American in Spain

Do NOT pay more than $14 for your ESTA Application!

October 1, 2012

Department of Homeland SecurityIn preparation for our upcoming trip to the United States, I was double checking that everything is in order. After last year's ESTA debacle, I want to be 100% sure we have my wife's immigration approval number before leaving for the airport. So I did an internet search for ESTA to search for her approval number. What I found is a system of websites designed to scam unknowing foreign travelers out of their money. Someone has set up the following websites (possibly more) to trick foreign travelers.

They all eventually send you to an application page, which I won't link to here, where you enter all the information that is needed for the official Department of Homeland Security ESTA application. Then, at the bottom, it says:

By pressing the "Place Order" button below I acknowledge that I am utilizing a private company to submit the ESTA Travel Authorization on my behalf for USD $79.00 which includes the mandatory US Government Application fee.

The "mandatory US Government Application fee", as they tell you on their FAQ page, is $14. They charge a $65 "processing fee" to take the information you entered in their form and enter it in the real Department of Homeland Security's application, and then email you the PDF that the real DHS's site provides after you complete the application. That's all they do! At least they claim to have a 30-day "refund policy", presumably to appease the people that catch them at their game.

It's unclear if they can somehow turn around and get the $14 back from DHS or invalidate the ESTA number that was issued. I suspect that they cannot, and thus you could apply for the ESTA number with them, get the application approval from DHS, and then get your $79 back, screwing them out of $14, but I don't trust them to honor their refund policy enough to try it.

Even so, I bet they make a LOT of money from foreigners that don't know any better.

Please, people. Only use the official Department of Homeland Security's ESTA application. It's not as pretty, and is a stupid hoop to jump through, but it only costs 14 USD.

The irony is that the ESTA application asks you:

Have you ever been arrested or convicted for an offense or crime involving moral turpitude or a violation related to a controlled substance; or have been arrested or convicted for two or more offenses for which the aggregate sentence to confinement was five years or more; or have been a controlled substance trafficker; or are you seeking entry to engage in criminal or immoral activities?

Of course what they're doing is perfectly legal – I wouldn't even be surprised if there were a connection to the original legislators who created this ridiculous ESTA requirement – and they should not be shut down, but I think that, if they were filling out their own application form, they would need to check the box for moral turpitude.