Travel expert Simon Calder answers your latest questions on passports, airports, eVisas and Esta scheme

Problems, problems: airport passport issues, eVisas for India and US-Cuba moves are among those tackled

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Friday 07 October 2022 20:36 BST
Uphill struggle: the US is determined to make life tricky for travellers who visit Cuba
Uphill struggle: the US is determined to make life tricky for travellers who visit Cuba

Autumn is a great time to plan city breaks, winter sunshine holidays and long-haul adventures. But red tape and Covid issues can still intervene.

Our travel correspondent did his best to help in the latest Ask Me Anything.

Q: Any updated on the Esta situation regarding Cuba for travel to the US? Seems a multitude of opinions on this across the web with no concrete answers from what I can see.


A: All you need to know is here. In one of his last acts as US president, Donald Trump added Cuba to the American list of nations that have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism”. However implausible a description that might be of the government in Havana, his successor, Joe Biden, has left the designation in place. It serves as yet another economic sanction by the Americans against the communist Cuban government. The idea is to harm Cuba – by punishing people who have been there and seeking to persuade other people not to go there.

Being classed as a “state sponsor of terrorism” (SST) – alongside Iran, North Korea and Syria – has several serious effects. One is to disqualify travellers who have been to Cuba since March 2011 from using the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (Esta) scheme. Instead of a 10-minute, £18 online procedure for an Esta, they must pay £137 and wait months for an appointment for a visa interview.

Effectively, the Americans are saying that if you were foolish enough to take a holiday in the Caribbean’s biggest and most beautiful island at any time over the past 11 years, you have written off the chance of smooth travel to the US. And, in future, travellers will have to decide between travel to Cuba or easy access to America.

In practice, many British travellers who have visited Cuba during the offending decade have travelled to the US on an Esta without a problem. The current form does not mention the island. The main way a frontier official would discover a visit is from a Cuban visa stamp.

A new passport will “launder” that status, and there is evidence that even those with proof of a visit to Cuba have got through. But I must repeat the State Department insistence that: “Any visit to an SST on or after March 1, 2011, even if the country was designated yesterday, renders the applicant ineligible for Esta.”

I have pointed out to the American authorities that there is a lot of confusion and conflicting online information, but they reiterate that any visit since March 2011 scuppers the right to an Esta.

Q: Is it possible to do the Global Entry interview outside the US?


A: “Global Entry,” the brand for fast-track entry to the US, is poorly named: this scheme will help you get in only to America. Acquiring Global Entry status is a formidable exercise in bureaucracy. Yet once you clear all the hurdles, you too may regard the new system for fast-tracking through US border control as possibly the best development since the jet engine. You can bypass the often formidable queues for US Customs and Border Protection. But in order to grant you the precious permission to queue-jump, the Americans insist on an interview. Previously this could only be done once you were officially in the US – or, in my case, going to Toronto, one of the airports that offers pre-clearance to US-bound travellers.

Fortunately this is no longer a problem. US Customs & Border Protection now offers “Enrollment on Arrival” – you get your interview simultaneously with being admitted to the US through the normal procedures.

Q: Canada has just opened up to unvaccinated travellers. When do you think restrictions will be dropped for the US – this year or early next?

Dean 22298

A: At a really awkward time, if previous experience is anything to go by. 8 November 2021 was when the US finally opened after a 19-month closure, even though the Covid justification had ceased to be valid months earlier.

Since the American authorities do not seem to take into account the patterns of demand from travellers – with a very strong summer peak – I predict another November decision, or possibly early January.

Indian bummer

Q: Why has the India visa office suddenly stopped agents attending interviews on behalf of applicants?


A: The wonderful and welcoming nation of India is currently giving the impression that it loathes British visitors. After the coronavirus pandemic, the government in Delhi declined to reinstate eVisas for UK passport holders hoping to visit India. Everyone has to apply for a full visa. Until now it has been possible for an agent to make the application: expensive but easier and professionally handled. But the latest report I have – which I have not been able to verify – is that every prospective traveller must attend an Indian visa issuing service. This is expensive, disruptive and stressful. In addition, appointments are extremely scarce, jeopardising the travel plans for people hoping to leave in the next few weeks.

Some travel firms are being extremely hard hit by the decisions of the Indian government and may be forced out of business. It is dismal, too, for hotels and other hospitality providers in India. After the coronavirus pandemic everyone wants to get back to business as usual, but ministers have chosen to make life much tougher – I believe due to the concept of reciprocity.

It is a long-standing tradition: if country A makes strict demands for access from citizens of country B, then country B can impose tough rules in retaliation.

The Indian government is, of course, perfectly entitled to implement whatever policy it wishes. The tough attitude from Delhi appears to be a political response to the regrettably labyrinthine and expensive hurdles that the UK imposes for Indian travellers seeking a British visa. You can see their point. But other countries do things pragmatically in order to nurture their travel industries: from Egypt to Ecuador, the hurdles are lower and the welcome feels warmer.

The short-term effect of unexpected bureaucratic unfriendliness to travellers is to cause stress, anxiety and financial loss. Longer term, I fear British people will swerve away from visiting India, to the obvious benefit Sri Lanka and other Asian nations with less onerous requirements.

It will be interesting to see if the Indian tourism industry turns up at next month’s World Travel Market in London. As things stand, I am not sure why they would bother.

Euro passports

Q: On a recent trip to Rimini in Italy, the gate agent at London Stansted wanted to deny me boarding when I presented my Irish passport. It is expiring in a couple of weeks, on 25 October. She tried to claim that as it did not have three months validity left, I could not travel. She called her supervisor to support her bid to remove me from the flight.

When the supervisor heard that it was an Irish passport, she correctly allowed me to proceed. If I had been incorrectly denied boarding, I would have been entitled to compensation. Why do airlines not ensure their contractors are adequately trained?

Flying King 2

A: Thanks for sharing your experience. Travel is difficult enough at the moment without airlines introducing complications where they don’t exist. As you know, a European Union passport is valid up to and including the expiry date in any EU country.

Since Brexit, at the request of the UK, a British passport must pass two tests for it to be valid for Europe:

  • Issued no more than 10 years ago.
  • At least three months remaining on the date of travel out of the EU.

Clearly the staff member tried to apply the second of these conditions to your passport. I am glad you convinced them of their error.

Before the UK left the European Union, I was aware of perhaps half-a-dozen cases of airport ground staff wrongly denying boarding. Since Brexit, it can sometimes be six a day. Ground staff working for a wide range of airlines, including Ryanair and easyJet, have shown a shocking absence of expertise on passport rules – partly because the airlines themselves chose for many months to make up regulations that didn’t exist.

I have no idea why they chose to wreck the travel plans of customers and make themselves liable for potentially millions of pounds in compensation. They are finally getting better, but work evidently remains to be done.

Q: If you have dual UK/EU nationality, and you’re travelling fro UK to the European Union, is it best to travel out on EU passport and return on UK passport, or just use one passport (EU) for whole trip?


A: Lucky you. In your position I would certainly use the EU passport outbound. It will mean you can whizz through fast-track passport control, casting pitying glances at those of us who decided to vote to make travelling life more difficult.

Coming back it doesn’t matter which you use. But since you are likely to have to provide Advance Passenger Information to the airline, together with passport details, the scope for misfortune is lower if you use the same one.

Alp help

Q: Looking to rent an apartment in Chamonix mid December for a week or two. Any recommendations for best online platforms to use? Or ones to avoid – perhaps those who didn’t treat people fairly during Covid cancellations?


A: Let me start by asking what you mean by mid-December and “a week or two”?10-17 December would be a great week to choose, because you would be moving out just as the Christmas rush begins. Any later and prices will soar as availability reduces (and the number of scam sites will also rocket to take advantage of desperate demand).

A company such as Vrbo or Airbnb will have the advantage of some security – so long as you deal through the official platform. You will be paying a handsome amount of commission for the privilege. But I would choose it over dealing with an unknown quantity.

Swiss swizz

Q: I had an easyJet flight cancelled and they asked me to book a Lufthansa flight to get me home. The ticket was sold in Swiss francs (CHF). They refunded the same CHF value. But as I was paying using my UK credit card, the value I actually received was lower by £70. EJ say they use the exchange rate on the day. Is this right that I should be left out of pocket due to interest rate charges. I thought the rules were that I get reimbursed for my expenditure. Thanks

Barry Pollard, Somerset

A: Sorry to hear it. Yes, exactly as you say: easyJet must provide recompense for your costs. So if your credit-card statement says you spent what was converted as £500, the fact that easyJet values the number of Swiss francs as £430 is irrelevant. It must provide the difference. When an airline cancels a flight, it becomes liable for the out-of-pocket expenses of its passengers.

Romanian rhapsody

Q: What would be your top tips for things to do in Bucharest please?


A: It’s a while since I was in the lovely Romanian capital, but from my notes you should certainly visit the Parliament Palace, 12 storeys high and squarely facing the whole city. The bad memory of the dictator Ceaucescu is nowhere more evident than at this monumental folly.

The Centru Civic area shows elements of Ceausescu’s grand vision for a socialist capital, said to have been inspired by his visit to North Korea in the early 1970s.

Of the churches that survived the Communist era in good shape, try Biserica Cretelescu (beautiful frescoes at the entrance) and the Greek Biserica Stavropoleos.

I am not the world’s greatest shopper, but the stretch of Calea Victoriei between Boulevard Regina Elisabeta and Piata Revolutiei has some interesting art and antique stores.

NMG adds: “There is also a wonderful opera house with very reasonably priced tickets.”

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