Thursday, November 19, 2015

The U.S. Visa Waiver Program is really an eVisa program for foreigners

The U.S. Visa Waiver Program is in the news again because of the recent Paris terror attacks and the refugee crisis in general.

Republicans in Congress are particularly fond of questioning the program that allows U.S. citizens to visit other countries without going through a visa application process and, in return, allows citizens of some 40 other countries to visit the United States without having to apply for a visitor visa at a U.S. consulate or embassy.

So, how does a U.S. citizen travel to one of the core European countries (the Schengen area)?
The U.S. citizen gets a passport, buys a plane ticket, flies, goes through border control and customs at the destination, and that's it. There is zero paperwork for the countries the blogster knows. And no fees.
There is no fingerprinting and no taking of pictures.

This is not without pitfalls for newbie travelers. On one occasion, coming into Germany from the U.S., the blogster saw a confused group of twenty-ish Americans wandering around the arrivals area before immigration. They were looking at the glossy tourist brochures of Germany, and chatted nervously. The blogster stopped. Two of the group came over and asked where they could find the forms.

You mean immigration and customs forms? 


They don't have any here. You just walk up to the immigration officers and get a stamp.

The two went back to the group and informed them. One or two of the others looked at the blogster in complete disbelief, as if wondering whether they were being sent into a trap, or whether the blogster was just a numbnut who had somehow managed to buy a plane ticket and make it to Germany.

How does a Schengen area citizen travel to the U.S. on the waiver program?
Originally, a trip to the U.S. was very similar, except for the forms, of course. This changed with the introduction of the electronic system ESTA. ESTA became mandatory in 2009, and since 2010 airlines must require the ESTA waiver at check-in. Registration on the ESTA website costs $ 14.
At airport check-in, the traveler has to show the ESTA number assigned on approval. At the U.S. port of entry, fingerprints and a photo are taken and stored.

What information is asked when a European citizen fills out the ESTA form? Pretty much the same information asked on a standard DS-160 Nonimmigrant Visa Application, except for the question about direct relatives in the U.S.

A crucial additional requirement is that you pay the fee with a credit or debit card. This information is - in the words of one card company - priceless.

For countries not participating in ESTA, the regular DS-160 is also accepted in handwritten form, although this is becoming rare these days. Still, handwritten forms are error prone.

Once your data are in ESTA, they are checked by the same systems that check the DS-160. Information from the credit card is also checked. If the traveler does not have a card, someone else can make the payment.

So, as of late November 2015, the European "visa waiver" for U.S. citizens still is a waiver. This may change but we'll see.

The U.S. "waiver" for Europeans has been an eVisa since the mandatory verification of ESTA by airlines in 2010.

Just in case Congress raves about being interviewed in person by a U.S. consular official, that's pretty much bunk. The duration of such an interview is between 60 and 90 seconds.

Oh, and before we forget, here is a brief story told to the blogster by a very reliable nonimmigrant.

The nonimmigrant was admitted at immigration and attended a party that night to celebrate the return from a natural disaster zone. At the party, he ran into the immigration officer who had admitted him a few hours earlier. The officer greeted him and handed him a joint.

The importance of labels and change over time
The Visa Waiver Program is another great example of the tremendous importance of "labels" (or, in everyday usage, "names") and change over time without changing the label. We all know examples from everyday life that we would classify as misleading labeling, but tend to see this as a static issue. In other words, something it named or labeled, and that's it - the label/name is "correct" or not.
With the changes over the years making the underlying process of the program almost identical to a traditional visa application for non-US citizens, we continue to use the original name, after all, that's important for legal reasons, important to ensure communication works, and it still reflects reality for US citizens.
But when you start to discuss potential changes while ignoring the current actual process, as Congress did, you don't look so good. To be fair, it is difficult and - in this case - potentially unpleasant to acknowledge that a process changed from basically equal treatment for both parties to something more onerous to one party only.

1. There is a program to facilitate entering the U.S. without the often long wait times at immigration, the Global Entry Program. It is available at major U.S. airports and requires additional screening.
2. The blogster knows of several Europeans who reduced the number of trips to the U.S. after routine fingerprinting and photos, saying they were unwilling to undergo a treatment previously reserved to law offenders more often than absolutely necessary.
3. Yes, some U.S. travelers are unlucky and get pulled out by UK officials for questioning. That's just how the Brits roll.

[Update] Added "Notes" and biometrics section, typos. Clarification added "For countries not participating in ESTA, the"
[Update 11/22/2015] Added paragraph "The importance of labels and changes over time".

No comments:

Post a Comment