British holidaymakers have been forced to cancel holidays, miss flights and pay for new passports after the US border agency mistakenly revoked a large number of travel authorisation documents ahead of a change in admission rules, MoneySavingExpert.com has learned.
The ESTA – which stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorisation – allows visitors from the UK to enter the US without getting a visa. If you're travelling to the US, you need to apply for an ESTA in advance online. They last for two years. See our ESTA guide for full info.
However from today (1 April) the rules change, meaning only those with an e-passport – a passport with a chip in it – will be able to get an ESTA. It's this change to the rules which seems to be linked to a mass cancellation of ESTAs last week.
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Why were ESTAs cancelled last week?
The bureaucratic blunder has ruined many holidaymakers' plans, with some only told they would be unable to fly when they tried to check in, and others forced to cancel holidays worth up to £2,000.
On 22 March, a mass email was sent to travellers with British passports issued between March 2006 and 25 October 2006 informing them that their ESTAs had been cancelled, and claiming that their passports did not comply with the new ESTA rules.
It said: "Effective 1 April 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."
All UK passports issued since 26 October 2006 are e-passports – but only some of those issued between March 2006 and 25 October 2006 are. However, last week's ESTA cancellation appears to have affected travellers with passports issued between March 2006 and 25 October 2006 regardless of whether they had e-passports or not, or whether they were travelling before 1 April when the new rules come into effect.
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) won't tell us how many ESTAs were mistakenly cancelled, but has said a second email was sent the next day informing travellers the cancelled ESTAs had been reapproved. A spokesperson says: "The CBP is aware of the errant notifications and followed up with an email advising those affected that the issue had been resolved."
However some of the travellers affected told us they received the first email but didn't get a second email, and others have reported problems with their ESTA even after the second email was sent.
It's important to understand that ESTAs are issued by the US authorities, to enable you to enter the country. So if your plans have been disrupted because yours has been cancelled, the situation should be resolved by the issuers in the US – they will be expected to deal with the aftermath of the cancellation as they have already admitted responsibility.
The Association of British Insurers (ABI) says problems with entering another country aren't normally covered by travel insurance, although it depends on the terms of your policy. It's worth checking with your insurer. We've asked a number of travel insurers what their stance is on this and will update the story when we hear back.
The ABI also suggests contacting your airline or tour operator – one family affected by last week's ESTA cancellation told us they were able to at least move their flights free of charge, so it's worth asking.
You can also complain to the US Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, which handles complaints about travellers being incorrectly denied ESTAs. You may be asked to provide documentation of what happened by email or post.
A spokesperson for the US CBP has advised MSE that those looking to be reimbursed for their travel should issue a 'tort claim' against the CBP.
The CBP will then investigate and examine the legal basis for the claim, although it may be several months before you hear the outcome.
'I was told I couldn't board the plane'
We've seen at least 30 separate reports in the MSE Forum, on other social media and via email about the ESTA cancellation, suggesting it was a large-scale problem.
Hannah Lownsborough, from London, received the original email on 22 March and was due to fly to San Francisco the next day. She says: "I knew [the ESTA] change was coming, but I didn't think it would affect me because I have an e-passport, and secondly because the change was due to come in on 1 April. I was flying on the 23 March, returning 1 April and the new rules shouldn't affect inbound travel."
Hannah paid for a last-minute appointment with the UK Passport Office to renew her passport, but says: "This took 24 hours instead of four hours, meaning I was unable to get on the flight".
Jolene Ferguson, a MoneySavingExpert user who lives in Ireland but has a UK passport, was due to fly from Dublin to New York with her husband and daughter.
She says: "It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime for my husband's 40th birthday, but when we tried to check in, we were told we couldn't because the ESTA had been cancelled. We checked our email and found that we'd been sent the information at 00:15 that morning and we were due to fly at 10am.
"We were told the best way to resolve the issue was to drive to Belfast and purchase a passport for myself and my husband through the premium service, then reapply for the ESTA. Aer Lingus agreed to change our flights free of charge because they could see we were very distressed."
In total Jolene estimates the mistake cost her family more than £650, including travel to and an overnight stay in Belfast, the cost of an unused hotel in New York and £256 for fast-track passport renewal. After landing in New York a day and a half late, she received the email confirming that her original ESTA had been reapproved.
Lynn Patrick was due to fly with her husband from Manchester to Las Vegas to celebrate her 40th birthday, going out on 25 March and returning 30 March. She says she never received an email saying her ESTA had been cancelled.
She first found there was a problem at the check-in desk. She says: "I was told I could not board the plane". She was told this was because her passport didn't meet new regulations, but this was never revoked once the computer glitch was sorted.
Lynn wasn't able to travel to Las Vegas in the end and says she's been forced to cancel her £2,000 holiday altogether.
'Hundreds of pounds out of pocket'
Sally Francis, senior writer at MoneySavingExpert.com, says: "This appears to be a major blunder by US border authorities, one that has left some visitors from the UK hundreds of pounds out of pocket – and that's if they got to go at all.
"Most travellers are well aware of the strict rules around entering the US, go out of their way to research what the requirements are and ensure they have the correct documents in place. But it's important that the US authorities are clear and consistent about what those rules are.
"Heading stateside is already expensive enough without having to worry about extra, unexpected costs, and for visitors to be mistakenly denied entry as a result of something that's not their fault is particularly frustrating. It's to be hoped that the US authorities can do something so that those who lost out can reclaim their extra costs – and certainly ensure there aren't any further problems with the ESTA scheme."
The CBP says the cancellation of ESTAs last week was an error, so the only changes to the ESTA rules are what's already been announced. These are:
- If you're a British passport-holder flying to the US on or after 1 April, you can only use an ESTA if you have an e-passport with a chip in it.
If your passport was issued on or after 26 October 2006, it should have a chip in it, but if it was issued before then you'll need to check for the e-passport symbol on the front of your document. The symbol looks like this:
- If your passport's valid and is an e-passport, you CAN apply for an ESTA as normal. See our ESTA guide for full info.
- If you don't have an e-passport, you'll either need to renew your passport to get one with a chip in (£72.50 from the Passport Office) or apply for a tourism visa from the US Embassy – this can take between three and six weeks to clear and will cost $160 (about £114).
The Passport Office has refused to tell us how many British passports which are currently valid don't have a chip in. According to one BBC report, an estimated 2.4 million e-passports were issued between March and October 2006 – but some passports issued before October 2006 don't have a chip in, so it's not clear how many will be caught by the new rules.