Hungary passport fraud leads to tighter U.S. travel restrictions


The United States on Tuesday said it would restrict access for Hungarians to its visa-waiver program amid concerns that foreign nationals have used fraudulently obtained passports to enter the country.

Hungarians will only be able to enter the country once during a single year following the online screening process that allows for visa-free travel, the U.S. Embassy in Hungary announced. Citizens of other countries in the 40-member visa-free travel program are generally entitled to multiple visits over a two-year period with no need to apply again.

“It is an unfortunate decision in response to the inaction of the government of Hungary to respond to serious security concerns which we have been engaging on over many years and multiple administrations,” said U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Pressman.

The move comes against the backdrop of an increasingly fractious relationship between Hungary and the United States over Budapest’s stance during the Ukraine war, and amid heightened fears about Russian espionage in the West.

The abuse of Hungarian passports has been a long-running concern of the United States. A Department of Homeland Security document from 2018 showed that at that point, about 700 non-Hungarians had fraudulently obtained passports and assumed fake identities, with at least 65 of them entering the United States through the visa-waiver program.

The concerns center on passports issued between 2011 and 2020, said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. In 2011, the Hungarian government embarked upon a simplified naturalization program granting citizenship to more than a million people, as Prime Minister Viktor Orban expressed his desire to connect the Hungarian diaspora.

Verification was stepped up in 2020, but requests for Budapest to conduct checks to make sure individuals who were previously granted passports are who they say they are have gone unfulfilled, the official said, with the U.S. and Hungarian governments aware that passports have been obtained by “individuals who are criminals who pose a threat to safety.”

“There are very serious security vulnerabilities associated with hundreds of thousands of passports that have been issued without stringent identity verification requirements,” the official said.

The United States has previously censured Hungary for its eagerness to expand ties with Russia and holding back its approval for Sweden to join NATO. In April, the U.S. Treasury took the unusual step of penalizing an entity associated with an ally, targeting the Hungary-based International Investment Bank, dubbed Russia’s “spy bank” by Western officials.

Meanwhile, Sen. James E. Risch (Idaho), the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, has said he will halt U.S. arms sales to Hungary as punishment for the country’s refusal to approve NATO membership for Sweden. Hungary delayed a vote on Sweden’s accession on Monday, but officials have indicated that they will not hold up the country’s membership if fellow NATO-member Turkey moves ahead with approving it. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signaled his assent for Sweden’s NATO membership on July 10, and said that parliament would vote to approve the bid when it reconvened in October.

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