Travelling to the US: When your travel is not authorised under ESTA visa waiver
"Travel not authorised." Those three words should send shivers down the spine of any passionate wanderer.
Travel not authorised. Permission denied. You're not going anywhere. It's one of the worst things you can see. It's a killer of dreams, a dasher of hopes.
I was faced with those three words not so long ago, the bold print blinking at me from a computer screen. They took a while to sink in, the significance, the finality.
And this was not just any small place that was denying me entry. This wasn't some tiny country I could brush off and move on with my life. This was the United States of America.
Travel not authorised. This is my new reality. I'd attempted to register for the ESTA Visa Waiver program that allows Australians and New Zealanders to enter the US for two years without requiring special permission. I've previously used it without any problems. But things have changed.
A new law brought in by the US government means that anyone who has visited a country deemed particularly problematic – including Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Iran – since March 2011 is no longer eligible for the Visa Waiver program. I am one of those people, having travelled to Iran in 2013 as a tourist. And that's why getting into the US, for me, is no longer anywhere near as easy as it used to be.
Travel not authorised. The good thing for me, of course, is that this isn't final. I can still get to the US, it's just a little more difficult. I can apply for a standard tourist visa – a process far more exhaustive than any I've experienced before – before going in for an interview at the US consulate, and eventually, hopefully, having my travel authorised.
I will get there. But that's not the point of this story. The point is that an experience like this, of seeing those three words on a computer screen, might be disheartening, but it's also one that makes you realise how rarely we as New Zealanders or Australians are faced with the prospect of not being able to move throughout the world as we wish, to enter any country we desire without issue being taken with us purely because of our nationality.
As usual, we're the lucky ones. There are very few places we can't go.
You might think North Korea is the most insular and difficult-to-access country in the world – but you can still get in. You have to apply for a visa, but you'll probably get it.
We can go to Russia, too. We can visit Iran. We can wander into Israel, and then cross to Palestine, and then go back into Israel. There are very few countries that bar our entry because of our politics or our beliefs.
It's extremely rare to find ourselves denied entry to anywhere.
If, however, we'd just happened to have been born in another country, things would be so much different. If we'd been born in Afghanistan, we would only be able to enter 25 countries without a visa (compared to Germans, who can access 177 nations visa-free). If we were from Pakistan we could enter 29; from Iraq, 30.
Being denied a visa-waiver for a holiday to the US would seem incredibly insignificant if you were forced to jump through unimaginable hoops just to visit your family. And that's if you were even allowed to at all. Many people around the world will never be allowed to see their family or friends again, purely thanks to politics, purely thanks to diplomatic grudges and the actions of a few extremists – government or otherwise – who purport to act in their name.
The vast majority of the world's population is completely hamstrung, destined to never go to the places they desire. That's not an experience any of us can even go close to relating to.
We get frustrated when "travel not authorised" appears on our computer screen, forcing us into answering a lot of personal questions and submitting to a one-on-one interview in order to go skiing in Colorado. That's the height of our desperation. For other people, from other countries, the height of desperation is jumping in a shoddy-looking boat and taking to the seas, trusting their life to the eminently untrustworthy, crossing oceans in the hope of reuniting with family, or starting a better life, or merely just preserving it.
Having your ESTA privilege revoked is annoying. But it's also a chance to pause and consider that "travel not authorised" can mean so many different things.