ESTA Rules Can Complicate International Air Ambulance Travel to the U.S.
Strict rules from the U.S. government can make travel for international air ambulance passengers even more complicated, as MedFlight911 learned during a recent medical transport. In the past, passengers on air ambulance flights from another country that stopped in the United States didn't need any special travel documentation, provided they did not leave the aircraft. Now, however, all travelers to the U.S. are required to obtain a visa or other appropriate travel authorization prior to departure, even those from "visa waiver" countries, and even if they are only stopping in the U.S. and not disembarking.
Passengers from countries that are part of the visa waiver program must visit the Electronic System for Travel Authorization to apply for authorization and pay the necessary fee. Those from all other countries will need to obtain a valid visa before travel.
So, what does this mean for non-U.S.-citizens who might have long-distance medical transport scheduled that will pass through the United States, even if that's not their final destination? It means that you'll need to plan ahead and make sure that you're authorized to enter the country before you leave.
Consider the advice offered by United Airlines on their website: "U.S. regulations always require travelers to comply with customs and immigration procedures at their first point of entry into the U.S. Travelers will need to have all required documents with them upon arrival — even if the U.S. is not their final destination. If travelers have more than one U.S. stopover, they will not need to clear customs again." In simple terms, any international passenger planning to land on U.S. soil for an reason will need a passport AND either a valid VISA or ESTA waiver.
These rules can have a big impact on MedFlight911's flight operations when moving international air ambulance customers. For example, we recently had a passenger from Chile who needed to get to another country, with a stop in the United States along the way. In the past, when we stopped in the U.S., and the passenger didn't leave the aircraft, and they were referred to as "in transit" and they didn't need a visa or other travel authorization. That's wasn't the case with this trip. The passenger didn't have the right clearance and it took some quick work on the part of MedFlight911 to get the problem sort out. Bottom line: If you plan to land in the U.S. with a non-citizen passenger who doesn't have the proper travel documents in hand, it can be a big headache for everyone involved. If carrying passengers without valid documents, air carriers can be fined up to $10,000 and forced to return to their point of origin.
So, what can international travelers do to make sure that their trip to—or through—the U.S. goes smoothly? If you are from a visa waiver program country and know that you'll be traveling, you need to complete the ESTA application in advance—at least 72 hours prior to travel. The application is only available online, and each application costs $14. A passenger wishing to receive medical care in the U.S., in addition to have a receiving facility and physician lined up, must complete an application online at least 72 hour in advance. Otherwise, they may be effected by I93 fee of $585.
These stricter travel requirements and screening processes are a way for the government to keep a closer eye on who is entering the U.S. and make sure our borders are secure. But they can cause real problems for people with medical emergencies who need an international air ambulance on a short notice, or even those who simply aren't aware of the requirements and show up at the airport for their trip, only to be denied boarding.
As with any trip, especially international travel, MedFlight911 recommends planning ahead and making sure that you understand the laws of every country you'll be visiting—even if you'll only be seeing it from the window of an airplane.
Learn more about ESTA and how if could affect your travel plans: https://help.cbp.gov/app/answers/detail/a_id/1072/kw/esta
Are you interested in learning more about MedFlight911's worldwide air ambulance services? Give us a call at 888-359-1911 or get a no-obligation air medical transport quote here.