US travel: Australian student jailed over Visa Waiver Program rule

An Aussie student was stripsearched and put in a jail cell after he was refused entry into the US for a reason many may not be aware of.

An Australian student who set off on a backpacking trip found himself stripsearched and wearing an orange prison uniform in a US cell because of a little-known entry rule.

Now, he is making sure other young travellers don’t end up in the same position.

Jack Dunn, who worked as a youth worker in regional Victoria, was taking a break from university to save up for a holiday through the US, Mexico and Central America.

The 23-year-old had ideas about what he wanted to do, including seeing the NBA playoffs, but was planning to book accommodation and flights as he went – common with young travellers staying in hostels.

He landed in the US on May 5 at Honolulu International Airport, welcomed by a Hawaii-themed runway and a greeting of “aloha”.

But when he hit border security, things went downhill.

Jack was asked if he had a plane ticket to leave the US. He had one to Mexico.

He then heard the words: “You’re going to have to come with me”.

To enter the US under the Visa Waiver Program travellers must have another ticket out of the US to any other foreign port or place that is not a bordering country or an adjacent island.

Jack said he was held for questioning for hours. At one point, a worker, who he believed to be from an airline, offered their phone to book another plane ticket.

Jack said his phone didn’t have service and there was no access to Wi-Fi.

“He clearly felt sorry for me and he was like ‘we just have to show them that you’ve got another ticket booked out of America and then you’ll be fine,’” Jack said.

He tried to book a flight to Panama, because under stress he couldn’t think of another capital city in Central America.

“But that was $US500 and I didn’t have that in my account and then I was trying to explain to the (US Customs and Border Protection officer) that I just needed internet to transfer money across,” Jack said.

“She seemed baffled I had money in two separate accounts but I’ve always done that.”

Jack claimed he felt the officer was unfair and that she appeared to not even consider that him not meeting the entry requirement was an innocent mistake.

A transcript of the interview, seen by, said Jack was unable to “overcome the presumption of an intended immigrant”.

“You have no ties or equities to your home country or sufficient funds to support yourself for your intended period of stay,” the CBP officer said.

He was ordered to be removed from the US on the first available flight to Sydney, which was the following day.

Prison time

Jack was handcuffed and taken to the Federal Detention Center in Honolulu, which he described simply as “scary”.

He was stripped naked and guards searched under his scrotum and anus for contraband twice.

He was moved throughout different rooms while he was processed.

In one, he said he used a paper bag with a sandwich as a pillow and slept on a concrete floor.

He had gone many hours without sleep at this point.

“When you’re not in your own country you have no control over what’s going to happen to you so I was kind of thinking I would never get out,” he said, adding that it turned out he spent about 30 hours at the prison.

Jack ended up in an orange prison uniform in a cell. He said the walls were smeared with blood and faeces.

As he walked to the cell, he said the other inmates howled.

Jack shared a cell with another inmate.

“He talked to himself and punched the walls. I was worried about that so I tried to stay awake as long as I could,” he said.

“I was just anxious the whole time.

“You don’t really know what time of the day it is so you don’t know how long you’ve been there or when you’re supposed to get picked up.

“It felt like it had been too long but it’s just because you’re lying there doing nothing.”

Jack said one of the prison guards asked him when he was leaving what he was in for.

“They didn’t know so they just thought I was a criminal,” Jack said.

Throughout the whole ordeal he claimed he was refused contact with his family back home.

Jack’s father Matt Dunn said they first knew something was wrong when they were woken by a call from a US CBP official at 5:30am. He said they were told Jack was safe but did not say more.

“Fearful and imagining the worst possible scenarios, my wife, Melissa, and I didn’t know what to think,” Matt said.

“Was it a scam? Had he become an unwilling or unwitting drug mule?”

The rule

A US CBP spokesperson said they could not discuss an individual’s processing, but reiterated the border rule that was quoted in Jack’s transcript.

“Under the Visa Waiver Program, applicants must have a round-trip ticket that would transport the traveler out of the United States to any other foreign port or place as long as the trip does not terminate in contiguous territory or an adjacent island; except that the round-trip ticket may transport the traveler to contiguous territory or an adjacent island, if the traveler is a resident of the country of destination,” the spokesperson said.

“In addition, applicants should be able demonstrate access to sufficient funds to support themselves for the intended period of their stay and to proof sufficient ties or equities to the home country.”

The rule is not mentioned on the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Smartraveller website that lists visa information and entry requirements for the US.

It also appears not to be mentioned on the US CBP web page that is linked for more information.

On the Australian US embassy website, a VWP information page lists the conditions of the visa, but does not include the detail about bordering countries.

“If arriving by air or sea, they are traveling on an approved commercial carrier and have a return trip ticket to a foreign destination other than the U.S. or adjacent islands,” it reads. has contacted DFAT for comment.

The US CBP spokesperson also explained that a traveller who is ordered to return to their home country must “return in the same air carrier they arrived” and if immediate seats are not available, they will be detained.

“This wait time may take several hours and in some airports that close their operations overnight the traveler is transported to a local detention facility and brought back to the airport when a returned seat is secured,” they said.

“CBP officers strive to treat all travelers with respect and in a professional matter. CBP regrets any inconvenience or unpleasantness a passenger may have experienced during his/her CBP processing. We take allegations of unprofessional behavior seriously.”

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