Tuesday, January 13, 2009

And Finally, ESTA!

I dearly remember those forms I had to fill out on the plane every time I flew into the US from England, before I moved here permanently. As Britain is one of those countries not required to apply for a visa in order to travel to America, you nevertheless had to complete a short form to hand in when you landed.

Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security implemented a new electronic system known as ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization), which replaces the aforementioned form. Travelers from Britain (and a number of other visa-waived countries) are required to complete the on-line form 72 hours in advance of flying. Once completed and approved, the (free) application is valid for two years.

There were problems anticipated on the day of implementation, with predictions of Brits being sent home, big delays and so on, but so far that doesn't seem to be the case. The biggest problem seemed to be confusion about the new system, and panic about the 72 hour period. The Department of Homeland Security allayed fears somewhat by assuring people that they should be able to process an application made from an Internet connection at the departing airport if necessary.

I do have a few concerns about this system. As the child of computer-illiterate parents, I'm worried about people who have never touched a computer in their life being able to fulfill these requirements. Somewhat related to that, Google searches for ESTA reveal several companies offering to complete the (free) ESTA applications for a hefty fee. No doubt there will be businesses springing up on the high-street (and probably in airports) all too willing to take money from the unwitting. I was also shocked by the scary 219 word pop-up disclaimer from the US DHS on the ESTA page at the oh-so-catchy address: https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov - as one person summarized it: "We own you."

But the biggest problem at the moment is ignorance about the requirement. This story warns travelers that those who have not completed the ESTA form and are turned away by the airline before the flight, or at US Customs, and are thus unable to take their US Holiday (vacation) will not be covered by their travel insurance.

If you're in the UK, I'd be interested to know whether you were aware of this. Also, if you have computer-illiterate friends or relatives who travel to the US, who might be affected, I'd love to hear your comments.

(Bonus Points if you recognize this entry's title as a play on one of the catch phrases from classic British TV show "That's Life!")

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