Opinion: Blow the whistle on ESTA and EHIC con sites

Opinion: Blow the whistle on ESTA and EHIC con sites

Simon Calder, travel editor, The IndependentExpertise has long been an underrated commodity in travel; hopefully one lasting silver lining to emerge among the clouds of uncertainty is to augment its perceived value.

I hope the travelling public are increasingly aware of the need to take expert advice before investing in the complex combination of anticipation and realisation that a good holiday should involve.

Professionalism should not be confused with opportunism – but confusion reigns on the tricky subject of America’s latest tightening of immigration rules. And opportunists have taken advantage of the US authorities’ woeful lack of foresight to make some fast bucks in the guise of expertise.

You will no doubt know that the Electronic System for Travel Authorization is obligatory for Brits hoping to fly the Atlantic under the Visa Waiver Program. The Americans insist that everyone apply online. So the diligent traveller will duly tap ‘ESTA’ into a search engine.

Bad move. Many of the sites that appear are nothing to do with the US authorities, but a lot of expertise has gone into making them look official. Thousands of Brits
have been unwise enough to register through one of these commercial websites, paying up to $50 for something that should be free.

The term ‘buyer beware’ certainly applies to sites such as estauk.com, which describes itself as: ‘A private website opened for the convenience of ESTA applicants’.

Studying the contents should raise some concerns among users. Even though the US and UK have been called two nations divided by a common language, the use of English on the website is laughable: it poses the question ‘When applying ESTA, does application information cab be adjusted?’

The answer is the equally baffling: ‘Even travel information or address for staying is changed, it is not required to adjust them.’

You may be baffled about why the Americans have allowed this ludicrous state of affairs to prevail; failure to think through the project has sowed confusion.

But before you take this as another example of how we do things so much better here, try tapping ‘EHIC’ into a search engine.

The first result certainly claims that it will help applicants to obtain a European Health Insurance Card – but only after paying £9.95 for something that the Department of Health offers free.

The travel industry needs to make the public aware of such pitfalls. In the internet age, the value of human interaction has actually increased.

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