Welcome to America
Most Americans would probably agree that it is quite easy to enter this country. But not so. All foreign visitors are subject to an intimidating pre-admission process. Starting on the plane, I had to fill out an entry form answering an array of questions and then sign away my rights to legally challenge any immigration disputes. Upon arrival, I was questioned by an agent and then required to give my fingerprints. Not just one print – but all ten fingers! And then came the face scan for facial recognition security software. “Please, Sir, look at the camera over here.”
As if that weren’t enough to make anyone feel like a criminal, the Department of Homeland Security has gone one step further with their new ESTA scheme. All visitors from visa-waiver countries are now required to apply for pre-travel clearance before coming to America. The reciprocal visa-waiver treaty, designed for visa-free travel between the U.S. and certain countries, has suddenly become lopsided. Americans can still travel to Germany or Japan on the spur of the moment without any prearrangements. But Germans or Japanese suddenly have to apply for permission by way of DHS’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) at least 3 days in advance.
Prospective visitors to the U.S. have to go online, enter all of their personal information into the ESTA form and then wait for their application to be approved. If you are not a wanted axe murderer, the clearance should come back within a couple of minutes and is good for the next two years of traveling to the States.
Although you are NOT required to print out your ESTA application, I would highly recommend it. Your travel authorization is on record in the United States but airlines don’t have access to that information. And the first thing they wanted to see at the airport in Bangkok was my ESTA print-out. Well, I did not have one so I had a lot of explaining to do. Don’t let this happen to you.
Sounds easy enough? Well, yeah, if you know all the hoops that foreigners are expected to jump through. Who could possibly imagine that a simple visa-free entry would require, well, a newly developed form of “electronic visa”? Make a mistake and you’re on the next plane out of here at your own expense. And please don’t rely on your travel agent to warn you because mine didn’t. Luckily, our Swedish friend Vikki told me about the bizarre new requirement before we returned to the U.S. You really have to be proactive, get online and investigate each and every country you plan on visiting. Before coming to the U.S. check out the Department of Homeland Security’s web page Visiting the USA and the U.S. Department of State’s web page Visas for Foreign Citizens. Let’s just hope they keep their websites updated!
Coming to America always leaves me shaking in my boots. To this day, it is THE scariest border crossing process in the world because it is so unpredictable. You are at the mercy of the individual immigration officer. If they just don’t like the way you look, you’re out of here. Make sure your breath is fresh, avoid using the words knife or bomb, have your ESTA clearance, answer all of the above questions (in the graphic) with NO, and get your trembling hands under control, and you might actually be admitted with a friendly “Welcome to America.”