Friday, 26 February 2010

USA raising fees for both inbound and outbound travellers

Under a series of new laws and regulatory proposals, almost everyone travelling internationally to or from the USA -- US passport holders, visa-free foreign visitors, and foreigners with visas -- would have to pay more in government fees for the required credentials and/or permissions.

Today the U.S. Senate passed the "Travel Promotion Act", a bill designed to encourage foreigners to visit the USA ... by making it more expensive for them to do so.

The money would go for advertising, presumably to try to persuade foreigners that the USA is worth the price and the hassle. This ignores the fact that people around the world already want to visit the USA, and don't need to be told that. What's standing in the way of more foreigners spending their money in the USA are the xenophobic rules and procedures that make it so difficult and expensive to get permission to travel to the USA -- not lack of desire to take the family on a vacation to Disney World or Las Vegas, or a shopping junket to New York or Miami.

The Travel Promotion Act, previously passed by the House and thus now headed to the White House to be signed into law, will add a US$10 fee (good for an unlimited number of visits in a 2-year period from the date it is paid) to the price of obtaining "pre-approval" to travel to the USA through the "Electronic System for Travel Authorization" (ESTA) .

ESTA pre-approval doesn't guarantee that you will be admitted to the USA, but is required as a de facto exit visa before the USA considers you authorized to depart from your home country for the USA. No, the USA has no authority to impose an exit permit requirement on departure from other countries, as I said in formal comments to the DHS from the Identity Project when the scheme was proposed, but the legality of the ESTA was never brought up in Congressional debate on the Travel Promotion Act.

ESTA pre-approval is required for all those "intending" to enter the USA without a visa under the "Visa Waiver Program" (VWP). Outside of the VWP, which is limited to a short list of mostly-wealthy most-favored nations, most of them populated mostly by white-skinned people, everyone else except US and Canadian citizens and US permanent residents (green-card holders) needs a visa even to change planes in the USA, which costs a minimum of about US$200 depending on the type of visa.

Those fees for US visas would increase substantially under a pending regulatory proposal from the State Department, which would also increase the fees for issuance or renewal of US passports.

The proposed rule published in the Federal Register earlier this month would increase the total price of a new or renewal US passport from US$100 to US$135. Part of that is an increase in the "Security Surcharge" for each passport to US$40, which presumably reflects the additional cost of including a remotely-readable uniquely-numbered RFID chip in each passport.

The State Department is accepting public comments through 10 March 2010 through the Regulations.gov Web site or by e-mail to fees@state.gov. (You must include the docket number, "RIN 1400-AC58" in the subject line of your e-mail message.) This would be a good chance to tell the Obama Administration that they wouldn't need the proposed passport fee increase if they reconsidered and rescinded the requirement for RFID chips in passports.

Frequent international travellers with US passports will also get socked. Adding pages to a passport that has filled up with visa and entry and exit stamps, previously free, will now cost US$82. Ouch! That's particularly unfair to those who requested a passport with extra pages, but didn't get one, since the passport application form still doesn't include any place to indicate that you want a thicker passport book (48 or 96 pages instead of the standard 24). If you are submitting comments to the State Department, please include a request that they put check-boxes on the application form to indicate a request for a 48 or 96-page passport.

Interestingly, despite the other ostensibly cost-based fee increases the State Department admits that they are deliberately keeping the cost of a passport card, which has a much longer-range RFID chip than a standard passport book, dramatically below cost, in effect giving travellers a large financial incentive to carry a credential with a longer-range tracking beacon.

And lest Canadians feel left out (they are essentially the only nationality that doesn't need either a US passport, a US visa, or ESTA pre-approval to travel to the USA, and thus escapes these US fee increases), yesterday Canada's Transport Minister announced increases in security fees that will be added to all air tickets for departures from Canadian airports, both domestic and international. Why the higher fees? To pay for more virtual strip-search machines ("body scanners").

Enjoy your trip, and come back and visit us again soon!

[Update: Comments filed by the Identity Project and co-signers, which you can use as a template for your own comments; also available in Open Office .odt and MS-Word .doc formats.]

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 26 February 2010, 10:19 (10:19 AM) | TrackBack (1)
Comments

Are they even offering the larger passport books any more? When I renewed back in 2007, I asked for one with extra pages, and I received a normal 24-page book with a set of extra pages pasted in.

Posted by: , 26 February 2010, 20:01 ( 8:01 PM)

Yes, they are still issuing larger passport books. But your experience is common. Many people have 24-page standard passport books that are filling up, and will need pages added, in spite of the fact they they requested a larger book. That's a direct result of the lack of any place to indicate your request for a larger book on the application form. Cover letters and other documents accompanying the application tend to get separated and/or ignored when the application is being processed.

If you are submitting comments to the State Department, include a request that they put check-boxes on the application form to indicate a request for a 48 or 96-page passport book.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 27 February 2010, 08:49 ( 8:49 AM)

I renewed my passport abroad in Sao Paulo, Brazil and the consular staff volunteered (after seeing how full my previous passport was) to give me additional pages in my new passport for no additional charge. Unfortunately, Americans living abroad can only renew their passports in person at the embassy or consulate which can be a major hassle if you don't live near one...

Posted by: Ben, 27 February 2010, 11:08 (11:08 AM)

Hm, in 2004, there WAS a way to request extra pages (and I did), but I received the standard one.
When it was approaching full, I had a bit of stress as to whether it would be modified and returned in time (it was).

Posted by: Doug Faunt, 1 March 2010, 22:45 (10:45 PM)

The larger passport option is 52-pages, not 96-pages.

Posted by: Mary, 5 March 2010, 21:21 ( 9:21 PM)

First of all, a democratic government should not be tracking the travel of its citizens, therefore raisng travel fees to do so is a strike against true democracy.

Posted by: howard rotstein, 10 March 2010, 09:02 ( 9:02 AM)

Thanks for your activism and the wealth of info that is packed into your blog posts. Your timely notifications are intelligently done.

I spread this around my followers on Twitter (and requested it be passed on) in hopes that more people would find the time today to lodge their complaints.

I used to joke that I'd better get in some more traveling into my life before "they close the world." This sort of thing makes it appear as if closure is actually starting to happen.

Posted by: Fran Engel, 10 March 2010, 17:12 ( 5:12 PM)
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