If you are going to the US you use ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) to support your application. It requires personal information to see if you are eligible to travel. The online application collects biographic information and answers to important questions. Under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), it doesn’t guarantee you admission but it speeds up the process at the port of entry.
Social media and ESTA
Over the past week, the US government has introduced new ways of obtaining personal information. The online application now asks for your social media account names. It includes Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have said that they won’t deny entry to people who didn’t provide this information. Although this is currently still optional, it is only a matter of time before this is mandatory.
They have been consulting on this since summer and there has been a lot of criticism. Given that it has now appeared on the online form, opponents are furious. Currently there are no clear data protection guidelines on what is a mass invasion of privacy. Social media groups argue that it is a threat to freedom of expression. Various democratic think tanks suggested it would give government agencies too much power.
Why do they need your social media account names?
The government’s intentions are clear. They are collecting social media to track data about opinions, beliefs, identity and community. Certain people will be inevitable targets with Muslim communities being affected more than others. Although people currently have a choice to hand over the information, this programme is just the beginning.
Who is going to argue human rights with an intimidating airport officials? After several hours on an aeroplane, your priority is to get through the official process as quick as possible. Toiletries and medicines in clear bags, shoes, belts, full body scans. Security leaves you feeling dishevelled and without dignity at the best of times. So you’ll do and say anything to make the process as smooth as possible.
They have justified this new policy as a way of identify potential threats. They are looking to identify and deny entry to people who have links to terrorism. The more information they have about an individual, the better the chances of catching extremists. They already scan limited amounts of social media posts but this would huge.
Who else will follow suit?
People need to travel for business, family and pleasure and in 2015 alone, the US had 77.5 million foreign visitors. The quantity of social media information the government will collect is staggering. Commentators suggest that it will be one of the largest government controlled databases of its kind.
Whether you agree with the US government’s policy or not, we all worry about non-official use of our data. The US is a supposed democratic and a ‘free’ society. But if it can demand our Facebook friends list to decide whether we are a security risk, what happens if this happens elsewhere? For instance, you might need to travel to a country where homosexuality is illegal. If officials spot a pattern of supporting gay rights, regardless of your sexuality, it could put your safety at risk.
Comments Off on What is the Schengen Information System
There has been an increased interest in the Schengen Information System (SIS) recently. The tragic events in Germany has highlighted the need for sharing information across borders. Initiatives such as ETIAS and ESTA aim to improve national security. So what is the Schengen Information System?
This massive database was set up in 1995 when the EU abolished internal border controls. . It has contributed to maintaining internal security and fighting cross border crime on the external Schengen borders. Recent proposals aim to make it even more effective and efficient.
What does SIS contain?
The system contains information on individuals who don’t have permission to enter or stay in the Schengen area. It includes those who are wanted for criminal activities. It also contains information on missing persons, children at risk, and other vulnerable individuals.
It’s not just people. It holds details of objects, for example, vehicles, firearms, boats and identification documents. These may have been lost or stolen, or used to carry out a crime. Instructions detailing what action the border security should do are also included.
Who has access to SIS?
It is important that a database which contains sensitive personal information is secure. Authorities may only access the data relevant to carry out their jobs. These users include border control officials, the police, customs and excise, and the judiciary.
Europol and Eurojust have limited access but recent proposals will give them more rights. The Security Union is including more agencies. For instance, the new European Border and Coast Guard Agency, plane and boat registration bodies, and ETIAS.
How does SIS protect the information?
It is important that a database which contains personal information is secure. Recent technological advances have ensured that some of the data are sophisticated and sensitive. It isn’t just photographs and fingerprints. Recent proposals mean that they will add palm prints and DNA profiles.
The new Data Protection Regulation will improve system security and maintenance. It introduces safeguards ensuring that data collection, processing, and access is limited to what is necessary. Member States are liable for penalties if breaches cause damage to a person. For instance, inaccurate data or unlawful storage of data.
Apart from the new personal information content, and increased data protection, the security union has proposed other operational and technical improvements. They want to improve information sharing and cooperation between Member States.
Terrorism prevention is a priority so they will introduce new ‘inquiry check’. Better protection of children with a high risk of abduction will be achieved through preventive alerts. Counterfeiting alerts will be issued on a wider range of stolen or falsified goods.
Has the system produced results?
At the end of 2013, there were just over 50 million alerts in the system. By November 2016, that number had grown to nearly 70 million. Competent authorities accessed the SIS 2.9 billion times in 2015, a billion times more than in 2014.
In reality this means that over 25,000 people were arrested. Around 72,000 serious criminals and security threats were located. And over 97,000 cases concerning stolen vehicles, misuse of documents, stolen firearms, and other lost or stolen property were solved.
Security in Europe goes to the heart of the Union and it is more important than ever before. Recent events need a unified response to terror threats. Terrorists don’t respect national borders. This is why President Juncker created a new Security Union portfolio in August 2016. This has resulted in many major security initiatives. Some have recently come to fruition, and some are still in progress.
Prevention is better than cure. Systematic checks before people reach borders is essential to prevent terrorists entering the EU. On 16 November the Commission established a European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS). This comprehensive security initiative is ETIAS’s equivalent to the US ESTA scheme. This strengthens security checks on visa-free travellers. The system will conduct prior checks and either issue or refuse travel authorisation.
National border guards will always take the final decision to grant or refuse entry. But the extra information will help. Third-country nationals are already subject to systematic document and security checks. But it’s not just entry which is important. They will introduce checks on people leaving the Schengen area too.
The various databases will be crucial in the fight against terrorism. This includes the Schengen Information System (SIS), the Interpol Stolen and Lost Travel Documents Database (SLTD), relevant national systems and Interpol databases. The balance between privacy and security is delicate. All checks will respect data protection rules and the EU’s legislation on fundamental rights.
The legislative process for ETIAS is almost complete. The speed of this legislation is in response to last year’s terrorist attacks in Paris. The European Parliament recently agreed to the Commission’s proposal to introduce mandatory border checks for all. The Commission expects a prompt adoption of the proposal into legislation.
European Border and Coast Guard
Checks and documentation are important but extra personnel is essential. The recently created European Border and Coast Guard Agency will provide practical help. Through Frontex, they will be able to deploy as many as 1500 EU border guards at short notice to assist member states.
Frontex is a specialist rapid reaction pool. It includes border surveillance officers, registration and finger scanning experts, and nationality screening experts. To function, this expert group of personnel will needs appropriate equipment. Member states have agreed to supply the necessary technology, including vehicles, vessels and aircraft.
The rapid reaction pool will be an addition to the regular deployment of officers in Frontex operations at EU’s external borders. We don’t want emergency situations at EU external borders, but preparation is crucial.
Other legislation and initiatives
The latest Security Union progress report listed other European Parliament legislative priorities for 2016-2017. They need to reach agreement on other security focused Commission proposals. This includes the Directive on Combatting Terrorism, and the Firearms Directive. In December, the Commission presents the final package about money laundering and terrorist financing.
We need to stop people from getting involved in violent extremism in the first place. The security of Europe relies on protecting young people from radicalisation. The Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) was set up to encourage young people to get involved in prevention work. The EU Internet Forum explored ways to prevent online radicalisation and internet terrorist propaganda.
Information screening such as ETIAS and ESTA are essential for the safety of international borders. The European Agenda on Security are overseeing online security as well as implementing new border controls. Their focus is on cyber-crime and terrorism cyber-crime. This is where unified cross-border initiatives can be effective in policing and prevention.
One of these initiatives is the EU Internet Forum. It represents one of the key security commitments announced by the Commission in April 2015. Their discussions will look at ways to protect the public from terrorist propaganda. It will also ensure that potential communications between terrorists are monitored and shut down. There will also be conversations about how to use the internet to challenge hate speech and radicalisation.
The forum brings together many high profile public and private entities. For instance, EU Interior Ministers, Europol, the EU Counter Terrorism Co-ordinator and the European Parliament. Getting the big tech companies onside is crucial. Given that both the solution and the problem are online, the forum will be reliant on the co-operation of web giants.
Representatives from Twitter, Microsoft, Facebook and YouTube recently attended the latest EU Internet Forum. They took this opportunity to announce plans to delete extremist content. They have agreed to create a shared industry database of digital fingerprints, called ‘hashes’. So when one platform identifies terrorist imagery, they can alert others. They can then review the content and decide whether it contravenes their own content policies. They hope that other social media platforms will get involved.
In fairness, the extreme images violate all providers’ policies. But it is the philosophy of corporations collaborating with member states that is new. Authorities have had protracted battles with tech companies. As private concerns, they are obliged to abide by relevant national laws. But they have been under pressure about privacy, advertising, taxation, and competition. These companies are vast in scope and influence so I wonder what else is under discussion.
Governments have a duty to protect citizens from terrorist activities. But they have to balance users’ freedom of expression. Facebook and others were swift to reassure their users that they will share no identifiable information. They say they are committed to protecting users’ privacy and their ability to express themselves.
The forum is aware of the importance of citizens’ freedoms. As they point out, tackling online hate speech is a delicate exercise. It requires somebody to define where freedom of expression stops and where hate speech starts. It matters who this ‘somebody’ is. A legislature will have differing views from Facebook, the general population, or a ‘freedom fighter’.
The focus is currently on terrorism. Some commentators have expressed concerns that if governments can exert pressure on this, what else is next? Intellectual property or health information are both areas of contention. These companies hold vast amounts of information which governments might want to see. In the meantime it is reassuring we can use online data to protect innocent citizens. We need to prevent atrocities such that we have seen in France and other parts of Europe.
Historic tensions between the US and Cuba have made travel between the two countries problematic. It’s not going to get any easier either. The new president-elect, Donald Trump is no fan of their communist regime. But with Fidel Castro’s death at the end of November, there may be some change in attitude.
Many exiled Cubans in the States will perhaps be closer to the dream of returning home. In parts of Miami people have been celebrating. Some of the families there have lived outside their home land for decades but have not lost hope. Castro’s death won’t have an immediate effect with regards to their freedom and rights but it is significant.
Against this news, it is timely to look at the process should a Cuban national want to visit the United States. In recent years there has been a softening in attitudes but it remains controversial. Cuban officials have generally had visa applications rejected but Obama has been more sympathetic. For instance, in 2012 they granted Castro’s daughter a visa, causing some outrage.
The US runs a visa waiver scheme which is available to nationals from a list of selected countries. If you don’t have a visa for entry, but you’re from certain parts of Europe or Australasia, you can apply for ESTA online approval. Cuba is not on that list and despite legislation softening, people will find it hard to get approval. In October 2016 new regulations made changes to ease US-Cuba travel restrictions. US immigration now says that Cubans are eligible for most standard US visas. But this isn’t reciprocated by the Cuban government.
When you look at how many visa applications the US government rejects, it explains why Cuba has such a problem with reciprocation. In 2008 45.2% were rejected, followed by 66.2% in 2014, with a jump to 76.03% in 2015. People may be eligible but they are being rejected and it’s a massive increase in a relatively short period. The reason for this high rejection rate is the ability – or lack thereof – to prove intent. The prospective traveller has to reassure immigration that they will leave the US when they say they will. This is why they need information about the applicant’s personal circumstances and reasons for travel.
This discriminates against younger applicants. The fear is that once these young people are on American soil, they will deploy the ‘wet feet, dry feet’ argument to stay. The Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) says that Cubans who reach US shores can apply for permanent residence. And given that most people are successful, immigration officials are keen to ensure this method isn’t used.
As we have seen across the globe, immigration remains subject to political whim. Despite Obama’s liberal stance, Cuban visa rejections rose. The death of the Cuban revolutionary figurehead may help the country further their trade interests with neighbouring states. But trade requires travel and this will require further easing of US visa requirements. However, although President-Elect Trump cannot be predicted, his attitude to immigration is well established. We can only hope for the best for people wanting to travel.
By January 2020 certain prospective visitors to the Schengen zone will be required to obtain permission to enter it before they travel. There has been speculation in the press about the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS), and as of 16 November 2016, we have a clearer idea of its implementation and how it will work in practice.
ETIAS is the EU’s version of the US ESTA scheme. It was announced in September 2016’s State of the Union address, where President Juncker provided an outline of all planned EU-wide initiatives. However, as promised, the EU Commission recently released a detailed proposal about the scheme. To become law across the EU, it will have to go before the European Parliament and Council.
Who will be affected by this?
People who have applied for, and carry visas are well documented. The authorities feel that they don’t know enough about other travellers who do not have visas and are not EU citizens; so-called ‘visa-exempt third country nationals’. Everyone in this category will have to pay to undergo an online security check before travelling. They say if they know who is travelling and where, it will make borders more secure.
When we leave the EU, people with a UK passport entering the Schengen zone will also be subject to this check.
We are facing global threats which necessitate costly checks on predominantly innocent people. The atrocities committed by terrorists within the Schengen zone have shaken the ideological foundations of the Union. The desire for open borders post-WW2 has sadly given way to an insecure feeling modern world.
What will be checked and how?
The system is promising to be quick and simple. You will access the service from the official app or website, and enter your passport and contact details. It will check and verify your information with cross-border databases, e.g., Interpol, Europol, Eurodac, the ETIAS watch-list. If there is a suggestion that you pose a risk to security or public health you will be denied authorisation for travel. However in the majority of cases, there will be no hits and authorisation should arrive in a matter of minutes. They are proposing that it will cost €5 per person over the age of 18 and will be valid for 5 years.
If you are denied permission you are allowed to appeal. They indicate that you will have to check with the country which has refused you entry, and it will be subject to their national laws.
Ironically the members of the European Parliament were critical of the US ESTA scheme when it was launched. As it was originally justified as a tourist tax, they worried about how the scheme would impact on tourism; however, the focus is now unashamedly on security. It will be interesting to hear the up-coming parliamentary debates on ETIAS and how the changing climate of fear will appear in the rhetoric.
The certainty that the UK will be leaving the European Union is one of the most significant political event to occur in many years. Rarely has there been so much discussion about a single article of a European treaty outside the legal community, but now everyone appears to be an Article 50 expert.
Brexit will have an impact on many areas of our lives, but of immediate area of concern for British passport holders is the future of Eurozone travel. From what the prime minister has said about immigration and freedom of movement so far, it seems likely borders will become more restrictive, and we may have to apply and pay a fee to cross them.
UK made over 30 million visits to EU in 2015
UK nationals take it for granted that they can freely hop on a flight, train or ferry to anywhere in the European Union or European Economic Area, from Iceland to Greece, Madeira to Latvia. The latest Office of National Statistics Travel Trends 2015 demonstrates how important this is as there were an astonishing 30+ million holiday trips to EU countries last year. However if the UK is going require more stringent checks on visitor of all kinds, then the reverse is true. Holiday makers must accept that Brexit will adversely affect their EU travel plans.
Proposal of a European Travel Information and Authorisation System
The Commission says that ‘ETIAS would determine the eligibility of all visa-exempt third country nationals to travel to the Schengen Area, and whether such travel poses a security or migration risk. Information on travellers would be gathered prior to their trip’. Consultation and further information will be published in November 2016 but it has been reported that France and Germany both back a system based on the US Electronic System for Travel Authorization scheme.
US Electronic System for Travel Authorization scheme
ESTA is an automated system that helps check an individual’s eligibility to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). On payment of a fee, it essentially checks whether you are a law enforcement or security risk, and you are then cleared for travel – or not.
Information that you are obliged to share, including biometric data via fingerprinting and facial scans, is stored upwards of 12 years and safely kept for ‘security purposes’. People who already have a valid visa to travel to the States are not obliged to apply using ESTA.
Currently, although UK nationals must show a valid passport to enter the 26-country Schengen zone, they can then travel freely within it. But what happens after Brexit is anyone’s guess. If ETIAS goes ahead, and without a sensible travel agreement being negotiated, it seems likely that British passport holders will have to apply and pay for permission to enter and travel within this area. There are many details to be worked out, but it is certain that EU travel will never be as simple or as cheap as it has been.
Comments Off on How the Recent Brexit is Affecting Your Travel to the USA
Are you travelling to the US soon? Despite the recent fall in the pound, the reasons to go this time of year are many; for instance, the dramatic autumnal leaves display in rural New England, traditional Halloween celebrations in Salem, or even just a pre-Christmas shopping session in New York. But whatever your reason, there are a number of potentially trip-spoiling administrative tasks to sort out before packing your bags. Below I outline some of the new rules and regulations you should take into account.
There were a number of reports in the UK press earlier this year which discussed the impact of a relatively obscure piece of US legislation. It was introduced by the US government as a response to the tragic San Bernadino shooting, and their growing fear around global security. Therefore visitors need to be aware of ‘improvements’ the Terrorist Travel Prevention Act 2015 made to the existing visa waiver programme (VWP).
Originally the VWP was created to allow and encourage freedom of travel, unlike the more stringent and complicated visa system. Provided you weren’t going there to study, work, or look for permanent residence, it enabled most people from many parts of the world to travel to the United States without a visa. So in reality what do these changes mean for eligible visa-free tourists?
The first major issue might be your passport. Many issues that British tourists faced were caused by old type passports. Although there are relatively few left in circulation, a number of people were left unhappy and out of pocket when they got to the airport and weren’t allowed to check in. If you still have a passport that was issued prior to 2007, it is urgently recommended that you get a new biometric ‘e-passport’. These are the only ones now accepted by the US authorities.
In addition to being able to travel to the US, there are other good reason for getting your passport replaced. Although you can wait in line to get your passport checked by an immigration official if you wish, with an e-passport you can use the new automatic gates at passport control. Simply place your open passport on the glass panel, wait a few seconds, and the gate opens. Anything which reduces the stressful wait at airport immigration is a bonus!
Secondly you are now required to register your details online via the US Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) website. This is an automated system and determines your eligibility for travel. It is strongly recommended that you check your ESTA status prior to making any travel reservations or travelling to the United States. There is a fee payable for this mandatory service but it is valid for a couple of years.
As airlines and tour operators have made clear, it is your responsibility to ensure you have the right documentation before you travel. Always double check with your operator if you are in any doubt, and don’t allow any travel hiccups to jeopardise your precious holiday time abroad.
Comments Off on A Parent’s Guide to Visiting Walt Disney World in Orlando
With the summer holidays fast approaching many people begin their long awaited trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando. Disney World is a fantasy land and something that will leave all first time visitors very impressed, especially the little ones. While Disney makes everything possible to guarantee an enjoyable visit, it is important to get a few tips to enjoy your trip even more. Hurry and apply online for your ESTA authorization to enjoy this family destination!
Try to Stay in a Disney Hotel or Resort. Disney hotels are more expensive than hotels outside of the theme park but offer many benefits including the FastPass (explained in the next point) and also your children will enjoy having Disney characters such as Mickey, Minnie or Donald Duck join them for lunch or dinner.
Get as many Fast Passes as possible. The lines or queues and waiting times for rides in Disney can be very long. With a FastPass you are able to go the front of the line without any delays whatsoever. Staying in a Disney hotel or resort entitles you and each family member to 3 FastPasses per day. Being friendly with your Disney hotel concierge can help you secure more FastPasses.
Visit one Disney park per day.If you travel with small children it is highly recommended that you stick to one park per day such as Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom or Epcot and stick to the rides in that park. Going from park to park in one day will be very time consuming, will require very long walks and will tire your children greatly.
Consider renting a stroller even for older children. Even if your children are seven or eight years old you should consider renting a stroller when you enter the theme parks. The walks, crowds and weather can really tire them and it will get to a point where they won’t want to walk anymore and will not enjoy as many attractions as they could otherwise.
5. Take plenty of sunscreen and rain gear. If visiting Orlando during the summer there will be a mix of extreme sun and heat and rain and thunderstorms. Do make sure that you and your children are well protected with sunscreen and remember to have umbrellas or rain ponchos to cover you so that you can continue enjoying the rides even with adverse weather.
Plan all your meals ahead of time. Making reservations in all restaurants ahead of time is very important as they get full very quickly and getting a table by walking in can be impossible in many restaurants. Especially if you want your children to greet the Disney characters then it will be crucial to reserve your dining options in advance.
Enjoy your hotel pool in the morning. Disney hotels pools can be an attraction all on their own but can get extremely busy in the afternoons after people have returned from the theme parks. If you want to enjoy the pool without the crowds then you should consider going in the morning before heading to the theme parks.
Watch the fireworks outside of Cinderella Castle. Watching the fireworks display is a magical experience and will highlight the wonders of visiting Disney.
Visiting Disney World is a magical experience for the whole family. Planning ahead of time is crucial in ensuring that you make the most of your stay. Disney World can be overwhelming with the crowds and weather so it is very important to have a very organized plan in order to enjoy every day to the fullest.
Comments Off on What to Do If You Need Medical Care While Visiting the United States
Unexpected medical situations can arise anytime – even during a relaxing holiday. For this reason it is important to understand what to do if something happens while abroad. The United States in particular has a medical care system that is very different from what visitors from other countries are accustomed to. What is critical to understand is that after you apply for your USA ESTA you should also apply for health care insurance to cover you while in the United States. Not having insurance can end up costing you thousands of dollars.
The medical care system in the United States is mostly PRIVATE. This means that with a few exceptions all people – including Americans – must have private health insurance to cover their medical treatment. When you purchase international health insurance you are purchasing a private health insurance program that will cover you in the United States.
Your national health insurance card in your country is not valid in the United States. Please remember that the system in the United States is completely different and your country’s health insurance card is not valid in America.
Medical care is very expensive in the United States. Simple procedures such as an x-ray or an electrocardiogram that in your home country can cost a few hundred dollars can cost in thousands in the United States. Make sure your medical coverage is high enough to cover the cost of a medical emergency.
You could have to pay upfront. Depending on the hospital or medical center you visit they could potentially require you to pay for your treatment upfront and then seek reimbursement from your health insurance company. Make sure your credit card has a high limit in case you have to pay high upfront charges.
In case of an emergency dial 911. But also remember that the cost of the ambulance will be charged to you or to your insurance company and this can be very expensive.
There will be many forms to fill out. Visiting a health care facility in the United States requires a lot of patience as you will have to fill out what seems like an endless number of forms. This is due to the complex American legal system where doctors and medical establishments want to ensure they are not sued in the courts.
Doctors are usually quick and to the point. Prior to your doctor seeing you, you will be seen by nurses or doctor assistants who will do the procedures your doctor back home usually does such as taking your blood pressure, heart rate, etc. The doctor will finally see you and will usually make a quick diagnosis and be on his/her away quickly.
Waiting times in the Emergency Room (ER) can be very long. Depending on the medical facility and the location, waiting times in the ER can take several hours. Many of these facilities are very busy with patients and if you do not have a life or death situation they will make you wait.
If you do not have medical insurance the bill will be sent to your home country address. In the worst case scenario where you do not have travel insurance and do not have the financial means to pay for the medical care you received, your contact information will be taken and a bill will be sent to your home address. Please note that paying this bill is extremely important as not paying it can cause problems for you in visiting the United States in the future. Even if you cannot pay the whole bill upfront you will be able to establish a payment plan with the medical establishment.
It is important to note that medical care in the United States is generally superb and if you do find yourself requiring emergency or other medical care you can be most certain that you will be treated professionally and with good care. The government in the United States has been making reforms to the health care sector to try to reduce some of the very high prices charged for routine procedures but this will not apply to you as a visitor since you will be charged the ordinary rates. Do remember that after applying online for your ESTA you should immediately apply for a travel health insurance policy that will properly cover you while in the United States.