U.S. Imprisons, Strip Searches And Deports Man Over Little-Known Immigration Technicality

Did you know that foreigners cannot visit the United States and then make Canada or Mexico their next destination, at least if they’re from a Visa waiver country in Europe or somewhere like Australia (and not actually getting a Visa, something almost no one does) and their stay in that other country extends past when they are permitted to be in the United States?

One Australian learned the the hard way that the rule is onward travel must be to somewhere “other than a contiguous territory or adjacent island unless they permanently reside there.”

An Australian traveller was denied entry to the US, cavity searched, sent to prison alongside criminals and subsequently deported 30 hours after arriving, due to a little-known entry requirement for the US.

The man received his visa waiver, flew to the U.S., and planned to visit Mexico next. He was fully prepared to show his onward ticket, to prove he didn’t intend to stay in the U.S. or overstay his time in the country. He knew he needed to have a flight out of the U.S. but he did not know it had to be “onward travel to a country that does not border the US” (emphasis mine).

  • He flew to Honolulu and was denied entry into the U.S., because his onward flight was to Mexico – not to a country which doesn’t border the U.S.

  • After being strip searched, detained and deported, the man now rather thinks that travel agencies ought to flag this rule for their customers, as it is little known and they’re travel agencies after all selling tickets to the U.S. and then to bordering countries.

The man had planned to “start in the US to see the NBA playoffs, then spend most of his trip backpacking across Mexico and South America.” He should have gone to South America prior to Mexico, though that’s not necessarily a logical routing for returning to Australia.

He was, however, almost saved by an airline employee:

At one point, Dunn claims, an airline worker offered him his phone to book a flight from Mexico to a third country.

Dunn tried booking a flight to Panama, but did not have enough money in his debit card account, and as his own phone was not connected to the internet, he could not transfer money from his savings account, which held several thousand dollars. He then tried to book a cheaper flight to Guatemala, but the CBP officer re-entered the room and ordered the airline worker to take the phone back, Dunn claimed.

Instead this happened:

Dunn said about six hours after landing he was handcuffed and taken to the Federal Detention Center in Honolulu, where he was told to strip naked and was twice searched under his scrotum and anus for contraband before being admitted.

He had no access to his phone or contact with his parents in Australia, and claimed he was placed in a cell with another prisoner who had smeared blood and faeces on the wall. He was told to sleep on a concrete floor with a paper bag for a pillow.

You might think ‘then they should just get a tourist visa’ but the U.S. government doesn’t well-publicize this rule, and tourist visas can involve a two year wait for an in-person interview.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. ESTA says the rule very clear “You need a ticket to leave NORTH AMERICA”. Buying a ticket to Mexico is not leaving North America.

    This Australian was lying about the story. If he was going to South America, he should have a ticket form Mexico to country in South America.
    Obviously, he didn’t have any ticket leaving Mexico to South America, only a returning ticket form Mexico to US.

    The whole story is a lie. Lying to CBP is very serious, and he deserved to be in federal detention center.

    He didn’t read the terms in ESTA, and it’s not travel agency’s fault because he applied at ESTA on his own.

  2. To anybody who questions if it is a law to include Canada and Mexico in 90 days for VWP, the answer is YES.

    It’s part of “North American Free Trade Agreement” which was passed by both House and Senate.

  3. @Creditian – it is not “very clear”. It’s very hidden.

    Not one of the people who have applied for ESTAs I asked knew this rule, which is not what you’d expect if it was as clear as you claim.

    Given the dire consequences, it should be made more prominent on the site, and travel agents should absolutely warn their clients about it when booking non-return tickets.

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