When Arcadio Pando, a Spanish tourist, was planning his trip to Washington, D.C., he didn’t know he was going to find trouble even before boarding the plane.
A month before traveling, he paid $89 for a travel authorization that would allow him to step foot in the United States without a visa. After some research, he found out that he had bought it via a third-party website at a price six times higher than its official cost.
Dozens of websites act as third-party providers and offer travelers the so-called Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).
ESTA stems from the U.S Visa Waiver Program, created in 1986 and now administered by the Department of Homeland Security. The program allows foreign nationals in 38 countries to travel for business or tourism without a visa into the United States. They can stay in the country for up to 90 days.
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Most European countries, as well as Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, plus Australia, New Zealand and Chile are part of the visa waiver program.
In 2009, the U.S. government created the ESTA program to facilitate approvals online. The government has its own website where people can get this approval. And it only costs $14.
Many of the third-party websites charge up to seven times that amount.
And they don’t always clearly show that they are, indeed, third-party providers. Their appearance is often similar to the official CBP website, according to some of the complaints.
“Their business is based on deceiving,” Pando told el Nuevo Herald. “They’re charging several times more for an application process that anyone can do (by themselves).”
Hundreds of users have complained online. They say they’re “victims” of these official-looking websites, where they paid much more than what the ESTA actually costs. Many keep on wondering how it is possible that, almost a decade later, this problem is still happening, and they demand a permanent solution.
“This is unacceptable. Somebody should intervene. It’s reasonable to pay a small fee for the administrative process, but five times more is a robbery and it could be an offense,” said a TripAdvisor user, identified as Rely V.
On the CBP official website, travelers can enter the required biographic and travel information and, after paying the $14, they will receive their authorization by email.
These third-party websites, however, charge between $50 and $100 for the exact same service, since the user has to input the same information that the official website requires. If they qualify, they would receive the same electronic form enabling them to go through any U.S. Customs and Border Protection port of entry.
One of the problems, according to Pando, is that these websites have a higher rank on search engines such as Google than the official CBP website itself.
The United States Department of Homeland Security has warned travelers about these intermediaries and has “discouraged travelers from using the third-party organizations to complete the easy ESTA application,” according to a CBP statement.
Similarly, several embassies have commented on the issue. The U.S. Embassy in Chile states that “third-party companies who are charging a fee to assist travelers in registering under ESTA are NOT operating on behalf of the U.S. government.”
But still, some of the comments found online show that the warnings may not have been enough.
“We are FURIOUS after we realized we were SCAMMED and paid €150 more than what we had expected,” Carmela, a TripAdvisor user, wrote a week ago.
Some of the travelers described how they managed to get their money back after threatening the companies with fraud complaints. That was the lucky ending to Pando’s story. He got a refund after sending a message via the website’s contact form.
“I thought I’d never see the money again,” he said.
To his great surprise, “They wrote back saying that they would refund the difference.”
They didn’t say why, he said.