Warning over house-sitting after Australian denied entry at US border, deported

Australians with house-sitting plans abroad may be doing so at their own risk, with the deportation of an Australian woman from the United States exposing a little-known border rule.

Brisbane resident Madolline Gourley, 32, had planned a pet-sitting holiday in Canada and the US, but was forced to board a plane back to Australia just five hours after arriving at her transit destination Los Angeles.

On June 30, US immigration officers held Gourley in detention at Los Angeles International Airport where the traveller was subjected to multiple invasive interviews.

After two interrogations, she was informed that her pet-sitting plans violated the terms of her visa waiver agreement and she would be placed on the next flight back to Australia.

"One officer asked a series of questions and said what I was doing went against ESTA rules because homeowners would need to pay for someone to feed the cat if it wasn't for me," Gourley said.

Under the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) visa waiver program, visitors to the US are banned from "any type of employment or getting compensation for services rendered", a spokesperson for US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is aware of a number of Australians being deported from the United States since international travel resumed, and has urged Australians to inform themselves about entry, transit and exit requirements for their destination.

"All travellers are responsible for ensuring they meet the entry and residency requirements of countries they visit," a spokesperson said.

Gourley, who has house-sat extensively throughout the US prior to the ordeal, said the border rule came as a complete shock.

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"I wouldn't be the only traveller on an ESTA [program] visiting the States on a holiday who'd be house- and pet-sitting through websites like TrustedHousesitters to cut accommodation costs," Gourley said. "Other travellers need to be warned that even if they've got all the right documentation, they can be denied".

The ESTA website states visitors may "perform or offer commercial or industrial activities as long as you are not compensated for those activities from a US source, such as a company or an employer".

But the messaging isn't clear, says Gourley. "No money is provided to me and no contract is signed. Not exactly employment," she said. "The [house-sitting] website operates on an exchange model."

This border stance on house-sitting isn't limited to the US. In the United Kingdom, house-sitting is considered work, even if unpaid, and you're required to apply for a separate working visa. The exception to this is when you're house-sitting for friends or family.

A quick review of a number of popular Facebook house-sitting community pages reveals Gourley's case, while extreme, isn't unique. In one instance, a traveller writes that she wasn't able to board her train from Paris to London after immigration officials deemed her pet-sitting plans "work paid in kind by the British laws".

Another group member recalls being questioned extensively by immigration authorities while attempting to cross into Canada via the US. "When we mentioned we were house-sitting for [friends], it led to 'how did you find the housesit', and many other questions," the post reads.

An Australian-based member of a popular house-sitting Facebook group, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid possible border scrutiny, said that most sitters are aware house-sitting is considered voluntary work, whether paid or not, and thus know the risks involved.

The house-sitter said there are multiple online discussion threads devoted to the topic, and exercising discretion about intentions to house-sit at border controls is an unspoken rule within the community.

"People who have been doing it for a long time have got their procedures for going through immigration down pat. It's not necessarily lying about why they're there, but it's not fully disclosing," the person said.

Savvy housesitters have honed ways to pass through immigration points without raising alarm.

"Whenever we have housesat, we have always combined it with travel; when we arrive we always book an Airbnb or a hotel at the start [to show immigration]," they said. Usually this step, combined with their return flight information, is enough to satisfy border authorities.

The incident comes a month after Australian traveller Jack Dunn was denied entry to the US, cavity searched, sent to a federal prison and deported while in Honolulu.

Dunn had planned to travel on to Mexico, but was unaware of a rule requiring those visiting on the visa waiver to have a return flight booked from the US, or onward travel booked for a country not bordering the US.

See also: Australians face 10-month wait for visas to enter the US

See also: Ripped off: Don't fall for this US tourist visa scam like I did