ESTA changes of status, or maybe you’re not going to Disneyland after all

ESTA Homepage screenshot

While most of the attention on the immigration front has been on the “travel ban” (or maybe not a ban, depending on who you’re listening to), there also appears to have been an increase in scrutiny throughout the immigration system. While reports of detention or increased inspection upon entry have increased, we are also hearing (mostly anecdotally) of increases in last-minute ESTA changes of status. Those changes – from approved to not approved – can wreak havoc on travelers to or through the US, and can result in significant costs due to rebooked or cancelled business travel or vacations.

For those who don’t know, ESTA, short for “Electronic System for Travel Authorization,” is a sort of pre-registration for travelers to the US who are not required to apply for a visa. These so-called “visa waiver” travelers apply for travel authorization online before traveling and generally receive a (relatively) prompt approval (as little as 4 seconds according to this blog). That authorization is good for two years. Unless, of course, it’s not.

Some unfortunate souls, either days before or even minutes before boarding their flight to the United States, find out that their ESTA status has changed, and that they will not be permitted to board a flight which stops in the US. That change can take place for almost any reason imaginable, or for essentially no reason at all, and likely reflects some sort of flag on the record which would indicate either that there may be a security issue or that the traveler is likely to remain in the US for longer than permitted. The options for appealing are very limited and often too slow to prevent costly interruptions in travel.

While there’s no way to prevent a last-minute change of status, travelers at an increased risk of additional scrutiny should consider applying for a B-visa for business or just to visit at their home consulate to help prevent any unwanted surprises. Generally, non-US citizens who meet any of the following criteria should seriously consider obtaining a visa before travel to or even through the US.

  • Individuals who have traveled to any of the countries which we’ve banned in the recent past, including Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen (although I’d include Iraq for good measure)
  • Individuals with extensive travel throughout the Middle East in general, or who have resided for a period of time in the Middle East, particularly in countries which are less friendly to the United States
  • Individuals who have traveled very frequently to the United States, particularly for stays in excess of a few weeks.
  • Individuals who have been arrested, particularly for felonies or drug offenses

Other travelers should check their ESTA status before making reservation and again before leaving for the airport. Finally, while I’m not a huge proponent of travel insurance, travelers to the US, particularly those who meet the above criteria, might consider obtaining insurance which covers cancellations due to revocation of authorization to travel. Of course, as the new ban works its way through the courts things can and probably will change.