Several TrustedHousesitters members have been refused entry to the US within recent months. One of them was a 67-year-old retired nurse.

Members have also had problems in Canada and across the UK. Read more of these TrustedHousesitters horror stories over on Reddit.

Hi. My name’s Madolline.

And I’m seeing the world One cat at a time.

My second time house and cat sitting in Vancouver

My second time house and cat sitting in Vancouver

I decided to return to Canada (with my open work permit) after spending three and a half months there (using that same open work permit) last summer.

Last year’s trip started with a house and cat sit in Montreal which meant an additional five-hour flight to the other side of the country. I remember having just under two hours to pass through immigration, sort out my work permit and provide immigration officers with whatever paperwork they wanted to see, collect my suitcase and re-check it in, go through security, and be at the gate ready to board my 8:55am flight. While all Air Canada luggage is now sent through to the traveller’s final destination, it’s a lot of stress I could do without and that’s why I was hoping to start off in Vancouver this time. Turns out the lady I sat for in September needed a sitter for 10 days in February. Her dates slotted into my draft itinerary almost perfectly so I told her I’d be happy to take the sit.

The lady shares her West End apartment with two Ragdoll cats from the same litter. They’re 1.5 years old, and their names are Jaws (girl) and Killer (boy). While ‘Killer’ might seem like an odd name to some people, it makes perfect sense when you know their owner. Some of my friends thought Jaws may have been a biter/chewer, but she was named after Steven Spielberg’s film Jaws. Jaws’ owner is fascinated by sharks and went swimming with them on one of her visits to Australia. Cat Jaws even has some shark Jaws toys.

Despite their scary-sounding names, Jaws and Killer are gentle and affectionate. The only ‘violence’ you’ll see these majestic-looking kitties inflicting is upon their toys. And, boy, do they have a lot of them. I don’t think I’ve ever met a cat(s) who plays with their toys as much as these two do. One of their favourite things to do is bring their ‘catch’ to you in bed, or drag it into the shower and continue thrashing it around. Sometimes I’d wake to find an assortment of toys strewn across the bed. Or still in the shower the next morning. Then there was the time one of their toys fell out of my backpack as I went to pay for something at Winners.

It’s interesting to see their personalities are still developing and how they’ve changed since I was here last. Their owner also commented on how she’s noticed the cats’ colours deepening. Jaws has a lot more grey/taupe to her and Killer’s ginger points might be a little more prominent.

I recall Killer being the needy sibling and Jaws mostly keeping to herself. It could’ve been that Jaws is—or was—a bit more reserved around strangers. This time ‘round, Killer is content to be alone (except for when he demands five minutes of your time every evening) and Jaws is the one who wants all your attention. Jaws will now position herself next to me and still be my side when I wake up. Both cats do like to involve themselves in whatever you’re doing and this can sometimes include running into the shower as soon as you’ve turned the water on. Jaws will try to catch the water drops from the other side of the glass door while Killer sits in the bathroom sink. They also like to welcome you home and Killer is the first one to dart out the front door. He’s allowed to walk around in the building’s closed off hall area, but must be supervised for the minute or two he’s allowed to roam. Jaws is a bit more hesitant about venturing out, but she’ll take a quick peep from behind the door before deciding whether or not it’s worth the effort. If she does venture out, she’s usually quick to return. Killer, however, likes to be chased back into the apartment.

Things to do

I didn’t expect to like Vancouver as much as I did, but I guess that’s why I was so keen to come back. English Bay and Stanley Park are within walking distance from the West End apartment, and you can be at Coal Harbour or downtown within about 20 minutes. Here’s some of the things I enjoyed most and these can be done/visited/seen at any time of year.

Main Street, Mount Pleasant

It’s actually called Main Street and isn’t just the main street in Mount Pleasant. I’d recommend walking from about E Fifth Avenue all the way to down to E 32nd Avenue and back up again. The area is known for its vintage and antique stores, but I found it had a lot of good homewares, stationery and ‘things’ stores. Some of my favourites were Front & Company, The Storehouse and Welk’s. Lots of street art in the area, too.

Granville Public Market

From where I’m staying in West End, the trip to Granville Public Market is a scenic one. I walk down Denman Street, past the A-maze-ing Laughter sculptures, and along English Bay and Sunset beaches to get the False Creek Ferry from the Aquatic Centre. It takes less than five minutes to get to Granville Island.

Warning: Seagulls steal snacks by the seashore

I’d say Granville Public Market is one of the best markets I’ve been to. It’s got its fair share of food, but it has just as many stores selling handmade (and not handmade) goods.

Shop Makers

Shop Makers is a “celebration of local artistry and entrepreneurship” and they’ve got stores all over the country. Everything is handmade by a Canadian artist and each artist gets 100% of the money made from a sale of their goods.

'I can't read' sticker

I’m not sure how I originally learned about Shop Makers, but I must’ve stumbled across a store in Gastown or Kitsilano when I was here last. My favourite Shop Makers store would have to be the one in the Park Royal mall because they’ve got so much cat stuff (stickers, keyrings, etc.). North Vancouver is pretty good, too, and definitely one of the bigger stores.

Lynn Canyon Park and suspension bridge

Lynn Canyon Park offers a significantly cheaper—i.e. free—alternative to the Capilano Suspension Bridge. And there’s 617 acres of forest and several hiking trails to explore. I did some of the Baden Powell Trail before turning around to get the bus back to downtown Vancouver before it got dark, but I’d be keen to come back in the summer.

Stanley Park

I’d never heard of Stanley Park until I got chatting to another Australian on my Niagara Falls tour. She told me it was one of the first places she visited in Vancouver and that it’s bigger than Central Park.

A popular walk within Stanley Park is the 10km seawall loop that forms part of the world’s longest uninterrupted waterfront path. It takes between two and two and half hours to do, and you’ll pass Siwash Rock, Lions Gate Bridge, Brockton Point Lighthouse and the Totem Poles.

Next stop

I’m at Vancouver International Airport waiting to board a plane to Calgary. I spent three nights in Calgary last year, but that wasn’t nearly enough time to see everything I had on my list. This time I’ve got five nights in town, and, unlike my last visit, I will be doing a house and cat sit.

Getting back to international house and cat sitting

Getting back to international house and cat sitting

One year later and I finally made it to Montreal. This time, however, I wanted to ensure I had the correct paperwork—i.e. a work visa—so I could house and cat sit without issue.

The working holiday visa I applied for forms part of the International Experience Canada (IEC) program that’s designed to give young people from participating countries the opportunity to live, work and travel in Canada for up to two years. For Australians interested in applying, you must:

  • be between 18 and 35 years old
  • have a valid passport
  • receive an invitation from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to submit an application. Receiving an invitation to apply does not mean you’ve been approved for a working holiday visa.

Australia seems to be one of the only countries without a cap on the number of invitations sent out so I think it’s safe to say almost all Australians who register with the IRCC will get an invitation to apply unless they’re deemed inadmissible to Canada.

The application process

I received an invitation to apply a few days after registering my interest.

We are pleased to invite you to apply for the Working Holiday (IEC) work permit under the International Experience Canada program.

The letter said I had to do one of two things:

  1. Apply online and do this by 19 January 2023, or
  2. Decline the invitation.

I was given 20 days to submit all my paperwork and pay the fees associated with the application. It’s $161 CAD regardless of which IEC stream you’re applying for—working holiday, young professionals or international co-op (aka internship)—plus an additional $100 CAD for those who are after an open work permit.

The IEC application form required me to upload several forms of identification, a police check, a traffic history report and my resume. I had to provide my electronic travel authorization (eTA) number; print, fill in and scan a form about my family (things like names, date of birth, citizenship); and declare if I’d been deported from/refused entry to another country.

Have you ever been refused a visa or permit, denied entry to, or ordered to leave Canada or any other country/territory?

This is something that’d been weighing on my mind a lot—how being deported from the United States would affect future visa applications. I wasn’t sure if telling the truth would result in an instant rejection, but, thankfully, there was an option to attach a letter outlining the particulars. I wrote a two-page letter and included a screenshot of the email I received from TrustedHousesitters community manager Angela Laws saying international house sitting is allowed.

Immigration update from Angela Laws, Social Media & Community Manager at TrustedHousesitters

This email highlighted how TrustedHousesitters members are misled about visa requirements and don’t realise the huge risk they’re taking when they accept an international house sit. Work visas are required to house sit in the US and UK, but TrustedHousesitters continues to argue “TrustedHousesitters is for tourism” and “not for arranging house sitting as work”.

Biometrics

IEC applicants must also book an appointment at a biometrics collection services centre to get photographed and fingerprinted. The Canadian Government won’t assess your application until this is done. You’ve got 30 days to give biometrics and they’ll be valid for the next 10 years. Applicants need to be mindful not all cities have a biometrics collection centre(s) and there mightn’t be much flexibility with appointment availability.

Waiting for a decision

It was a nerve-racking few weeks because I really wasn’t sure how the Canadian Government would view being refused entry to the USA. I know I’m not the only person who’s been deported/refused entry, but I’m yet to learn how other countries treat visa violators.

Google didn’t have any answers, but it led me to this Working Holiday Visa Canada IEC 2023: Ultimate Application Guide blogpost. I reached out to the author, Gemma, a Canadian citizen as of 2018, asking her if she knew of anyone with a similar set of circumstances. She said she was aware of a few “relatively similar situations” where someone had been refused entry to another country. Like me, they included a detailed letter explaining what’d happened and ended up being granted an open work permit. Gemma gave another example in which someone was asked to leave Canada because they overstayed whichever visa they had. They were also successful with their working holiday visa application. Her email made me a bit more optimistic, but it ended with: “Again, though, it’s all to the discretion of the actual processing agent so it’s hard to say.”

Two weeks later and I got an email saying my application status had been updated. I logged in and scrolled down to see my work permit had been approved. This was pretty exciting because it meant I was able to house and cat sit in Canada, and I could get a paid job if I wanted to.

Your application to work in Canada has been initially approved by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. The final decision to issue you a work permit and allow you to enter Canada is made after an examination by an officer in Canada. At that time, an officer will assess if you still meet the requirements of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, its Regulations and any other Canadian legislation.

The “requirements” included things like showing proof of:

  • funds (minimum of $2,500 CAD) to support yourself
  • health insurance to cover the two-year period granted to working holiday visa holders
  • a return ticket to Australia.

Good to go

Now it was time to think about when I wanted to go to Canada. My original plan was to head over in September/October, but my employment contact was finishing up at the end of June. I started looking for house sits in the cities I was meant to visit last year. Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, but I was open to pretty much anywhere as long as the person’s place was close to public transport.

It didn’t take long for a house and cat sit in Montreal to come up. It started on 5 July, with an end date of 27 July. I applied and received a message back asking if I could do a quick phone call with the owner. We scheduled a WhatsApp call for my Saturday morning/Friday afternoon Montreal time and I was offered the sit a few minutes into the call. The sit’s start date coincided with the cheapest airfare available for the entire month of July. If it had started on any other day, I would’ve been looking at paying an extra $600–$700 AUD for my ticket. I booked with Air Canada and flew straight from Brisbane to Vancouver.

Arriving in Canada

Even though my work permit had been initially approved, I knew it didn’t guarantee me entry to Canada. It didn’t guarantee anyone entry to Canada. I was fretting about the Canadian immigration officer seeing the stamp at the back of my passport and the possible interrogation that’d follow. And while I still met the requirements (money, insurance, return ticket), you just never know what kind of shitty human you might get at immigration. As Gemma said: “It’s all to the discretion of the actual processing agent.”

Passport stamp: Refused in accordance with INA section 217

My flight touched down at Vancouver International Airport just after 6am. I think it was one of the first flights in that morning because there was no-one around. This was both good and bad. Good because I was in and out of the eTA line within a few minutes. Bad because the immigration office—where people wanting to sort out their visa paperwork go—didn’t open ’til 7am. I was passed around a bit before being told to head toward the “Sortie” (exit) sign and speak to an officer in there.

This particular section of the airport reminded me a lot of the secondary screening facility at LAX. It was quiet and seemed a lot more serious than the area where most passengers pass through. I kept thinking back to that night at LAX, but I was trying to remain positive. I went up to the only officer on duty and said I was here to activate my work permit. I was expecting a whole lot of questions, but all the officer wanted was my passport. He said to take a seat and wait for my name to be called. I didn’t know what the next steps would entail, but my work permit was printed within 10 minutes. It’s valid for two years from 5 July 2023 and comes with three conditions:

  1. The work permit is not valid for employment in businesses related to the sex trade.
  2. I must leave Canada by 4 July 2025.
  3. Unless authorised, I am not allowed to attend “any educational institution” or take “any academic professional or vocational training course”.

The only other thing the officer said to me was I’d need the work permit details to apply for a Social Insurance Number (SIN). A SIN is required before I can start working in Canada, and, apparently, it gives me access to certain government benefits.

My immigration experience in Canada was totally different to what happened in the United States. Those entering Canada on an eTA (i.e. most visitors) don’t have to provide an address for where they’re staying and the only immigration official they deal with is the one they hand their slip to in what seems to be a very casual interaction. No-one asks how long you’re staying for or where else you’re visiting on your trip. I find it hard to believe house sitting would ever come up because there is no conversation to be had as you enter and exit passport control. Remember, though, you always need to read up on what is and isn’t allowed on the type of visa you’ve got because it’s not just the United States ruining house sitters’ travel plans. An American TrustedHousesitters member was taken in for secondary questioning at a Canadian land border crossing and was told “staying for free [as a house and pet sitter] is still considered work”. They were let off with a warning, but not everyone is as lucky when it comes to international house sitting with the incorrect paperwork.

Immigration vs TrustedHousesitters: Unpaid house sitting on your travels

Immigration vs TrustedHousesitters: Unpaid house sitting on your travels

It’s been a long, very frustrating few months following my deportation from the United States. United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) says unpaid house sitting is work, and tourists need a work visa to do it on their travels. TrustedHousesitters says US immigration got it wrong and international house sitting is OK for tourists to engage in because they’re visiting the country to holiday/vacation.

TrustedHousesitters has known about what happened at LAX minutes after it happened. I emailed them to say I’d been refused entry to the United States because I was told I had the incorrect visa to undertake unpaid house sitting on my sight-seeing holiday/vacation. TrustedHousesitters responded to this email within minutes—their community manager said she was sorry to hear this and asked for details. There wasn’t a lot of time between when I got my phone back and having to switch it to airplane mode, but the last email I received on the evening of 30 June 2022 said: “It really is about who you get on the day [at immigration] and how they CHOOSE to interpret the traveler’s purpose.”

Passport stamp: Refused in accordance with INA section 217

I didn’t hear from TrustedHousesitters again until I went to The Guardian. The Guardian story was published two or three weeks after I told TrustedHousesitters I was being deported, but, now, all of a sudden, they really wanted to talk about it. Their community manager tried calling me. She texted me. She tried to call me on WhatsApp. She even messaged me from two different numbers on WhatsApp. Then I saw an email come through: “We became aware of the full facts of your recent border situation just this morning through the Guardian article.” Were they reaching out to see how I was faring? I don’t know. As the weeks went on, they’d email me each time a new story came out. “I’ve just picked up the Mama Mia article and would really like to assure you that we did respond when the story first surfaced, we provided the SMH journalist with a statement which she did not publish, in it we expressed how appalled we were at your treatment etc.,” one of their emails read.

traveller.com.au story: Warning over house-sitting after Australian denied entry at US border, deported

When I finally called TrustedHousesitters back, that same community manager began with a story about the time she encountered an immigration-related inconvenience driving from Canada to Washington state. Despite the incompetence of border patrol staff, our experiences aren’t similar at all. The TrustedHousesitters community manager was granted entry to the USA. I wasn’t. I was detained. She wasn’t. I would think her ESTA—offered to citizens/eligible nationals of a Visa Waiver Program country—remained intact. My ESTA went from approved to “Travel Not Authorized”. The conversation began to move away from her experience to mine and that’s when I said I didn’t blame TrustedHousesitters for what happened. TrustedHousesitters weren’t the ones who refused me entry to the United States. It was US immigration who sent me straight back to Australia.

Customs and Border Protection paperwork: Subject states she was house sitting last trip under the site listed. States she is in transit for this trip

That’s how I felt four months ago, but now I’m mad at TrustedHousesitters. I’m mad at TrustedHousesitters because they haven’t done anything to address the underlying issue. They’re actively promoting international house and pet sitting as a win-win-win situation, but most members don’t know they’re breaking the law*. US immigration doesn’t care no money changes hands in arrangements facilitated through TrustedHousesitters—it’s what the traveller’s doing that’s the issue. Feeding a cat, as I have learned, is a form of ‘productive activity’ and any kind of productive activity requires the traveller to have a work visa.

TrustedHousesitters October 2022 newsletter: 10 reasons why pet sitting is the best way to travel Europe

TrustedHousesitters attempted to draw attention to the problems I experienced at LAX with Our Australian member’s story. “Madolline is a hugely valued member … we feel it’s important to give additional background to Madolline’s story and international travel.” TrustedHousesitters wasn’t in any position to give context because they didn’t know anything other than what I emailed them about while waiting to board my 15-hour flight to Sydney. “The Information on abortion is new and has only come to our attention as a result of this article … we will of course offer our full support, as we do to all of our members.” The abortion element is irrelevant here—paying members need to know they can be deported/refused entry for using TrustedHousesitters on their travels. This thread was locked (closed) by TrustedHousesitters after two days.

Post by Goodboyjakey: Maybe [TrustedHousesitters] should change the title of this post to “Are you travelling to the US to house sit?” so that people are aware. Truly shocking. Admin Notice: Post Moderated

It was early August when TrustedHousesitters wanted me to hear about their “immigration update”. I remember thinking maybe they’d fixed this mess for me. They hadn’t. The “immigration update” isn’t going to change anything for me or any other TrustedHousesitters member who finds themselves in airport detention. TrustedHousesitters threw some letters together for sitters to show to UK, US and Canadian immigration officials. These letters don’t have anyone’s name, position title or signature attached to them, and I’d be too embarrassed to show this letter to any of the officers I dealt with at LAX. The phone number provided in the letter—the one TrustedHousesitters advises immigration calls for further clarification—is one that seems to go unanswered at the best of times. “The immigration specialists have concluded that members can travel internationally to sit and that they are not in breach of any visa conditions,” their email dated 8 August 2022 read.

news.com.au story: Cat sitter questioned about abortion because of basic error at Brisbane airport

I started to get annoyed because TrustedHousesitters had managed to escape the bulk of the media attention my story was getting. Using TrustedHousesitters as a visitor to the United States (even though Montreal, Canada, was my final destination) was the reason immigration wouldn’t let me enter the country. I wasn’t sent back to Australia because of anything to do with my abortion status despite how some people were choosing to interpret stories they’d read online. traveller.com.au hit the nail on the head when they ran Beware: Simple mistakes that can get you deported or refused entry to other countries, but it wasn’t something I was allowed to discuss on the TrustedHousesitters community forum. Two different moderators—on two separate occasions—stopped me from talking about my experience. Most discussions on the TrustedHousesitters forum get locked when the company starts getting painted in a bad light, and every thread and reply posted by a new member must be manually approved by one of the moderators.

TrustedHousesitters community forum: Your recent forum post will not be published as it goes off topic. This topic is about house sitting adventures not immigration issues.

That’s when I took to posting about what happened to me on the TrustedHousesitters Facebook page. Paying members have a right to know this could happen to them and TrustedHousesitters wasn’t doing much to educate them about it. TrustedHousesitters hid all my comments and ended up deleting one of their own posts—one where they had to acknowledge a member’s dog died while in the care of a TrustedHousesitters sitter whose account ended up being suspended—after I bumped it. I got the impression this was another problem TrustedHousesitters didn’t want getting out back then and they didn’t want people being reminded of it three years later.

I started tagging TrustedHousesitters on Twitter and Instagram after they blocked me on Facebook. I can still see their Facebook posts, but I can’t comment on them. They mustn’t have liked me pointing out the major flaw in their business model because it wasn’t long before I was blocked on Twitter and Instagram. I’m still able to comment using my cat sitting Facebook page and my cat’s Instagram account, but my days are numbered.

Twitter: You are blocked from following [TrustedHousesitters] and viewing [TrustedHousesitters’] Tweets

Twitter: TrustedHousesitters blocked you, Angela Laws blocked you

TrustedHousesitters decided it was now time to play the “misunderstanding” card. In response to my Trustpilot review, one of their staff said CBP just didn’t get what house sitting is about. For such a simple “misunderstanding”, the consequences of revealing you’re travelling on the app are pretty significant. My ESTA has been cancelled forever and I can no longer enter the United States in a tourist capacity. My options for re-entering the United States include:

  • Getting a work visa, but who’s going to sponsor someone for unpaid house and cat sitting?
  • Winning the green card lottery. Unlikely to happen and I’m not sure I’d want to permanently relocate to the US.
  • Marrying a US citizen.

I can’t even transit through the country anymore.

While it was okay to silence me in public, TrustedHousesitters has continued to email me each time they get mentioned in the media. Their community manager was seeking “irrefutable proof of the reason your ESTA was revoked” after I went to iNews. The iNews travel editor is the only journalist I spoke with who approached a lawyer for comment as part of their coverage and I’m glad they did. I was able to arrange a half hour call with that very same lawyer—she said the only surprising part in all of this was the abortion question.

Even though TrustedHousesitters were the ones who advised me to seek advice from a US immigration lawyer, they were quick to change their tune when one weighed in saying house sitting is “not appropriate for ESTA travel”. An email I received from the TrustedHousesitters community manager inferred our relationship had soured: “Where this is now reminds me a little bit of a divorce situation … As soon as the suits/lawyers/media step in that’s when situations are in danger of becoming toxic … which is very sad, unfortunate and often completely unnecessary.”

insider.com story: An Australian woman said she was denied entry to the US over house-sitting plans

One of my last dealings with TrustedHousesitters—aside from the very, very last email I received from their community manager where she tried to gaslight me and likened me to a monster for emailing an animal rescue they work with—is when Queen Elizabeth II died. I’d reiterated my request for TrustedHousesitters to update their international house sitting advice page. I wanted this update posted to all their social media accounts and on their community forum, and sent as a standalone email to members. “Today was a bank holiday in the UK due to the Queen’s Funeral … our team was unavailable,” the community manager stated. The one and only time I spoke with TrustedHousesitters on the phone, I suggested they put a banner across their website drawing people’s attention to the risks of international house and pet sitting. The banner would link off to a webpage detailing how countries like the United States consider unpaid house and pet sitting work, and how it’s not suitable for visitors on a tourist visa. Pet owners need to be informed of the risks, too. They probably haven’t given any thought to what they’re going to do if their sitter is refused entry to the country. “Members are fully informed about the information that is available to them … There really isn’t a need to post [this information] on any external channels as this information is only pertinent to our members,” I was told. “The number of members across external channels is really very small … and posting any information would simply not reach a significant number of our members.” If the TrustedHousesitters social media following is so minuscule, why did I get barred for trying to educate such a small amount of people about the risks of using TrustedHousesitters on their overseas travels? Note: TrustedHousesitters’ take on “very small” equates to 256,000-odd people ‘liking’ them on Facebook and 100,000 followers on Instagram.

I want to make it clear I never asked TrustedHousesitters for money. Money, however, is everything to share economy companies like TrustedHousesitters. TrustedHousesitters cares more about money coming in** than they do about their “community”. The pets TrustedHousesitters sitters are tasked with caring for also take a backseat to profits as evidenced in that now-deleted Facebook post addressing the death of a member’s dog. If TrustedHousesitters cared about their members, they’d update their international house sitting advice in light of what happened to me at LAX. They’d offer support instead of hoping members grow tired of posting about their problems and they’d communicate the massive change to the house sitting application process instead of casually mentioning it on their highly moderated, not very popular community forum. Most of the 120,000 or so TrustedHousesitters members don’t know about this change and they don’t know they can be deported/refused entry either.

*Foreigners need a work visa, not ESTA, to house and pet sit on their travels. Citizens and permanent residents of the United States can do unpaid house and pet sitting through TrustedHousesitters without violating immigration law.
**TrustedHousesitters received $10-million in funding from UK investment firm Rockpool. Rockpool expects TrustedHousesitters will continue to grow their membership base in the United States, with a focus on California (the state I was deported from). 

An unfortunate start (and end) to my most recent cat sitting holiday

An unfortunate start (and end) to my most recent cat sitting holiday

I’ve been pretty lucky to spend a considerable part of the last four or five years travelling around by way of house and cat sitting. I’ve house and cat sat all over the US and across Australia, and Canada was next on my list. I’d organised back-to-back sits in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, and I was returning to the US for sits in New Orleans and Baltimore before going home.

TrustedHousesitters homepage

I wanted to save an extra few hundred dollars so I ended up booking a flight that went via the USA instead of going from somewhere like Sydney or Melbourne to Vancouver. All I had to do was pass through immigration at LAX—something everyone has to do—before getting on another one of two flights. Immigration lines at LAX can be ridiculously long, but I’m usually in and out within 45 minutes. This time was a little different. It took almost two hours to make it to the front of the queue. The immigration officer who called me over started with the standard “Where are you going?” (Montreal) and “What are you doing there?” (holiday) questions. He seemed annoyed I couldn’t produce a boarding pass for Philadelphia or Montreal, and that’s because I wasn’t given one at Brisbane Airport. The Qantas worker who checked me in even called someone about it. Whatever information was relayed must’ve been OK’d by someone higher up because I was given my BNE–LAX boarding pass and baggage receipt, and sent on my way.

The Qantas baggage receipt had my connecting flights listed on it and I even offered to show the immigration officer an email copy of the booking. He wasn’t interested in looking at either of these and went straight to asking what ‘stuff’ I brought with me. I asked him to clarify what he meant by ‘stuff’ before telling him I had things like clothes, toiletries, cereal and biscuits/cookies in my suitcase—nothing unusual for someone going on an extended holiday. That’s when I started to have an uneasy feeling about where this was going.

My Qantas baggage receipt

I suspect my most recent house and cat sitting adventure triggered something in the system when the officer scanned my passport. He started asking things like why I spent so long in the US, where did I go on that trip and why was I back again so soon. I said the January–April trip was spent holidaying around the country. That only confused him more. It’s as if he was like Why would anyone spend that long vacationing in the United States? I told him I was able to get around to so many places because I looked after people’s cats—unpaid, of course, and through a legitimate house sitting website—in cities and towns I wanted to visit. I said these trips are taken in between paid contract jobs back home, but ‘contracting’ seems to be a concept a lot of Americans can’t quite wrap their heads around. This immigration officer—and he wasn’t the only one—had hard time understanding why I’ve had so many different contract jobs, and why I only work three or four months at a time. My last lengthy contract job finished in December 2021. I then spent the next month cat sitting in Sydney before heading off on an extended trip to the US. It’d been close to two years since I was in the States and I wanted to get to as many places as I could within the 90 days granted to tourists travelling on an ESTA. After my final sit in Portland—which finished on the morning of 4 April 2022—I returned home to Australia where I worked until the end of the financial year (i.e. 30 June 2022). The immigration officer now wanted to know where I found these house sitting opportunities. I tried to show him the TrustedHousesitters app hoping it’d reinforce it’s a legitimate way for budget-conscious travellers to get around. He wasn’t interested. He said someone else would look it over. I was told to step aside and another Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer would take me in for further questioning. As I was waiting for whatever was going to happen next, I thought back to a story I read where a young Australian guy was detained upon entry into the US. This guy was strip and cavity searched, spent 30 hours in jail, and was sent back to Australia as soon as he could get the money together for a ticket back to wherever he flew out from. This guy’s final destination wasn’t even anywhere in the United States. He was going to Mexico.

The next CBP officer instructed me to follow him to a closed off part of the immigration area. My passport was taken and I wasn’t allowed to use any of my electronic devices—no-one being held in this area was allowed to. All I could do was sit and wait, and hope I’d make my flight to Philadelphia. The officer told me to take a seat and wait until my name was called. Twenty minutes later and I found myself dealing with a much younger immigration officer. He said he ‘got’ I wasn’t being paid, but house sitting went against what’s permitted on an ESTA. ESTA—which stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization—forms part of the Visa Waiver Program enabling “nationals of certain countries to travel to the United States for tourism … for stays of 90 days or less without obtaining a visa”. The officer said cat owners would have to pay someone—I assume he meant an American—to look after their cat if it wasn’t for me. He then asked me to detail what I do for work in Australia. He wanted to know how much cash I had on me, where I had intended to go on the trip, what I do on these trips, how long I’d been doing this for, etc., etc. He seemed particularly interested in what I did in New York City: “How did you spend your time there?” While I couldn’t remember every single thing I did in February 2022, I told him I liked to walk around all the different neighbourhoods. I went to a Broadway show, a few galleries and museums. The next thing I knew, he wanted access to my savings account. Then he wanted to see the transactions I made using the credit card I had with me in NYC. The transaction history mustn’t have been sufficient because now he wanted bank statements for the January–April 2022 period. All the additional information he requested was skimmed over. I don’t think he even knew what he was looking for other than international deposits for my house and cat sitting ‘work’.

Screenshot of the TrustedHousesitters app

A lot of the questions he asked me could only be answered with a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, and no explanation allowed. I was cut short on several occasions and reminded I could only answer yes/no. “Do you know it’s illegal to obtain employment while on an ESTA?” Yes, I know that. But is feeding a cat, changing its water and tending to the litter box really considered employment in the United States of America? I told the officer TrustedHousesitters operates on an exchange model where both parties pay an annual membership fee to use the platform. No money is given to the sitter, and my flights and transport aren’t paid for by anyone other than myself. He laughed and said these kinds of websites can say whatever they want* to get customers in. He’d clearly forgotten the part where I told him I’ve been using house and pet sitting websites for about five years. I thought if I likened it [house sitting] to couch surfing, he’d come around. He didn’t. He said couch surfing isn’t permitted on an ESTA either.

The immigration officer said he was going to speak to his supervisor about my situation and that I’d be questioned by another officer later on. I was then told to:

  • Leave my backpack and carry-on down the hall.
  • Take off my sneakers because shoelaces aren’t allowed in ‘detention’. I could either remove the shoelaces from my sneakers or get another pair of shoes out of my carry-on. The officer told me I had to be wearing some kind of footwear so I asked if gumboots were OK. He looked very confused by ‘gumboots’. “The shoes [gumboots] people wear when it rains…” I said to him.
  • Put any of the physical cash I had on me on me. The dress I was wearing didn’t have pockets so I had to get my parka out. Cash had to be carried with you wherever you went.
  • Wait for a female immigration officer to show up so she could pat me down in private.

What annoys me most about all of this is I had all the relevant documentation—a valid passport, a completed passenger attestation, an approved ESTA, my international COVID vaccination certificate—needed to travel. I also had a return ticket back to Australia for 11 September 2022. The very detailed itinerary, with the addresses of where I was staying and for how long, was in my backpack. No-one asked to see any of this. Not once. Not the first officer in the general processing line and not the last officer I spoke with. They could’ve called any of the people I was house and cat sitting for, and asked about the ‘arrangement’.

On time: LAX to Philadelphia flight; On time: Philadelphia to Montreal

It didn’t take long for a female immigration officer to signal at me to head towards her. I followed her into another room where we were joined by a second female immigration officer. The second officer would witness the pat down. The first officer—the one who told me to follow her to the pat down room—started by asking if I was pregnant. I wasn’t sure whether to be offended by this question or cut her some slack because I was wearing a loose-fitting dress. I was, however, going to be travelling for 30 hours and began to wonder what other women wear on their journeys to the other side of the world. The next thing I remember was being asked to hand over my cash. The first female officer counted it in front of me. I then had to initial some paperwork saying I agreed with the total amount and quantities of each of the notes/bills I had with me. I was told to hold the $1,000 CAD in one hand while putting both hands up against the wall. The first female immigration officer told me my hands were not far enough to the right. Then they were too close together. My feet needed to be farther apart. The pat down part took less than five minutes.  The first officer told me I was now allowed to sit. “Tongue up,” she started yelling. I thought she was saying “Thumb up”. I realise “Thumb up” doesn’t make much sense, but neither did “Tongue up”. She failed to mention the next part of the process was having my mouth looked at. She got annoyed each time I misunderstood her instructions or asked her to (politely) repeat what she said. The same officer told me to take my nose ring out. “No jewellery allowed in detention.” She got even madder when I tried to put the nose ring in my purse rather than just throwing it in my backpack.

At some point between speaking with the first immigration officer and being patted down, a Qantas worker was called in to sort out my luggage. Someone in Homeland Security must’ve dismissed her the first time because she was called up again about 10 minutes later. One of the immigration officers asked her when the next flight to Brisbane was leaving. The Qantas worker told the officers there were no flights tonight, but one was leaving for Sydney in a few hours. I found it interesting all of this was discussed pretty much right in front of me before I’d been given a second interview. It’s like the second interview was just to tick a box rather than consider—or even do some research into—what I was saying.

Detention and my second interview

As I was being led to the ‘detention’ area, the first female immigration officer asked if I was pregnant. Again. This time, however, the pregnancy question was followed by “Have you recently had an abortion?” This line of questioning seems totally inappropriate to most people, but my first thought was something like: What has abortion got to do with my immigration status? You guys think I’m here taking unpaid employment opportunities away from Americans. I gave a verbal response of “No”. Nothing else was said and we kept walking. The officer told me I could help myself to the assortment of chips, cookies and dried fruit snacks they had, and I could use any of the toothbrushes, multiple mouthwash varieties, sanitary pads and body lotion supplies while being held in detention.

I went to use the bathroom—the first time since disembarking some four hours ago—and came back to my name being called out. It was now time for my second interview. This immigration officer told me the interview would be recorded by the room’s CCTV-like camera and on an audio device. I was asked to raise my right hand and agree to it being recorded. The officer started by asking the same questions the first immigration officer did. Of the few different questions he threw at me, the ones I can remember include:

  • Are you on any medication?
  • What are your parents’ names?
    Do they ask people who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s for their parents’ names?
  • How much do you earn each month?
    This one didn’t go down well as I get paid weekly, sometimes even fortnightly, depending on which agency I’m contracting with. The take home pay can vary week-to-week based on how much work there is.
  • Have you ever been arrested?

It didn’t take this guy long to tell me I was being refused entry to the United States. I remember thinking: Seriously? Am I being deported? There was no point in arguing, or crying, or saying anything, because he wasn’t going to change his mind. He probably didn’t care to invest any more time into the matter. Being refused entry to [pass through] the United States meant I wasn’t going to Canada. Not only had my travel plans been ruined, but I was potentially disrupting other people’s plans in the process.

Waiting

The second interviewer returned to fingerprint and photograph me, and he documented things like my weight, height, and hair and eye colours. I found it interesting he didn’t actually weigh or measure me, or couldn’t observe my hair colour and eye colour for himself. I wasn’t exactly sure which hair colour to give him since it changes so often, but I told him my natural colour is blonde.

Screenshot of Madolline's profile on the TrustedHousesitters app

That same officer handed me print outs of the interview transcript, and he told me to initial and sign them. I asked him if I could read through everything before signing. The officer said I could, but he pointed out my flight would be leaving in about 15 minutes. I didn’t want to miss that flight because it’d mean spending another 24 hours in detention. I quickly initialled each of the pages and asked if I could get a copy. He responded with something like he’d arrange for copies to be added to my file. I was given the option to call the Australian Embassy or make a quick personal call before being walked to my flight gate. I had to tell the officer the name of the person I was calling and give him their phone number. He said he’d be present for the entire call which wasn’t a problem—all I was relaying was that I’d been refused entry and I’d be home soon. I couldn’t get through to my mum because I didn’t have an international SIM in my phone at that point. I asked the officer if I could use his desk phone to call her and he told me I can’t make an international call from that phone. I decided to try calling a good friend through Facebook Messenger. I told him what’d happened and asked him to let mum know. I also took the opportunity to message the person I was sitting for in Montreal. I told them I’d been detained, interrogated, refused entry to the United States, and I was being sent home to Australia in the next few minutes. I wouldn’t be coming to Canada and I was sorry for any trouble this was going to cause for them.

Straight back to Australia

I wasn’t given any particulars about the journey home** or what this all means for future travel to the United States of America. The second immigration officer didn’t even tell me I was going home via Sydney. I only knew about this because I heard what was said between other Homeland Security staff and the Qantas worker earlier in the evening. My passport—which could only be returned to me when the Sydney-bound flight was 10 minutes from touching down—was stamped with: Refused in accordance with INA section 217 R27038. That refusal stamp is the only ‘evidence’ I have from the whole ordeal.

*TrustedHousesitters is still of the opinion a tourist visa is sufficient and will not update their international house sitting advice
**The majority of this post was written on the 14-hour flight back to Sydney, Australia.