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ESTA Registration website needs work - New fee for non-citizens to go to the U.S.

Posted on October 6, 2010 at 6:40 AM

Non-American visa-waiver travelers must now pay a $14 dollar fee per trip to the U.S., completing registration online and in advance. The problem is that the system is cumbersome and clumsy. If ESTA got a grade on this procedure, it must be D. The D stands for dense. I explain.


As of September 8, 2010, non-U.S. citizens who are eligible for non-visa travel to the U.S. will have to pay a fee in addition to their pre-registration requirement. As stated at the ESTA website, this affects you if you:

• “Intend to enter the United States for 90 days or less for business, pleasure or transit;

• Have a valid passport lawfully issued to you by a Visa Waiver Program country;

• Have authorization to travel via the Electronic System for Travel Authorization

• Arrive via a Visa Waiver Program signatory carrier;

• Have a return or onward ticket;

• Your travel does not terminate in a contiguous territory or adjacent islands unless you are a resident of one of those areas; and

• Are a citizen or national of one of the Visa Waiver Program countries.”


The Visa Waiver program includes all the Nordic countries: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. The website for conducting this piece of business is: https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/esta.html?_flowExecutionKey=_c17C89841-C61F-5310-033A-A10A2607EE3A_k9AD36A80-42E0-E390-6BB0-45CD32648511" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">http://https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/esta.html?_flowExecutionKey=_c17C89841-C61F-5310-033A-A10A2607EE3A_k9AD36A80-42E0-E390-6BB0-45CD32648511. Go look for yourself. Then read on.


The registration lasts two years, so you should be able to check and see if you need to re-register within that timeframe.


Also note: If your passport does not have the electronic chip added in 2005, you will be required to get a VISA or get the newer style passport which includes the machine-readable chip.


Recall a suggested timeline: The U.S. authorities reserve the right to return your permission to travel to the U.S. status to you as late as 72 hours after your ESTA registration. Therefore, it would seem essential that you apply for – and pay online for – your ESTA registration at least 3 days prior to your departure time.


Note: If you already have filed an ESTA registration for a trip to the U.S. during, for example, the last two years, and you go online and begin to register, the ESTA program software tells you that your passport number is on file, and therefore you do not need to continue to register and pay. Why is this? I thought they wanted to know when non-nationals travelled to the U.S. The system then gives you the option to continue to register anyway, paying, or cancel your registration.


This step, just described, is 100% obscure, and should be modified by ESTA at their earliest opportunity. It suggests that one does not have to register to go to the U.S. if one has done so for a past trip within the last two years. Yet, if one begins to register and the system finds one’s passport number in it, it behaves as if it will then cancel your registration process. Yet, as I understood it, registration is still required for every flight to the U.S.

No information is given on the pop-up screen to notify the visa-waiver individual as to whether they are now, in fact, registered for their new upcoming flight, although it is clear the system has found their last registration – for a past trip. Because the system can return a non-permission within 72 hours, and because one cannot necessarily recall one’s last registration date – or number, it is possible to attempt to go to the U.S. without the proper registration, despite trying to do the right thing. In addition, because the ESTA registration screen would not then know the date of your upcoming flight, you could have gone past the two years by that future date while obtaining notice at this point online from ESTA that you were still registered.


Let’s assume most people are trying to do the right thing: would it be too much to ask to provide sufficient information to let them know that they are now registered for their future voyage? Given that voyage date? And in advance of that 72 hours before that voyage date? Without collecting unnecessarily fees from those who are so afraid of not being approved, or overstepping that date, that they re-apply and re-pay during the 2 year period?

If one is registered from a past trip but is unsure what one is doing on the ESTA registration website, one can do one of two things: click on ‘Cancel registration,’ or click on ‘Continue to register anyway’.


The ESTA registration system does not tell the individual, during this process, how long their registration lasts. It does not even state on the top pages that an ESTA registration lasts two years. When one is registered, it simply states that the system has found a registration for you which is more than 30 days long. So what? If the system knows this, it also knows how long your ESTA registration is good for. So why doesn’t it tell you?


I tried the new ‘pay-to-go-to-the-U.S.’ system approach out with a visa waiver non-American in Norway shortly after it came up this past month. Let’s call him Mr. X. Mr. X could not figure out if he had reported his future travel plan or not. He also could not figure out if his Fall tickets were inside or outside the 2 year period, although it did tell him he was previously registered. This, because the ESTA screen encouraged him to cancel his registration since he had one in the system which was at least 30 days long. He travels to the U.S. in slightly over 30 days. Even if there is no further need for registering to go to the U.S. for a specific trip, which was the point of this process, how is ESTA collecting the information that tells it when Mr. X is on a specific flight if, when one is already ‘registered’ in the ESTA system, it does not get to the point that it collects the flight date for the future trip? Why would one then scroll down (the out-of-sight portion of the screen) and click through in the column entitled: “Update or Check the Status of a Previously Submitted Authorization to Travel to the United States”? Why could it not say: “Report a New Trip Plan”?


This brings us to the next black hole in the new ESTA website process: Mr. X’s “Registration number.” Once you have decided to “update or check” your “status,” you must have the application number which was provided to you by, er, ESTA, when you last travelled to the U.S. First, who has this number? Who keeps this sort of information handy? Answer: No one. Second, why? If they have found your identity in their system, using your passport number, they already know what your ESTA registration number is, even if you do not. They have already been able to notify you that, based on your name, country of origin and passport number, they have an application for you. This is not ‘translated’ into usable information on the screen, however, since, if you have followed the “Apply” process to check, you have, as noted above, been asked to “Cancel” your registration process when you tried to let them know you were going to go on a new trip (hopefully) to the U.S. Unhandily, “You will find further details at the general website.”


My advice is: “Personal questions may be addressed to the American Embassy in your country of origin.” Perhaps someone in a position of authority with the ability to do something about it even reads this blog. Perhaps then we will see some user-friendly improvements in this unfortunately dense security feature.

Categories: Law Stuff, International Miscellaneous