One passport digit leads to an invalid US visa

Pricewatch reader shares his tale of woe as a public warning service

Watch out for the  O and I in your passport number or you may be denied entry to the US.  Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Watch out for the O and I in your passport number or you may be denied entry to the US. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien


A reader called John Moran got in touch with a story which we would like to reproduce more as a public service than anything else. While we can’t do anything to help him out, we – and he – believe if his tale of woe gets an airing, it might prevent something similar happening to someone else.

“On Monday, March 19th, I was prevented from travelling to the US via the UK at a British Airways check-in desk at Dublin Airport,” his mail starts. “I was coldly told my Esta visa was in error, that I had mistaken my passport number PO621**** for P0621****”. (The asterisks are ours.)

Can you spot the difference between the two numbers? We struggled too.

“When filling out the online Esta form I had noticed a small-print note under the box for passport number saying to watch for O and I, but it was impossible for me to judge from the passport because the typeface used is a fat one and numbers are quite rotund,” he says. “So I checked my old passport and its number was P222083 which led me to opt for the number, since the only letter was the P. (Also, intuitively, when asked for a passport number, I was inclined to give a number, assuming the P is for passport.)”

It was a mistake. The 0 was an O. And he could not get on the flight as he did not have the right Esta.

“The airport was thronged with young Americans following the St Patrick’s Festival and I was unable to access an internet point to process a new Esta in time for my flight,” he says. “As it turned out, for an extra €500 my very helpful travel agency rescheduled the flight for Wednesday 21st. On arrival at the airport, I discovered this flight was cancelled due to snow in Philadelphia. The American Airlines desk rescheduled me for the next day, Thursday 22nd, via London and Charlotte to New Orleans. To be sure, I asked the lady to check my new Esta and she said it was fine.”

Then – just to make things even more infuriating – on the Thursday, at the Aer Lingus check-in desk for his flight to London, he was asked if he had the Esta document but was not asked to present it. “And no one in London or Charlotte thought it worth asking to see it.”

John is a subeditor whose full-time job is to check copy for errors and he could not tell whether his passport number began with PO or P0. “If I had this difficulty, some readers could face the extremely stressful – and costly – experience of being blocked from travelling to the US. Given that the composers of the Esta visa are aware of the difficulty with O and 0, I suggest the sanction of blocking travel to the US for anyone who gets it wrong is too severe. I would further suggest that in such cases a senior member of the airline staff at check-in should have the authority to allow the traveller a pass.”

He concludes his mail by saying that while he will never make that mistake again, “others filling out an Esta visa for the first time could be in for a rude awakening”.

Irish Rail and the Beast

A reader called Anne who works in Dublin is not happy with Irish Rail and, by our reckoning, she has cause for her discontent. She was one of the many people who was unable to get from A to B for the days that the Beast from the East held us in its icy grip at the beginning of March.

She is a regular commuter who relies on Irish Rail to get to work and is in possession of a Taxsaver annual ticket. Because the rail service was unable to operate she presumed she would be in line for some class of a refund for those days that she could not use the ticket that she had paid for.

She notes in her mail that people who had bought one-off paper tickets and online tickets were in line for refunds but when she contacted the company she was told that “On Thursday 1st March, from 14.00 hrs until Saturday 3rd March circa 14.00 hrs, Iarnród Éireann was not in a position to operate services due to the status ‘Red Weather Warning’ issued by Met Éireann, which was completely out of our control. This decision was made in the interest of safety for our customers and employees. Therefore, I cannot accede to your request for a refund/ compensation on this occasion.”

Anne persisted. She sent a follow-up mail saying that her understanding was that “customers with paper tickets were offered refunds. Is that not the case?”

She got another rejection. “Management have came to the decision that we are not issuing refunds/ compensation to monthly or taxsaver customers.”

That seems somewhat unfair to us. If people who bought one-off tickets will get refunds and if people who bought airline tickets will get refunds, surely Irish Rail’s most loyal passengers should get refunds. We contacted the company to find out more.

Irish Rail spokesman Barry Kenny said that as the curtailment of services were outside its control “in common with other public transport operators, a refund was not available for season ticket holders. Where issues are within our control (e.g industrial action last November), we did provide a refund to season ticket holders.”