U.S. raising fees for both inbound and outbound travelers

by Edward Hasbrouck on March 1, 2010

Under a series of new laws and regulatory proposals, almost everyone traveling internationally to or from the USA — U.S. 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.

This week 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 is 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 the Identity Project argued in comments to the DHS 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 U.S. and Canadian citizens and U.S. 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 U.S. visas would increase substantially under a pending regulatory proposal from the State Department, which would also increase the fees for issuance or renewal of U.S. passports.

The proposed rule published in the Federal Register earlier this month would increase the total price of a new or renewal U.S. 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 [email protected]. (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 travelers with U.S. 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 travelers 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 U.S. passport, a U.S. visa, or ESTA pre-approval to travel to the USA, and thus escapes these U.S. fee increases), this week 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!

[Originally published by Edward Hasbrouck on his blog, The Practical Nomad.]

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  • Vacationagent

    Over the years every possible entity has had its hand out with travelers and it has been fairly easy for these entities to add usurious taxes and fees to everything from airplane tickets to hotels to rental cars. But I have to disagree with the entire premise of this article. Thousands and thousands of “visitors” enter the USA and disappear while overstaying their visas. I do not consider scrutiny imposed on visitors to be xenophobia nor the costs of that scrutiny to be excessive. The writer missed the mark with this article.

  • http://hasbrouck.org Edward Hasbrouck

    The fee imposed under the “Travel Promotion Act” will be used to advertise the USA as a destination for international visitors. It has nothing to do with visa fees or the costs of “scrutiny” of visitors.

  • Nathan

    Mr. Hasbrouck,

    Yes, this specific fee is for advertising. However, I believe Vacationagent was referring to you remark about “the xenophobic rules and procedures that make it so difficult and expensive to get permission to travel to the USA” – most of the rules and procedures are in place to determine whether the applicants will overstay visas, or be threats. Flawed as they may be, I for one am glad such “rules and procedures” are in place, regardless of the (regrettable) expense and inconvenience for travelers, or the erroneous perception of xenophobia some may complain about.

    Also, nice of you to inject some perception of racism – noting that the visa waiver program is “limited to a short list of mostly-wealthy most-favored nations, most of them populated mostly by white-skinned people”. Statistically, this is true but… the largest VWP nation is Japan, not famous for being overly white. Neither is the nearly fifty million strong population of South Korea. Or Singapore. Or Brunei. But, I digress. If we’re racists about our visa waiver policy, we’re incompetent racists. You should have stopped at “mostly-wealthy most-favored nations”, which is not terribly misleading by itself. Note that pretty much every first-world nation has similar visa waiver criteria, in terms of which countries get favored treatment, and which don’t.

    It seems as though you, Mr. Hasbrouck, are complaining about all of the costs associated with security for traveling internationally, and implying that the government is “presumably” and “ostensibly” doing what they say, despite absence of evidence to the contrary. Also, alleging “de facto” exit visa requirements (actually, these are entrance visa requirements, we have no control over anyone leaving another country unless they are entering the USA’s jurisdiction). And, alleging minimum $200 visa costs (try zero in some cases, $131 in many common tourist/business cases).

    Seems like a reactionary agenda against improving security of travel and immigration at work here. On the bright side, I would like to thank you for the contact info, I will use it to express support for improved security and immigration controls.

  • Joel Wechsler

    @Vacationagent What is your source for the statement that “thousands and thousands of ‘visitors’ enter the USA and disappear…”? And do you think that a high fee for a visa is going to prevent that, if it is indeed a problem of major proportions?
    @Nathan I am inclined to agree that the injection of a presumed racial bias in the discussion of the VWP in unnecessary. However, I think you are kidding yourself if you believe that high visa fees and other onerous procedures are doing much to identify threats or people who are likely to overstay. Mostly what these fees do is provoke retaliation. For example, I visited Chile 4 years ago and was surprised to find that I had to pay a newly instituted $131 entry fee. My friends there told me that this was imposed because the U.S. charged Chileans that amount for a visa.

  • Vacationagent

    @Joel Wechsler – the GAO estimates the resident overstay population at 2.3 million people as of 2000. That figure will be the starting point for the 2010 census. That figure does not include shortterm overstays who have not established residency, nor does it include unknown numbers from Canada and Mexico. I think it is pretty safe to say that overstaying visas is a significant problem.

    The purpose of the visa fee is to cover the cost of determining whether or not a visa applicant is a suitable visitor. The purpose of the fee is not to make it so high that only a rich person (without regard to that person’s suitability as a visitor) can afford to apply.

  • em Hoop

    Poor people don’t spend any more than absolutely necessary. I know, i was once “poor” myself.
    Now that i can afford to travel internationally, I understand that the goal is to bring in the people who will drop the most money in the tin cup of whichever country one visits.
    In the US, we can’t even keep track of prison parolees. Whatever makes you think our systems are more efficient at tracking/ weeding out the “suitable visitors” from the not-so-suitable??? Especially 2 point whatever million of overstaying visitors.
    This is a new world to me, where people are sorted out only by the criterion of what they MIGHT do. Sounds rather dictatorial to me.(Being sorted out by what one can afford is not a surprise anymore). Just exactly who has the crystal ball that determines what the “unsuitable” traveler MIGHT do? More likely, this is just another way to create more jobs in government. Or,as in UK, it’s a way to make each agency collect fees equivalent to the cost of each service the agency provides. In a country where babies’ nappies and bottles of formula excite the hunting instinct, I guess anything is possible, but I’ll be surprised to read an article in the NYT bragging on how many people were kept out of this country because they MIGHT overstay their welcome.

  • Joel Wechsler

    I think @em Hoop has it right. Unless you’re talking racial profiling I don’t see how a determination of “suitability” can be made on a reliable, consistent basis. This sounds very much like another example of security theater.

  • Vacationagent

    @Joel and em – The USA issues more than 25 different types of visas based on the traveler’s purpose of entry. Any one of those types of visas has different criteria the visitor must meet in order for the visa to be granted – i.e. their suitability to visit or eligibility for a visa. I doubt that the criteria is racial in nature. Here’s an example of our visa requirements: For a basic visitor’s visa, we would require the visitor to have demonstrable evidence of enough money to support himself while here and strong ties like property ownership in his home country so that he will return.

    This article is about encouraging people to visit the USA. I’m totally in favor of that. The writer goes on to talk about our supposed dracion process for visas and seems to propose loosening those requirements. I do not favor that. Furthermore, I think there is a giant disconnect between what the writer lead his article with and what he ended his article with.

  • Scott

    Forget about the visitors. What about our own government essentially extorting its own citizens who travel? THAT is the main issue of importance here. As Joel noted, Americans have to pay ridiculously more than any other country to travel abroad because of the ridiculous amounts the Bush Administration started charging foreign visa applicants. Oh, and those applicants have to pay the $131 whether they are approved or not. Raising passport costs, not allowing frequent travelers to get extra visa pages, and now charging exorbitantly for that? There is just no reason for it other than extortion.

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