Google has taken direct action against adverts promoting ESTA registration services, often offered by third parties at highly inflated prices. Ads displayed on the Google network shouldn’t display fees higher than what a public source or government charges for products or services. This tightening of the ad leash has taken a remarkable eight years to complete—and we argue it's not done yet.
What ESTA services are these sites advertising?The US Visa Waiver program allows citizens of 38 countries to travel visa free for up to 90 days. This requires an application for eligibility on ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation). The process is simple and takes only around 10 minutes to fill in an application online. However, many sites have sprung up offering to fill it in on your behalf.
That sounds great!Sure, everyone hates paperwork, but many people are needlessly paying for service that does, essentially, nothing. The idea is, you fill in the ESTA questions and submit to Homeland Security. You then get an authorisation or a rejection. These sites want you to pay them for filling in essentially the exact same form you’d fill on the USGOV website so they can, in turn, “submit” it on the USGOV submission page. They’ll also often charge a lot more than the standard US$14 submission fee.
That's...not so greatThe flaw here is that if you can submit this information to the third party ESTA registration website, there’s no reason why you couldn’t have just done it yourself on the official USGOV website and saved the additional fee. Once you consider the inflated fees and the fact you might be submitting sensitive personal information and/or payment details to random websites, it quickly becomes an issue.
Why pay $80 instead of $14? It doesn’t really make sense, and this is partly why Google is now cracking down on these sorts of advertisements.
What does Google say about this?From their Advertising Policies page, Google prohibits the sale of free items. The following is not allowed:
Charging for products or services where the primary offering is available from a government or public source for free or at a lower price
Examples (non-exhaustive list): Services for passport or driving license applications; health insurance applications; documents from official registries, such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, or company registrations; exam results; tax calculators.
Note: You can bundle something free with another product or service that you provide. For example, a TV provider can bundle publicly available content with paid content, or a travel agency can bundle a visa application with a holiday package. But the free product or service can’t be advertised as the primary offering.
Google search resultsWe thought we’d see what, exactly, is still out there in Google search land. For this, we decided to try common ESTA-related search terms. I went with “ESTA” (naturally), “ESTA questions,” and “ESTA answers.” Here's what I found:
Search term: ESTA
How popular a Worldwide search term is "ESTA" over time?
Click to EnlargeA search for the word “ESTA” brings back no adverts in the search results whatsoever. That's good!
Click to enlargeSearch term: ESTA questions
How popular a Worldwide search term is "ESTA questions" over time?
Click to enlargeA search for “ESTA questions” returned one result, which is still quite good. However, Google said common search terms would no longer fetch ads. Our search above seems pretty basic and still snagged a hit.
Search Term: ESTA answers
How popular a Worldwide search term is "ESTA answers" over time?
Click to Enlarge“ESTA answers” returned four adverts.
Click to enlargeFirst result: The same site listed for "ESTA questions" also made top spot under this search term.
Second result: Costs a grand total of US$89, which includes the US$14 Government fee. However, they are upfront about the fact that the service charge won’t apply should you apply directly on the Homeland Security portal. Many sites don't mention this or hide it away in some terms and conditions.
Third result: Uh, an advert for dust extraction systems. At least there’s definitely no overpriced ESTA fee this time around.
Fourth result: The site lists their fees as US$79, which includes the US$14 Government charge.
We've reported all sites to Google whose adverts potentially conflict with Google's ad policies.
How does Yahoo! stack up?We looked at Yahoo! to see what we could find in terms of ESTA ads. As far as their Policies for Ads go, the closest thing I could find was “Low quality offers and landing page techniques” from the Oath Ad Policies page:
Services that are offered for free by the government and offered by third parties without adding any additional value to the user, such as green card lotteries Display and Native ads promoting body branding, piercings or tattoosThis doesn’t really apply here though, as ESTA carries the $14 application fee. On the other hand, there could well be something else I’ve missed in the numerous terms and conditions for advertisers. With that in mind, let’s see what we found.
Searching for “ESTA” brought back no fewer than four ads under the search bar, and seven down the side, with actual search results quite a bit further down the page.
Click to enlargeIn terms of the sites themselves, we had a mixed response with regards to upfront pricing information.
First result: The same site in both “ESTA questions” and "ESTA answers" Google searches returns again, with their now familiar combined fee of $14 and $85.
Second result: No information visible for fees that we could find.
Third result: This site offers a fee of 59 Euros.
Fourth result: We couldn't find details of pricing, and the FAQ drop-downs didn’t work, so if the information was in there, we couldn’t see it.
Here's the results for the adverts down the right-hand side:
First result: US$89 for services offered.
Second result: No price or FAQs visible, just a form submission process. There was a webchat, however, and we were able to obtain a price that way instead: 89 Euro/US$100 for a US ESTA submission.
Click to enlargeThird result: No price visible that we could find.
Fourth result: US$79 plus US$14 Government fee
Fifth result: Nothing visible that we could find.
Sixth result: 84 Euros (this includes a “2-year concierge service”)
Seventh result: £37.82, US$14 Government fee, plus £1 “overseas transition/calling card fee”
Looking for travel assistance online?There are many pitfalls lurking online the moment you go looking for visas, ESTAs, or anything else. It seems baffling to me that people would pay someone else to submit a form to a third party when they have to fill out the form themselves first. Are the extra services promoted by these sites really worth it? Some claim to retain your data "for up to two years" in case you need to reapply. The ESTA is valid for two years, by which point they'd no longer be retaining your information, so I don't see how this helps.
"Aha", they'll say. "We don't retain the data for two years in case you need to apply for the ESTA again. We retain it in case you're denied authorisation so you can have another go!"
Well, great, except not really. If you're denied an ESTA at application time, that's the end of that:
If a traveler is denied ESTA authorization and his or her circumstances have not changed, a new application will also be denied. A traveler who is not eligible for ESTA is not eligible for travel under the Visa Waiver Program and should apply for a nonimmigrant visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Reapplying with false information in order to qualify for a travel authorization will make the traveler permanently ineligible for travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program
Time for a little DIYOn a similar note, these sites do offer to check that all of your information is correct before submitting. The information you need to supply for an ESTA is basic stuff, though: name, address, passport number, and answers to a series of yes/no questions. It's not complicated, and you could easily have a friend or relative look it over before submitting it online yourself. "Concierge" services sound good, but there's so much information online, you shouldn't have trouble finding a hotel or a taxi service or anything else for that matter.
If you insist on making use of an ESTA application website, keep in mind the above commentary. You should also be wary of sites that aren't upfront with their pricing. Pay particular attention as to whether they retain a copy of your data and for how long. If they promote the benefit of retaining it for less than two years in case you want to "reapply," that's not a great sign. If they refer to the ESTA as a "visa," also not good. (It isn't a visa; it's access to participation in the Visa Waiver Program.)
Keep your passport and your online wits close to hand, and you won't have any problems. Safe travels!