Azara Blog: New online US travel authorisation system

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Date published: 2009/01/12

The BBC says:

New entry rules for the US will be implemented "in a reasonable manner," an embassy official has told the BBC.

Earlier, the Foreign Office warned that "thousands of tourists" could be turned away at US customs if they do not fill in an online form before travelling.

But Consul General Derwood Staeben said that was "alarmist" and the new system aimed "to encourage travel to the US".

"There will not be chaos at the border," he said. The rules came into force on Monday.

The new online registration scheme will gradually replace the green I-94 forms that people on short term visits to the US have to fill in on the flight and hand to immigration on arrival.

Known as Esta (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation), it applies to all visitors from countries which do not need visas - believed to be about 50 million people each year.

On Saturday, the Foreign Office said "thousands of Britons could potentially be turned away by immigration at US airports if they fail to register".

"British travellers who have not registered before their trip are likely to be detained and sent home."
The Foreign Office had said the forms must be completed at least 72 hours before departure, but Mr Staeben said that was incorrect.

"You can fill it in from an internet cafe in the airport if you want to, although obviously we do advise people to do so as far ahead of their journey as possible," he said.

Mr Staeben said there was no limit to how far in advance the form could be completed and insisted that rumours of thousands of people being turned away were incorrect.
The US Embassy in London said so far 99.6% of the applications had been approved - most within four seconds.

Once an application is approved, it will be valid for all visits to the US for a two-year period, or until the applicant's passport expires.

Earlier, Michael Restovich, from the US Department of Homeland Security, said: "We want to keep the bad people out."

What a trite statement: "We want to keep the bad people out." That is not the question. The question is how this is accomplished, and whether this system has any hope of doing that, relative to its cost and likelihood of going wrong with perfectly innocent people. So allegedly "99.6% of the applications had been approved". That sounds high but is not. That is saying that 4 in 1000 applications have not been approved. Or in other words, 1 in 250. So in effect one person on every jet flying to America is not allowed to do so. Needless to say, the vast majority of these people are almost certainly innocent. And there is no telling whether badly intentioned people will or will not be caught. This system is hardly going to "encourage travel to the US". But most likely it won't discourage anyone either, since most business people have no choice and most tourists won't be aware of this issue until after they have bought their tickets.

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