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.

Spending the festive season cat sitting ’round Australia

Spending the festive season cat sitting ’round Australia

Each Christmas is the chance for me to house and cat sit somewhere new, and this year wasn’t going to be any different. It just wasn’t going to be overseas.

I’d organised sits in Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne, and I got to spend a few days in Busselton before being reunited with Little Dolly Parton. The bulk of the trip was spent house sitting in Perth, with Christmas Day celebrated in Adelaide and the days leading up to 2023 in Melbourne.

This Christmas break actually marked five years since I started my house and cat sitting journey. Harvey, the former street cat from San Francisco, was the first cat I looked after and subsequent Christmases saw me care for Nika in Boulder, Colorado; Jaspurr in Brisbane, Australia; Pepper in Darwin, Australia; and Pixel in Sydney, Australia. And while I would’ve loved to be house and cat sitting in a cooler climate, I was just grateful to get back-to-back-to-back sits in Australian cities I wanted to visit.

Perth, the first stop on the trip, was the first house and cat sit I booked. I’d been to Perth once before, but I didn’t get to see anything other than the Rio Tinto office building and the hotel room I was staying in. Because of my ongoing drama(s) with TrustedHousesitters, I’ve chosen to steer well clear of them and all my Christmas sits were found on Aussie House Sitters. I signed up to Aussie House Sitters in 2019 and have continued to renew my membership each year. An Aussie House Sitters membership ($84 AUD) is about half the cost of what sitters pay to use TrustedHousesitters ($149 AUD) and, as you’d expect from an Australian house sitting website, they’ve got hundreds of listings for homes all over the country.

I arrived in Perth on a Sunday afternoon and was introduced to Rio, one half of the brother–sister duo I’d be spending the next 20 days with. Rio and his biological sister, Luna, who I met the next day, have very different personalities. Rio wanted to spend ALL his time with you, or on you or on your things. I even have a photo of him sitting on my pizza box that’d been placed on the table for a few seconds while I locked the front door. Luna spent her days and nights outside, and preferred the independent lifestyle. She did, however, like to sit with me after she’d eaten her breakfast and dinner.

My first night in Perth took an interesting turn when another cat appeared in the backyard. I messaged Rio and Luna’s owner asking if she was okay with the other cat being in her yard. Some people don’t care if it’s one of their neighbours’ cats, but they’ll feel differently about a random cat being on their property. The lady I was house and cat sitting for replied saying she’d never seen the cat before. I remember thinking: “Of all the days for this cat to appear, it makes itself known on the day I arrive in Perth?!”

The kitty was extremely friendly, but I couldn’t keep him/her inside because it wasn’t my house. Pixel’s owners, who I’m in regular contact with, suggested I post a picture of the cat to a Perth lost and found Facebook group. Within a few hours, five or six people thought the kitty was theirs. One particular lady kept getting tagged by different people and she was adamant the cat was hers. Her cat, Boo, went missing one week earlier. This lady lived 10km away from where I was staying and it didn’t seem probable Boo had walked that far in seven days. The woman described Boo as shy and reserved, and a bit jumpy. She told me her cat wasn’t very trusting of others. The cat in the courtyard was none of those things—he/she wouldn’t leave me alone. In the end, as I always knew, the kitty wasn’t Boo. A kind stranger from that same Facebook group came by to take this cat to a 24-hour vet clinic to get a microchip scan. I was told the kitty didn’t have a microchip and would be taken to a local cat rescue. The kitty was held for seven days before he/she was put up for adoption.

The rest of my time in Western Australia was spent exploring places like Rottnest Island (home of the quokka), Nambung National Park and the Pinnacles, Cervantes, York, Busselton, and Margaret River. I probably had a little too much time in Perth itself, but there’s a lot places outside the city I’d still love to see.

Quokkas on Rottnest Island

I was meant to arrive in Adelaide just before midday on 22 December, but my flight was cancelled. Virgin couldn’t (or wouldn’t) put me on any other flight despite Google showing two or three Virgin flights out of Perth at a cost of $1,200. They chose to re-book me on a flight scheduled for the following morning and told me to head to a hotel that they’ll reimburse me for. In all the years I’ve been flying, this was the first time I’d had a cancelled flight. A cancelled flight is a huge inconvenience for anyone, but I felt really bad about it because I was responsible for someone’s cat.

It’d been an exhausting few days and I couldn’t wait to do nothing with Little Dolly Parton when I finally got to Adelaide. I’d also been dealing with another dreaded sinus infection so lazing around the house sounded like the perfect way to spend Christmas Day after getting up at midnight and 3am the past two mornings.

Dolly was just as cute and comical as I remember her being. She’d run to the front door to investigate any noises coming from outside, chill on her cushion and jump on the bed to demand your attention. She’d then request you stop patting her by letting out a little meow. Our Christmas Day was spent in the air con eating all the things I’d bought at Adelaide Central Market.

My trip to Adelaide was a quick one and now it was time to head to Melbourne. Melbourne was recently named the world’s friendliest city, and it was somewhere I hadn’t been back to in about five or six years.

I spent the next week caring for a low maintenance kitty called Willow. Willow’s family owns a very comfortable, nicely renovated three bedroom home in Northcote. Their house was decorated with art, ornaments and things from their travels, and it’s probably one of only a few homes I’ve stayed in where you got a real sense of the people living in it.

Willow—like Rio and Luna—was another mostly outside cat. All cats in this local council area, however, have to be inside by 7pm or the owner risks being fined. Willow was good with her 7pm deadline and never ventured outside the family’s yard. She spent her days lounging on the deck and evenings were for snuggling up against me in bed.

The unexpected warmer weather in Melbourne made it difficult for me and my sinus infection to want to do anything, and my first day in town was re-allocated as a rest day. I’d intended to venture straight into the city, but I decided it was best to do this the next day. I definitely didn’t expect it to be 37°C when I arrived, but I should’ve remembered the “Melbourne: Four seasons in one day” phrase. Despite most days averaging 35°C, I got out to Fitzroy and Collingwood. I also enjoyed walking along High Street in Northcote and stopping in at all the boutiques. I went to the National Gallery of Victoria, walked along the riverfront at Southbank, admired at city’s street art and explored the many laneways in the CBD.

New Year’s Eve came and went which meant my Australian house and cat sitting holiday was almost over. I flew home on 2 January 2023, and I’ll probably stay put for a good four or five months before travelling again. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing this year, or where house and cat sitting will take me, but I’m still pushing for TrustedHousesitters to update their international house sitting advice.

Another rendezvous with Pixel in Sydney

Another rendezvous with Pixel in Sydney

After a crazy few months, I couldn’t wait to get away again even if it was only for one week. I’d been invited back to care for Pixel—everyone’s favourite Cheshire Cat—while his humans holidayed in New Caledonia. Their overseas trip was a bit of a last-minute one which meant a close friend spent the first two or three days looking after Pixel before I was able to fly in. I first met Pixel in April 2021 when Australia was experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak. Mind you, back then, an ‘outbreak’ was as little as three or four cases in any Australian city. I remember wanting to get away for the upcoming Easter break, but my options were limited. Booking domestic travel was risky because states and territories could go into a sudden lockdown meaning interstate visitors weren’t allowed in. There weren’t too many house sits being advertised either. Of the few available, one was in inner city Sydney. Sydney wasn’t at the top of my travel wishlist—I’d been a few times before and I hadn’t felt the need to return in recent years—but I’m glad I responded to the ad. While I keep in touch with a lot of people I’ve house and cat sat for, I probably WhatsApp Pixel’s owners at least once a day. Pixel’s owners happened to be some of the first people I spoke with after being refused entry to the United States. I don’t know what time it would’ve been back in Australia, but I was one of the last passengers to board the Sydney-bound Qantas flight at 10.30pm Los Angeles time. Pixel’s owners offered a lot of support and kind words via WhatsApp, and they even did some quick research into the legalities of tourists using TrustedHousesitters in the United States. Their WhatsApp messages made me feel a little less upset/annoyed/angry about the situation and the long flight I was about to endure. TrustedHousesitters—the website I’d organised all my house and cat sits through (and the very same website I’ve been using to travel to the United States since 2017)—has come out saying what happened to me was all a “misunderstanding” because US immigration doesn’t understand the “concept of house sitting”. TrustedHousesitters might want to let their members know they can be deported, but, hey, US immigration just doesn’t get it. There’s a lot more to all of this and I’ll post about it in the coming weeks. Back to Pixel. It’d been a good eight or nine months since I saw Pixel last. He’s lost a bit of weight thanks to a revised feeding routine which sees him get one scoop of dry food and one pouch of wet food each day. We like to joke Pixel has lost weight to help him land a movie role in Hollywood. Pixel has become a bit of a celebrity following what happened to me at LAX. A lot of media outlets have chosen to use a Pixel selfie to accompany their reporting and, of course, people on the internet have a lot to say about Pixel’s face. Usually ‘That cat looks pissed off’ or ‘That’s one angry-looking cat’. Pixel is neither of these things, and he seems to be more affectionate and chill than ever before.

What I did during the week

The Sydney weather has been pretty shitty all year and this week was no exception. Thursday was the first day it hadn’t rained at all all week. Every person I spoke to would say something like: ‘How nice is the weather today?’ The rideshare driver I had on the way back to the airport told me all about his Saturday morning in the sunshine. He said this is some of the best weather the city’s seen in 2022. The heavy, never-ending rain on Monday made it difficult to get up, but I eventually made my way out to the Mitchell Road antiques warehouse. This is somewhere I like to visit each time I’m in town. It’s huge and a lot of the stuff is reasonably priced. Reasonably-priced things can be hard to come by in Sydney. Bondi Beach is another place I like to visit when I’m here. My favourite vegan Lebanese restaurant is no longer, but the Sunday markets were still on despite the rain. A workmate also recommended the Sculpture by the Sea exhibition which stretches the Bondi Beach to Tamarama part of the Bondi to Bronte walk. A few other things I enjoyed:
  • Walking from Bondi Junction to Bondi Beach along Bondi Road. I’m always getting the bus through here, but this is the first time I’ve walked it.
  • The Art Gallery of New South Wales. I didn’t know this even existed until this week. The Royal Botanic Garden is next door and it’s a 15-minute walk down to Circular Quay.
  • Shopping along Oxford Street and admiring all the pretty terrace homes (and their Halloween decorations) in the streets off the main road. There’s a hub of activity happening in the backstreets of Paddington that I’d like to check out properly next time. Newtown is another good area for shopping, and has plenty of food choices and lots of murals.

Next stop

I’m on my way home where I’ll be working up until the end of November. From 27 November, I’ll be off on a month-long domestic cat sitting adventure through Aussie House Sitters. Perth is my first stop, then Adelaide and I’ll be in Melbourne for New Year’s Eve.
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.