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In recent months, there have been numerous stories in the news about travelers being denied access to the USA despite having applied for – and been granted – an ESTA, the online US entry system which replaced the 194W form for entry into the States.

A closing door

It’s long been known that gaining citizenship in the United States is akin to winning one of Mr. Wonka’s golden tickets and, increasingly, just visiting is becoming just as complicated. Recently, the US Government has tightened the rules for anyone seeking to enter the US without a visa, and now only allows those travelling with “biometric passports” or “ePassports”.

Since 2008, countries from 38 Visa Waiver Countries (VWC) including the United Kingdom, Europe, Korea and Singapore, have been permitted to travel to America without having to apply for a full visa.  Until 2009, travelers from these countries were simply required to fill in the short 194W form which was handed to them on the airplane shortly before landing. In 2010 the online ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) was introduced whereby people intending to travel to the USA are required to apply for ESTA by completing a form.

After you submit your ESTA application, you will receive an almost instant decision and, if granted, the document is valid for two years. The ESTA online form is designed to ascertain the applicant’s eligibility to enter the country and asks a number of different questions including your (temporary) address within the United States, your full identity plus that of your parents, your criminal history and your reasons for visiting the country – all of which is designed to establish that you pose no threat to the welfare, health, safety or security of the country and its residents.

Land of the brave and home of the free

The US Immigration system is complicated and ever-tightening in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Although it is unusual, online ESTA applications are occasionally denied.  Nine times out of ten, this is due simply to the applicant making an error on the somewhat complicated form but, other reasons for denial can include:

  • The applicant is suffering from a communicable disease such as TB
  • The applicant has a criminal and/or drug trafficking history
  • The applicant has a history of race-related crime
  • The applicant has previously violated US immigration laws
  • The applicant is suspected of committing espionage or terrorism

If you feel that you are eligible for entry into the United States and have simply made a mistake on your application, you may re-apply online after 10 days – you will, unfortunately, have to pay the fee again when doing so.

ESTA La Vista Baby

So, you’ve met all the criteria and you’ve been granted an ESTA – that means that you will automatically sail onto American soil with a smile and a ‘howdy’, right?  As with much in life, there are, unfortunately, no guarantees and, although rare, you may still be denied entry even if you have your shiny new ESTA details with you.  Last year, a British Muslim family was removed from a flight to Los Angeles despite having been granted ESTAs online.  The family, who were not permitted to board the flight at London’s Gatwick airport, were told that the US Government were not obliged to provide a reason for not allowing them into the country.  Thankfully, cases like that of the Mahmood family are rare but, there are a number of instances where ESTA holders may be refused entry including:

  • On a previous visit to the United States, the holder remained in the country beyond the amount of time allowable on their documentation
  • On a previous visit to the United States, the holder engaged in work without the correct permit
  • The holder’s previous requests have been denied
  • The answers that the holder provided on the ESTA application form are deemed incorrect or fraudulent
  • The holder has a criminal record not disclosed during question two on the ESTA online form
  • The holder has the same name/details of a convicted or wanted criminal

US immigration performs a number of checks and security measures during and after the online application process and so being granted an ESTA does not mean automatic entrance to the USA.

So, what happens now?

The good news is that there are a couple of avenues open, should you find that your ESTA means NADA.  The bad news is that you’re unlikely to be able to resolve this in time for your fortnight in Florida. The ESTA site states that there is no appeal process once an application has been denied, however, you may be able to circumvent this by applying for a B2 or B1 visa – these are specific visas which grant entry under business, medical and transit circumstances.

If you are not able to gain either an ESTA, B1 or B2, the only real option is to try to find out the reason for the denial and to fix the problem.  For example, if you were denied on health grounds, you may be able to have the illness treated and provide confirmation from a doctor that the condition no longer exists.  Similarly, if you feel that there has been an error such as mistaken identity, you can put together documents to prove that you are who you say you are.

The last – and least successful – way you can resolve this is to apply for a waiver which, essentially, admits to the reason for the denial but asks the immigration services to overlook this reason and admit entry.  Granted very rarely, waivers are usually only successful for those who have family in the USA who are willing to act as sponsors during your visit.

As President Donald Trump continues to tighten entry guidelines into the USA, we can expect yet more stringent security measures in the coming years.  Although they are unable to help with individual cases, the UK’s American Embassy offers further information and guidelines on its website those concerned that they may be denied entry.

For help when you submit an ESTA application, follow the advice pages on ESTA’s website https://www.estaform.org/.

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