It’s been clear for some time that the US is becoming more and more paranoid about border security. My first trip to the US was in late 1993, when we hopped over to New York on a special deal (less than 2 weeks notice), and I remember it being much like any other international destination, or if anything easier. In particular if you held a British passport, you were pretty much waved through at the border with very little fuss.
Since 2001 things have gotten more difficult, obviously, but in the last 5 years it’s been getting increasingly silly. The need to fingerprint every traveller seems rather unnecessary and certainly slows down the process. On arriving in LA a couple of months ago I was struck by just how unfriendly the officials were, one in particular being pretty damn rude to a family in front of me in the queue who were unsure about which of the multitude of forms they were supposed to fill out when. Sure, it’s really big and clever to swank around with a gun at your hip, shouting at people when they don’t fill in your forms correctly. It’s not universal - recent trips to San Francisco and Boston have been a little more relaxed, but I can’t help but notice that the tension towards ‘outsiders’ appears to still be increasing.
Every time I’ve gone to the US I’ve travelled under the Visa Waiver Programme, which is very convenient - basically you don’t have to apply for a visa if you’re just visiting on business or pleasure, just turn up with your passport, a local address and a return ticket and you’ll be fine. From January 12th next year though, they’ve decided that’s far too easy, and travellers from countries that are eligible for the VWP will have to apply for clearance before travelling, via the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). The system appears to be largely automated, so it’s much quicker than getting a ‘real’ visa, but it’s still an extra step to remember to do, and another bureaucratic process that can get screwed up.
I’m not sure why they’ve chosen to do this, I can only assume it’s related to their wish to do pre-checks on travellers, and that they’re not getting ‘enough’ information from airlines - who already have to pre-warn the US authorities of the personal information of incoming travellers (unlike every other country) and give them information which is probably contrary to many local Data Protection laws.
I know 9/11 was a big deal, but honestly I don’t think there’s a need for border control to be quite so unfriendly as it seems to be getting in the US. It’s akin to DRM - hugely overcomplicated processes that mainly put barriers in the way of the kind of people you want to welcome, while almost certainly not impeding the real criminals / terrorists in any proportionate, practical way. Maybe once the current swaggering, fear-mongering chimp of a president is finally gone, the culture of xenophobia and paranoia may start to abate a little.