest country in South America with a score of 1.7. For comparison, in this survey the U.S. has a score of 2.4. 

Another measure, the Global Organized Crime Index, gives Uruguay the lowest criminality score in South America and the highest resilience score in the hemisphere, indicating high levels of government accountability, international cooperation, and effective law enforcement systems.

While Uruguay shares some of the security problems related to drug trafficking endemic to the region, it does not have any foreseeable risk of losing territory or state functions to criminal organizations as has happened in other Latin American countries. 

Admitting the country to the VWP would also strengthen Uruguay’s security arrangements with the U.S. by formalizing screening practices and ensuring further cooperation with American security priorities in the Southern Cone.

The timing–and the strategic context–are right

While Uruguay has historically been stable and enjoyed friendly bilateral relations with the U.S., its regional positions and interests have not always been aligned. The election of current president Luis Lacalle Pou marked a shift towards a more U.S.-aligned position, and encouraging this trend by granting Uruguay favorable immigration policies is strategically sound.

This will be particularly timely considering China’s rapidly advancing influence throughout South America.  China is Uruguay’s largest trading partner (the U.S. is third behind Brazil) and is actively pursuing a free trade agreement.

Admitting Uruguay into the VWP would help advance America’s soft power advantage, which we still maintain over China. It would be a gesture of good faith, signaling that the U.S. considers Uruguay a reliable diplomatic partner. Some research also suggests that visiting the U.S. leads to higher favorability rates towards U.S. values and priorities.

Finally, the timing is crucial for domestic political dynamics in the U.S. and Uruguay. As immigration media coverage primarily focuses on irregular immigration, this would demonstrate that the U.S. embraces facilitated legal channels and will reward allies for their trust and cooperation. 

In Uruguay, where Lacalle Pou is term-limited ahead of the 2024 presidential election, admission to the VWP would encourage the next president to continue deepening bilateral ties with the U.S., regardless of political affiliation.


Re-admitting Uruguay into the Visa Waiver Program is a relatively simple policy change that could have an immediate and considerable positive impact. It would confer significant economic, diplomatic, and security benefits for Uruguay and the United States without incurring any foreseeable negative side-effects. 

Taking the next steps to admit Uruguay to the VWP either through direct action by the executive branch or legislatively through the passage of the United States-Uruguay Economic Partnership Act should be a top priority for policymakers who want to start proactively deepening our alliances in the hemisphere instead of reactively scrambling to fix them.