US visa-waiver program

Monday, May 29th, 2006

Joi ito has had a few stern looks from the US INS regarding visa waiver forms.

I can relate.

I have a UK passport by virtue of the fact that my father was born in the UK (mostly by accident – another fun story). So I also know about the visa waiver program – it used to cover me too. Until one day I flew into the US briefly, on my own plane, to visit friends in DC as part of a long trip. When we arrived at Dulles, the immigration officer said there was a small problem. The operator of my plane had never signed the visa-waiver treaty, and so despite the fact that I had entered the US 27 times previously on that same passport, without a visa, they would now have to decline me entry.

But before doing that they would:

  • take me in for questioning
  • search me (I objected to the strip search, they relented)
  • fingerprint me and send those fingerprints off around the world (no, Mossad is not looking for me, yet)
  • examine for obvious tattoos and other distinguishing features
  • ask me to sign a statement of wrongdoing (I declined)
  • terminate my visa waiver access – from then on I need a visa

A complication was that, because they did not have records of all the times I left the USA, they believed I had previously stayed for longer than the 90 days. Fortunately I was able to get copies of all my inbound and outbound tickets faxed to them, so I think they eventually came to believe that I had not actually overstayed the visa program ever.
Then they let me back on the plane, we flew to Ottawa, the US embassy kindly gave me a visa, and we returned to the USA.

Now, flying into the USA I am ALWAYS sent off for extra questions and paperwork. And on applying for a new visa, I have to fill out the form for “people with a criminal record” (cross out the criminal record part, write in “visa waiver declined”, I kid you not). It’s a joyless process.

Hello, land of the free, knock knock.

I fell in love with the USA once. It was built on beautiful principles. Alas, it appears to have forsaken those in the name of security and expediency. As a result, I think the world is looking for a new source of inspiration – a new country where the most interesting people of the world can arrive, feel welcome, and feel free. Joi, best you be sure to hand that little green form back, every time.