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As a UK citizen, I will be flying to Vancouver (for which I will need an eTA) and then taking an AMTRAK train to Seattle. I will stay in Seattle for several days before returning to Vancouver and flying back to the UK. Do I need an ESTA for entering the US during this trip?

  • Dear Rich, did you do the trip? Can you please tell me, I am doing the same thing, how does it go? Where do you do the CBP check? Before boarding the train? Or you have to step off the train at the border and do the biometrics? – Árpád Szendrei May 7 '18 at 7:29
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Not having an ESTA will involve you in a lengthy secondary process to get a paper I-94.

While US Customs and Border Patrol says:

If you are [a citizen of a VWP country and] coming by land, you do not need to have ESTA authorization, however, you should return your green I-94W card upon departure.

on closer investigation it turns out that US CBP does not consider an international train to be a land crossing (presumably there is some confusion about how trains actually work).

Travelers crossing from Canada into the U.S. on Amtrak Cascades trains AND are NOT U.S. or Canadian citizens nor have a valid visa, MUST have an approved ESTA, otherwise a paper form CBP I-94 will be required. If you are a VWP (Visa Waiver Program) traveler, this applies to you. (Amtrak Cascades trains do not fall under the U.S. CBP “Land Border Crossing” definition.)

Tom W's excellent answer gives more details.

  • 5
    Quite unusual! So if I come by land and am leaving by sea, I need to have contact with an airline? – AndrejaKo Sep 17 '16 at 16:45
  • @AndrejaKo Who says that people writing the CBP site can talk Inglish. – Karlson Sep 17 '16 at 18:01
  • @Karlson Well, you know, I would have sort of assumed that, but you can never know! – AndrejaKo Sep 17 '16 at 18:44
  • @DJClayworth: An example of "if you are arriving by land and departing by land or sea" would be someone driving from Toronto to Buffalo and back. And you say everybody talks to an airline rep once during the boarding process. Pretty sure there is no airline and no boarding process involved in that drive ;-) So I don't think you're talking about the situation that sentence describes. You're probably talking about the situation it intended to describe, but somebody at the CBP website has typed the wrong thing or whatever. – Steve Jessop Sep 17 '16 at 20:49
  • @AndrejaKo: the point is that you need to return your I-94W. Airlines are authorized to take them from you. The point is that when lesving you don't interact with CBP, but someone has to take your I-94W. – Martin Argerami Sep 17 '16 at 23:13
14

Yes..

The accepted answer correctly quotes the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol advice, however nowhere in this advice does it point out that CBP does not consider trains to be land. What they actually mean is arriving by road.

I know this from first-hand experience having departed for the U.S. by Amtrak starting in Vancouver. There I was firmly chastised for not having completed an ESTA. Only when one of my friends questioned this was it understood that we had followed the instructions as we understood them, but our understanding was wrong.

The Amtrak website claims:

Amtrak Cascades trains do not fall under the U.S. CBP “Land Border Crossing” definition.

Travelers crossing from Canada into the U.S. on Amtrak Cascades trains AND are NOT U.S. or Canadian citizens nor have a valid visa, MUST have an approved ESTA, otherwise a paper form CBP I-94 will be required.

Getting a paper form I-94 is possible but it means delays at best, according to the CBP:

If a traveler would like a paper Form I-94, one can be requested during the inspection process. All requests will be accommodated in a secondary setting.

  • It is difficult to find an official source for this surprising answer but britishexpats.com/forum/maple-leaf-98/… corroborates. "Re: Amtrak Cascades Van - Seattle Hubby went on it recently - they did US immi at Van , , they asked if he had an ESTA" and "Yep, we went last summer and they asked me for an ESTA too." – chx Oct 23 '17 at 15:21
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    @chx Quite. The only even remotely authoritative source I can find is the Amtrak website: "Travelers crossing from Canada into the U.S. on Amtrak Cascades trains AND are NOT U.S. or Canadian citizens nor have a valid visa, MUST have an approved ESTA, otherwise a paper form CBP I-94 will be required." – Tom W Oct 23 '17 at 15:28
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    Furthermore: "Amtrak Cascades trains do not fall under the U.S. CBP “Land Border Crossing” definition." – Tom W Oct 23 '17 at 15:29
  • If there was an edit to this answer to provide a link to the fact about trains not being a land border, I would delete my accepted answer. – DJClayworth Oct 23 '17 at 16:38
  • @DJClayworth I have done so. – chx Oct 23 '17 at 19:34
2

You don't need it, but when using the Train from Vancouver (though not the one from Montreal), it will exempt you from having to obtain a green I-94W form.

  • Filling out a paper I-94W and paying for it there and then was our solution, but this attracted some strong criticism from the CBP officers present, as this is not how you're supposed to declare eligibility under the VWP. You're supposed to use the ESTA to do this, prior to travel, although it is not an absolute requirement. – Tom W Oct 27 '17 at 15:59
  • @TomW If you're not supposed to, then why does that form exist in the first place? – Crazydre Oct 27 '17 at 16:51
  • Don't ask me, ask CBP. This web page implies that it's something of a legacy process. Maybe they keep the paper forms around because travellers keep inexplicably turning up without ESTAs... – Tom W Oct 27 '17 at 17:38
  • @TomW I recall seeing a proposed regulation to extend ESTA to all VWP travelers (that is, to start requiring it of land and sea travelers), but until that is implemented, I suspect that the officers' criticism was the result either of misunderstanding or of irritation that they had to do more paperwork than they otherwise would have. – phoog Jul 8 at 14:42
2

The Amtrak website makes too much of a deal from the requirement to have a paper I-94 form...

First of all technically there is no longer such a thing as a "paper" I-94 - all entry records have been fully electronic since 2015. The paper that's stapled into your passport when you cross the border has no more legal weight than a print out from the DHS website stating your current I-94 status.

Second, all visa holders (non-VWP eligible) need a "paper" I-94 as well if they don't have a valid one when they cross the border. Therefore all class A border crossings (which includes the train station) are well equipped for issuing one, so it's not a big deal. Just because the CBP officer is lazy doesn't mean he's right for chastising you.

Finally, I'm not sure why Amtrak claims rail crossings are not "land" crossings. If it was truly so VWP-eligible passport holders would not be allowed to board the train without an ESTA rather than offered the option of getting an I-94W on the spot. So I think there's some amount of confusion over how the VWP works on their side.

  • "there is no longer such a thing as a "paper" I-94": USCIS still issues paper I-94s when people change status in the US. These records are not integrated with CBP's online I-94 database. I don't know whether there are plans to do so. – phoog Jul 8 at 14:40

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