Yet another take on why visiting America sucks


When I arrived in Belgium this past weekend I didn’t get a particularly welcoming feeling. The lines at immigration weren’t too bad, but apparently my frequent, short-duration trips raised a red flag with the immigration officer I was dealing with (more of that story here). It ended up OK and I had a great time, but it was a bit eye-opening to be seen not just as a visitor looking to spend some money and support the economy, but as a visitor that they might not actually want in their country. It was the second time I’ve had that experience and both ultimately ended OK. But it also raised some interesting comments from friends when I posted about it on my FaceBook feed.

In that it was the morning in Europe I mostly got responses from my European friends, and their views were not particularly flattering to the USA.

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Of course, it hurt me to say it, but when faced with the suggestion that what I was getting was just turnabout for the way the US treats visitors, I had to admit that what I dealt with was, in fact, trivial compared to the "welcome" that they receive.

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There was an OpEd piece published in the New York Times last week, one that I read just before boarding my flight to Belgium, that hammers this point home rather pointedly. The author of the piece is Mark Vanhoenacker, an airline pilot. This makes him rather familiar with crossing borders and with the experience of being welcomed – or not – when arriving in a new place. He points out a number of failings of the system, starting with the fact that the USA requires visitors to pay a fee to answer idiotic questions such as whether you’re a spy, have been involved in terrorism or if you’re planning any crimes. Yeah, like anyone is going to answer "yes" on those. Of course, immigration loves having those because it gives more chances for a deportation later due to lying on the form, but they’re still ridiculous questions.

There are also the issues with the Customs process, one that I’m fortunately mostly exempt from thanks to Global Entry, but one that is horribly labor intensive and inefficient at actually meeting its stated goals. Everyone arriving must fill out a form, a rather senseless one. Much like the ETSA application, it seems unlikely that anyone is going to tick the yes box when asked if they are carrying "disease agents" into the country. Worse than that, however, is the fact that the forms don’t really do much good, other than – again – to provide a paper trail leading nowhere.

Just about every other country I’ve visited in recent memory simply has a green lane and a red lane. The rules are published and you go in to the lane that applies to you. Agents still pull passengers aside for spot checks, just like they do in the USA, but without the need for a piece of paper to trigger it. After all, the paper doesn’t actually accomplish anything other than to produce more bureaucracy and waste.

There is no doubt that the border agents have security-related responsibilities. And I am not suggesting that those be limited or done with any less focus or vigilance. But they can be done with more respect for the visitors and with a more welcoming attitude to the vast majority of those crossing the border, the ones who are bringing their money to spend to support our economy.

Inconsistent enforcement of irrational policies is rarely the right way to solve any problem. But the US sure is trying.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

11 Comments

  1. The form can serve a useful purpose. Say you want to bring back more wine than the duty free allocation, and don’t want to pay duty on the extra. Buy some hard cheese, and declare it first on the form. Then declare the wine (dollar value only). The CBP reaction to the cheese is to send you over to USDA for inspection, and USDA does not care about duty on wine. It’s worked every time for me.

  2. Unfortunate society we live in today that presumes all guilty and thus required to prove innocence than the other way around. Guess the terrorists have impacted our lives more than we’d like to think.

  3. So how do you know that the US policies are irrational? They might be more costly but the benefits may also be greater. Do you have any data that you can use to support the claim that the policies are senseless? A simple fact is that the threat to the US is much greater to the smaller countries in Europe, hence the need for greater protection and scrutiny.

    1. @Biggles209– You understand that you’re saving only a couple dollars, right, and that it really isn’t so useful in the grand scheme of things? Seriously, the duty on wine is a couple dollars per gallon. Just not a big deal. And even when I’ve declared only that in the past (a dozen times or so) I’ve never been asked to pay the actual duty; it isn’t worth their time for the paperwork.

      @Sice– Yes, it is horribly unfortunate. Such is the consequence of living in a world governed by fear.

      @Julian– My proof is rather straight-forward and included in the original post. Having the little piece of blue paper provides no value above and beyond the regular random or targeted spot-checks that Customs performs.The main difference is that it lets them say “you lied on a government form so you’re being deported” which is just stupid. The same rules can be easily enforced without requiring that form. Additionally, there is nothing preventing the immigration agents from actually being nice to arriving passengers. They can still actually enforce the policies while not being schmucks.

  4. When leaving Belgium a couple of years ago I couldn’t believe how security stopped everyone and made a thorough search on everyone and frisked them! Boy, I have never seen that before anywhere!

  5. I find it amusing that Miles from Blighty comments on the EU being tough on Americans since often its the UK border agents who give me the hardest time. 😀 I guess I don’t mind the grief too much. Border agents are the gatekeepers to their respective countries. Most of them I find are cautious but not exactly rude. At least their questioning and suspicion makes sense, whereas TSA asking me to say my name doesn’t really achieve anything.

  6. Come to Australia. We might not give you a hard time to cross the border (unless you’re “only here for 1 day” ;-)) but our Quarantine form will send you up the wall if you’re not careful (as will our customs agents).

    #1 rule when coming to Australia: declare anything. Read the form properly, if you are even remotely doubtful, even if you are so much a carrying a crumb of food, tick ‘yes’ to declare.

    This is not a joke. To be honest, even as an Austalian citizen, I find it quicker to declare something (e.g. food, chocolate) and go through customs than not.

  7. We just came back from a trip to Europe last month. My daughter & I are US citizens and my mom is Canadian citizen. My mom & I traveled on Canadian passport and my daughter on US passport. I thought since it was still valid I could use it for the last time and apply for US passport when it expires in May. The custom officials berated me and questioned me why I did not travel outside US for the last three years since I became US citizen. I believed that Bush Jr. did not travel outside USA before he ran for presidency. Another asked why my daughter did not wear glasses like it showed on passport. I did not know she had to inform them she’d changed to contact lenses. Another custom official approached my mom and asked” How do I know you won’t stay and live in CA with them?” . She won’t unless she wants to put an eighty year old woman under surveillance -someone who is not tech-savy, marathon runner & has no sticky fingers with no criminal record anywhere in the world!!!There are many morons at customs and TSA whose questions are downright retarded. We pay these people to rely on them to safeguard us from the threat of terrorists?? Didn’t they work in the same department when 9-11 took place?Heaven saves us all. Both the customs and TSA agents are quite hostile to people who pass through the check-points. We only ask them to use common sense & be accountable while on duty. We all cannot live safely in the world surrounded by hostile countries/ people no matter how much we feel invincible and mighty.

  8. As a US and UK citizen, I find arriving in the US on my US passport to be far worse than arriving in the EU on my UK passport. The latter is a simple computer scan; whereas the former is a long-winded and time-consuming process involving idiotic questions from the immigration agent and bureaucratic forms from the customs agents.

    However, my friends who arrive in the US on non-US passports describe it as one of the most unpleasant and degrading experiences they have ever encountered. As my 82 year old mother in law said on her first trip to the US last year, she was interviewed by a gum-chewing slob with a gun and made to feel like a criminal, even having her fingerprints taken, something which elsewhere would be one of the grossest invasions of privacy imaginable. Not surprisingly, she has no desire to return to such a police state.

  9. @Global traveler:

    “Didn’t they work in the same department when 9-11 took place?”

    No, the TSA was created after 9/11 in response to the attacks. I am not defending the agency or its often idiotic policies and employees, since I don’t think they are very effective, and certainly not at all cost effective.

    1. While the TSA is a new organization the Customs and Immigration organizations have been around much longer. They operate now under the auspices of DHS, but they’ve been around longer than the Department has.

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