Why was Nigella Lawson not allowed to board her flight to the US?

Recently the headlines reported that Nigella Lawson was not allowed to board a flight to the US in Heathrow this week. While we don’t know the specific circumstances under which she was was travelling to the US, reports have been made that she completed a form prior to travelling and was given authorization to travel. This was most likely the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (“ESTA”) form that allows British passport holders to travel visa free for purposes of tourism or business for 90 days under the Visa Waiver Program.

Travellers must answer a series of yes or no questions on the ESTA form via the US Customs and Border Protection web site in order to be given authorization to travel to the US under the Visa Waiver Program. The key thing travellers need to know is that, even if a person’s ESTA form is approved and they are given authorization to travel to the US it is not a guarantee that a traveller will be allowed to board a flight or entry to the US which unfortunately Nigella Lawson learned this week.

The first two questions on the ESTA form that may have caused Nigella Lawson problems are below:

A) Do you have a communicable diseasephysical or mental disorder; or are you a drug abuser or addict?

B) Have you ever been arrested or convicted for an offense or crime involving moral turpitude or a violation related to a controlled substance; or have been arrested or convicted for two or more offenses for which the aggregate sentence to confinement was five years or more; or have been a controlled substance trafficker; or are you seeking entry to engage in criminal or immoral activities?

Ms. Lawson recently admitted in an English court to have taken certain controlled substances. There is a provision under US immigration law that a person who admits to the essential elements of a controlled substance violation could be found to be inadmissible to the US. In addition, even if a person has not admitted to making such a violation, a person may be inadmissible to the US if something comes to the attention to US Customs & Border Protection officers that would indicate that the person is a drug abuser or addict they may be found to be inadmissible to the US.

Many people are wondering how Ms. Lawson was able to travel to the US earlier in the year but it could be that the US CBP perhaps did not become aware of the admission until her most recent attempt to travel to the US.

If Nigella Lawson wishes to travel to the US in the future, she will need to apply for a visa and appear for an interview before a Consular Officer at the US Embassy in London. A Consular Officer may have the option to recommend her for a waiver of inadmissibility or they may require her to take a medical exam to make sure she is not a drug abuser or addict. While there is waiver available the final decision on whether her visa will be issued will be made by the Admissibility Review Office in Washington D.C. It could take up to 5 or 6 months for the final decision to be made or the decision could be as quick as a few weeks if the visa applicant has urgent travel requirements