The visa waiver programme applies to 38 countries, largely US allies and relatively stable developed democracies whose citizens have been seen until now as posing little threat.
The United States already screens visa applicants from war zones carefully, but will now ask more questions of travellers from countries eligible for visa waivers, such as France.
As French or Belgian citizens, the suspects behind the Paris attacks could have flown to the United States by registering with the ESTA visa waiver system and avoided the close scrutiny usually reserved for refugees.
Speaking in Paris, White House Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said the Department of Homeland Security had tightened some rules even before the Paris attacks and would now act quickly.
"We've always been concerned about the fact that there is a significant higher flow of foreign fighters into and out of Europe than the United States," he said.
Travellers will now be required to declare previous visits to any country the US Department of Homeland Security has deemed a "terrorist safe haven".
Their registrations will also come under greater scrutiny from US agencies, which in turn will work closely with allied police and intelligence agencies.
"So we see a much more significant threat of foreign fighters coming into Europe than the numbers of foreign fighters coming into the United States." added Ben Rhodes.
US federal agents will also work with the authorities in countries whose citizens are eligible for visa-free travel to help them collect biometric data.
American "foreign fighter surge teams" will also deploy to areas where there is a concern that jihadists returning from war zones such as Syria may seek onward travel to the United States.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest called on Congress to pass funding measures to allow an expansion and deepening of intelligence and screening programs.
But he criticised Republican opponents in Congress who he says have focused on halting the arrival of Syrian refugees rather than reforming the waiver programme.