Under a series of new laws and regulatory proposals, almost everyone traveling 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.
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’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 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 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 email@example.com. (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 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 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 US passport, a US visa, or ESTA pre-approval to travel to the USA, and thus escapes these US 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!
[Comments filed by the Identity Project, Consumer Travel Alliance, Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights, and John Gilmore, which you can use as a template for your own comments; also available in Open Office .odt and MS-Office .doc formats.]