American in Spain

¿Cómo ESTA?

June 29, 2011

ESTA logoTo travel to the United States this June, we packed our bags and got our passports in order. We were concerned with how well our two year old, Nora, would do on our long journey (it ended up being 23 hours from door to door). In all the hubbub of travel organization and packing, we totally forgot about another two-year-old: the ridiculous Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) law enacted by the terrorist paranoid (paranoia = terrorist win?) United States that requires non-residents to fill out an application over the internet and pay a small fee of $14 to be allowed to enter the United States. It's hard enough to find cheap holidays abroad without your destination country trying to extort money from you. Our first flight was from Bilbao to Lisbon, our second flight was from Lisbon to Philadelphia, and our third flight was from Philadelphia to Charlotte. We got to Lisbon and made our way to the checkin counter, since the Bilbao lady wasn't able to give us our boarding passes for our second and third flights. When we got close to the checkin counter, I noticed the extra security that always entails traveling to the most [superficially] secure of lands. When we got there, they looked at the blue passports Nora and I have and nodded (Hooray for dual nationality!), but when they got to Marga's passport, they said, first in Portuguese and then in very weak English, "Do you have ESTA?" We said, "What?" "ESTA. Do you have it?" After a minute or two back and forth like this, I remembered that silly legislation and slapped my forehead. They explained that we had to ask permission to enter the US via the internet. I asked the US Airways employee if he could just do it on his laptop in front of him, and he said no. He told us, in stilted accented English, we had to go down an escalator, fifty meters down the terminal, up another escalator, and then look for a bureau de change where there was an internet kiosk that was relatively cheap to use. Suddenly our 90 minute layover was beginning to seem a little short.

We went down, over, and up and eventually found the internet kiosk after asking a woman in a jewelry shop who seemed annoyed at having to speak English. We could use the internet (if you can call it that using Internet Explorer) for thirty minutes for 3€. So we went to the ESTA page and filled out Marga's information. When we got to the end of the form filling process, the website told us that she still has 30 days on her last ESTA request. When we backed out of the form submission process to do a search to find her previous ESTA reference number, however, all the system could find was our new not-yet-paid-for request that we had just filled out. Oh well. We decided to just go ahead and get a new authorization. The website asked for a credit card number to charge the $14 to...and that's when I said, "Oh shit!"

Due to Republican tax cuts, I paid significantly less in US taxes in 2010. When it came time to fill out my 2010 tax report in Spain the day before leaving for this trip and avoid double taxation and only pay the difference (what I would've paid if I'd made my income in Spain with Spanish tax rates minus what I did pay in the US), the Spanish taxman told me that I owed a large chunk of money. As a result, the day before traveling, I had zeroed out our Spanish bank account. Luckily, the same day, I had wired all my money, except $9, from my US bank account to Spain (which wasn't a big deal since I was going to get a paycheck deposited the same day I was traveling). The result of all this financial tomfoolery was that all of my liquid money was in that terrifying limbo where it's no longer in the account you wired it from, but it's not yet in the account you wired it to. And, you guessed it, I only have a debit card for my US bank account, with its $9 in it.

Nevermind that I had $150 in cash on me at the time, I had to pay paranoid Uncle Sam $14 on this online form. Just when I was about to wake my parents up at 3:00 AM to ask for their credit card number, I remembered that we do have a credit card in Spain, so we could use it to pay to pay the $14 and pay the bill later. Normally I can't stand spending money I don't have, and I think this might have been the first time I've ever done it (with a credit card, mortgages don't count).

Transaction completed, I wrote down the 25-letter code that was proof that Marga had ESTA clearance, and we headed, down and over and up, back to the US Airways desk. Of course they never asked for the confirmation code. One even wonders if their computer crosschecked her passport number with the Homeland Security database. At last, they gave us our boarding passes and sent us to our gate, where the aircraft was already boarding. For all the hassle of traveling with a small child, at least the kid is a great tool for skipping the immigration and boarding queues. Parents get to board planes even before the rich first class snobs.

Hopefully this ordeal will be enough to make us remember to do the stupid pre-travel registering next time, but maybe not, as my brain has a harder time remembering things that make no sense.