General Question

DrasticDreamer's avatar

Can someone familiar with visas, US Customs and ESTA waivers help me (it's very urgent)?

Asked by DrasticDreamer (23983points) March 23rd, 2016

My boyfriend was cleared, for the second year in a row, for an ESTA waiver to enter the United States. Then, in the middle of the night last night, five days before he’s supposed to get here, he got an email from US Customs saying that something was wrong with it.

We can not figure out if it’s some stupid glitch in the system, if US Customs is being paranoid because of what happened in Belgium or if he’s actually been flagged for some unfathomable reason.

Worse, he can’t get anywhere, with anyone. He’s gone to the US Embassy in London, he’s tried calling US Customs, he contacted Foreign Affairs in London and none of it is any good.

He hasn’t been given a reason for any of it and you automatically waive your rights to appeal when getting an ESTA waiver, but this is absolutely crazy. Last time he was here, he followed all of the rules, he’s never been arrested, he has no history of anything.

They keep saying the only option is to apply for a full visa, but he obviously couldn’t get one in time to come here. On top of this just being absolutely ridiculous, he’ll also be out almost $3,000.

Does anyone know of any option? Somewhere he can call and actually speak to a live person?? We’re both pretty desperate at this point.

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62 Answers

janbb's avatar

Maybe he can contact an immigration lawyer in London who has ideas? Of course, that will cost him.

What country is he a citizen of? If he’s English, maybe the Home Office can help expedite it.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

Yeah, he’s English – he lives in London.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

^^ What she said. And yes, it’s probably the Belgian thing.

JLeslie's avatar

I also wondered what country he is a citizen of?

This sucks for you both. What a pain in the neck.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

I’m worried that if it is because of Belgium, we’re completely screwed now. I’m not sure contacting a lawyer would do any good since you waive your right for an appeal when you come over with an ESTA waiver. This is so horrible. :(

I’ll talk to him about contacting the Home Office, just in case. I’m so upset right now.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

Nevermind, he already tried the Home Office. That didn’t get him anywhere, either.

janbb's avatar

Yes, I dealt with the Home Office years ago when I had some issues.

My passport was stolen last summer when I was in England and the US Embassy was a bear to make an appointment with but then wonderful when I went there. I suspect that might have been because I am a US citizen though. Was he able to get in and talk to anyone there?

He may just have to postpone his trip and apply for a full visa as they suggest.

JLeslie's avatar

I just saw you wrote he’s English.

It probably is Belgium I agree. It’s like after 9/11 non-active duty couldn’t get into military bases. My dad is retired military and he couldn’t get into some of them.

Is it possible this is temporary? Was your boyfriend able to talk to someone at the embassy or on the phone who seemed well informed?

You might try calling INS/ICE here in the states and see if you can get some information. If you have difficulty getting a person, hang up and call back again and don’t push any numbers and wait to be transferred to a person. They will likely answer in Spanish (if it’s the same as 5 years ago) but they speak English.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

No, they all just directed him to a completely useless website about applying for a full visa. They wouldn’t even let him into the US Embassy. They said it was only for US citizens who had appointments. He called US Customs to talk to someone, but he was put on hold, and then when he got through, the phone just rang for 30 minutes without any kind of answering service.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

I just checked Dept. State and USCIS for bulletins but saw nothing on a quick scan. Maybe you should make a more thorough scan of the USCIS site for changes or bulletins. These are the two sites you would find temporary emergency policy changes.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@Espiritus_Corvus Thank you, I’ll definitely do that. I’m not sure they’d even bother updating people if it was from the top down, though. But that’s truly the only thing we can think of.

janbb's avatar

This article discusses ESTA and security concerns generally and may give you some insight but unfortunately not a way around.

JLeslie's avatar

It just occurred to me to call the airline. He’ll have to cancel his flight. My guess is, if there has been a policy change the airline is getting a lot of cancellations. Possibly, you will get someone who knows something, although you can’t take it as the gospel, they are just airline operators. Still, they will know if a lot of this is happening.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@janbb Thank you, and yeah… that was pretty much our worst fear. Needless to say, he won’t risk coming over with an ESTA ever again. :(

@JLeslie Yes. That, at least, might provide some kind of insight. Not knowing is just making it that much worse.

@Espiritus_Corvus No luck with those websites. Nothing is listed.

At this point, he’s almost wanting to risk boarding the plane and being turned away at Customs. Because his ESTA is still listed as “approved – and maybe he’d get an understanding Customs agent who let him come through. Of course, he might not, and who knows how it might be handled once he’s here.

longgone's avatar

Has any live person confirmed the email is valid?

JLeslie's avatar

Don’t they check the paperwork before you board the plane? I haven’t flown between England and America in 30 years, so I’m going by my experience flying to other countries. Or, is it done on the flight you just fill out visa paperwork before landing?

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@longgone No, because he can’t get ahold of anyone who could. :-/

JLeslie's avatar

I can’t help thinking what if he had never read the email?

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@JLeslie Yes, but he’s listed as being approved. ESTA allows you to board planes when you’re approved, but a US Customs agent has the final say over whether or not you’re allowed to enter the country. So, worst case scenario, they detain him or immediately turn him back around. And exactly – we’ve also thought similar things. He’s gone through hell trying to reach someone who can actually be of help, but it’s literally been impossible (by design?) so far.

There’s a chance he could risk it and get an understanding US Customs agent. He might just risk it.

janbb's avatar

I think that calling the airline might be his best bet for getting to talk to a live person. They probably can’t give him permission but they may have an idea of what’s going on as @JLeslie suggest.

What carrier is he flying on?

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@janbb I just told him that he should try calling the airline. He’s supposed to fly over on UNited.

JLeslie's avatar

Probably, don’t divulge who he is and what his flight is when you call the airline. Just call for some information and see if you or he gets lucky.

JLeslie's avatar

United does a lot of flights between here and Europe.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

Okay, well, he’ll try to the airline as soon as he can. Hopefully they can provide some answers.

flutherother's avatar

If he’s travelled to Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria he won’t be eligible for ESTA travel.

PS I found this number very helpful when looking for advice on visas and visa free travel: 09042450100. It wasn’t busy, but they charge £1:23 a minute. It operates 8:00am to 9:00pm UK time.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@flutherother Nope, he hasn’t been anywhere like that. The ESTA itself was (and still is, according to the website) approved. It was then a US Customs agent (apparently) that said he couldn’t come over without an electronic chip in his passport. Which doesn’t even make sense, because all UK passports have had electronic chips since 2006. It was like they literally threw out a random, nonsensical reason to deny him entry into the US.

janbb's avatar

Let him try the phone number @flutherother gave tomorrow.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

Yes, definitely. I’ll give him that number right now.

Thank you guys for trying to help me. It means a lot to me, especially in this case.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

This might be a scam. Do you have a tracking number for this Custom agent’s message? Did he offer you any solutions, solutions that may cost money? If UK passports have had chips since 2006, this should not even be an issure. I’d check this out with Customs.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@Espiritus_Corvus No, there wasn’t anything asking for money, just a message about something being wrong with the passport and it was a .gov email address. He’s been trying really hard to get ahold of someone in Customs, but it’s been impossible.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

This is what the email he got said:

Effective April 1, 2016, the United States requires a valid e-Passport (passport with a chip) to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program. You are receiving this email because your passport has been identified as a non e-Passport or it was issued prior to your country of citizenship’s issuance of e-Passports. Your ESTA application is cancelled due to this new travel requirement.

You will need an e-Passport to travel under the Visa Waiver Program or you may obtain a non-immigrant visa from a U.S. Embassy or Consulate in your non e-Passport. Once you obtain an e-Passport, you may re-apply for ESTA. The cancellation does not affect your future ESTA status. For more information regarding travel requirements, visit www.cbp.gov/travel.

janbb's avatar

What is the date of his passport?

DrasticDreamer's avatar

He just had it renewed, but before that, he got it about two months before he came to see me last year. My boyfriend just said “I know they last two years, but they are also indexed to your passport number. So I applied for a new one. And got it.”

DrasticDreamer's avatar

It just doesn’t make sense in general, because all UK passports have had chips in them since 2006.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

OK. This is obviously a form letter, a bulletin informing of recent policy change. There has been a lot of pressure to tighten things up since Paris.

I just ran a sentence from that email through Google and it turns out that you are not the only one who has received these. Check this page out. I didn’t open any of these, but I’ll bet the answer to this lies in them.

janbb's avatar

Wait – passports should last about 10 years before renewal. Something doesn’t make sense. Maybe if he just got a new one, the frequency triggered something.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@janbb He renewed his ESTA, not his passport, sorry (my brain is frazzled). After renewing his ESTA, that’s the email he got. So, although his ESTA is still currently listed as approved, it was a US Customs agent that denied him entry – and the reason they gave was related to his passport. He got his passport 47 days ago.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

He just said “I got it in August 2016. So it was also biometric. I had mine renewed this time, even though I figured it would probably be fine, because there was less than six months before it’s expiry date. I know travel to the USA doesn’t need that, but I was trying, again, to be prudent.”

Before getting his passport recently, the last one was from 2006. I wonder if, somehow, something got mixed and the US Customs agent saw his old one??

DrasticDreamer's avatar

Nevermind, that’s out. He never even had a passport before they put chips in them.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

See my last post.

JLeslie's avatar

Maybe I’m wrong about this, but don’t you only need an ETSA from the UK if for some reason you don’t meet the requirements for a regular visa? Meaning, isn’t it right that most British subjects/citizens can travel to the US without applying for a visa ahead of time? Isn’t it just done at the airport if you are going to be in the US less than 90 days?

Why would the passport matter?

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@Espiritus_Corvus Yeah, he looked at a lot of those. According to everything he read, there was no fix and it screwed everyone over. It almost seems like it’s a way to force people, even from allied countries, into getting a full visa. Or the system is just massively flawed.

JLeslie's avatar

Maybe new passport applications are now being questioned?

flutherother's avatar

There is very interesting correspondence on this link It includes this which was posted just this evening:

“I have just spoken to someone at CBP (Customs Border Protection) and apparently these emails and cancellations were a mistake and if you HAVE got a passport with a chip then the ESTA should be reinstated and you will be getting an email to that effect in the next few days – otherwise call 001 202 344 3710 – hopefully someone at CBP is getting a kick up the a***”

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@JLeslie It’s not really new, though. He had it renewed 47 days ago. His original application for a passport in general was from 2006. Something is just massively screwed up.

@flutherother If that’s accurate, I am so grateful for your sleuthing! I’ll give him that information immediately and hope that something comes of it, somehow! Thank you!

JLeslie's avatar

@flutherother And, again that shows why Fluther is so awesome!!! I hope that’s correct. Jolly good job.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@flutherother He just tried calling, but it’s too late there now, so he’s going to try first thing in the morning. Thank you SO much! I’ll let you know how it goes, as soon as I have news.

Here2_4's avatar

Wow! I just got here. Reading down through in order has been exciting and eye opening.
It appears to be resolved, but just in case, I would contact the FBI and see if there has been a hoax of this nature, or if it may be a smoke screen devised to discourage ne’er do wells.

flutherother's avatar

@DrasticDreamer I’m keeping my fingers crossed for you. Keep us posted!

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

49 responses from 5 helpers in 1 hour. Not bad.

Good luck. Let us know.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

So awesome! :) I’m so grateful that you guys tried to help. It really does mean A LOT to me.

longgone's avatar

@flutherother for the win. That’s the beauty of the internet! Then again, without the internet, there would not be any pesky emails for the OP to deal with.

Fingers crossed things check out tomorrow!

janbb's avatar

Please update us.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

I’ll definitely keep you guys informed!

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@flutherother That ended up leading him down the right path – thank you, thank you, thank you! You saved the day! :) His trip here in about fives days is still happening thanks to you! I wish I could hug you! THANK YOU!

flutherother's avatar

Great news, glad everything has worked out.

augustlan's avatar

What a fantastic thread this was. So glad it’s all sorted out!

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