I have travelled to the United States more times than I care to remember now, starting back in 1997. Business tends to make me come here for the interesting, exciting, large events. Being here is usually a nice experience, but getting here is not. Apart from the bother of a 12-hour flight in economy class, there is the green form called I-W94.
For those that do not know, it is the immigration form you fill in in order to be allowed to enter the US without a visa. It applies to the lucky countries that have a visa waiver agreement with the US, which includes most of the “Western World” as far as I understand.
It is not really the filling in that bothers me, it is fairly straightforward. It is the idea that you are somehow considered a suspicious person for traveling to the US. Why do I have to answer questions like “have you been involved in war crimes” just to enter the country? The first time I saw it, I laughed so hard it hurt. For a Swede, the idea that you have a formal interrogation of people coming into a country was not expected at all. The subtext of the I-W94 is really that you do not feel particularly welcome. When US citizens go to Europe, they don’t have to suffer any of this procedure, apart from a cursory passport check.
I had never seen that before, traveling around in Europe for more than twenty years. Since then, I have seen such procedures in a few other places in the world. I have even got a real visa in my passport, which was needed for going to mainland China. Getting a visa felt like a really strange experience, which I guess indicates my mostly boring and limited choice of travel destinations to the “western world”. After all, visa-free travel for a Swede is only available for the EU, US, Korea, Japan, and some other places. India, China, and Russia all require visa, for example.
I guess this really shows just how spoiled we are in Europe. Indeed, I almost consider the idea that I would need a passport to travel around offensive, as that was not required between the Nordic countries. When I was living in Iceland in 1989-1990, it was sufficient to go by the passport control booth shouting “Sáenskur” (Swede). No checks, no custom, no silliness. Also, up in the north of Sweden, I could easily ski into and out of Norway on a day trip, across open mountains where there was no way to put in a customs or passport check.
Traveling on the continent today, borders are wonderfully open and you do not expect any kind of inhibitions. Once, we drove across the border from Belgium to the Netherlands, and were surprised when our ongoing mobile phone conversations were dropped. Apparently, cross-border automatic roaming hand-off was not supported by GSM. Disappointing. But only then did we notice that we had entered a different country…
However, things did not use to be that simple. Last year, I saw the 1960’s movie “The Jackal”. In the movie, the French police is tracing the suspected assassin by checking the border crossing lists of people who have entered France, as well as collecting the check-in records of Paris hotels. This is really just about forty years ago, and at that time we still had border checks even between friends like Italy and France! Today, that is unthinkable, which does show just how far things have progressed.
On a historical note, one should note that the idea of passports and border controls is fairly recent. As I understand it, borders around the world and in Europe were open until the advent of World War I. Only after this did nations start to suspect each other enough to start asking for passports and visas to enter countries. If you read Around the world in eighty days by Jules Verne, I cannot recall any mention of immigration checks…
What added some extra silliness to the US system this time around was that I had to enter the information found on the I-W94 form ahead of time in the new “ESTA” system. I had a vague hope that this would replace the paper form, but no such luck. I had to enter the same information again… if we have to do it ahead of time, couldn’t we at least not be spared the manual paperwork? Just print out some receipt code and hand that to immigrations?
To sum up, I think more of the world should adopt the EU model. Why bother with immigration forms and visas and other such stuff? It just makes visitors feel less welcome, and would not seem to solve any important problem in terms of stopping unsavioury individuals from entering a country (if that is indeed the purpose).