© Joe Spix
As Americans, we like to imagine our country as we think of ourselves: open-hearted and welcoming; efficient and practical; easygoing, above all. These values are the foundation of our culture, of an open economy fueled by ideas and immigration, and of our soft power - America's ability to change the world simply because it is admired.

Whatever foreigners think of the American experiment, though, it's unlikely the experience of crossing our border has made them think better of it.

Imagine that you're the citizen of a prosperous, democratic ally like Britain, Spain or Japan, and you'd like to visit America. Before traveling, you must pay $14 to complete an online United States government form called ESTA, short for Electronic System for Travel Authorization.

ESTA asks for basic personal data, like your name and birth date. It also asks whether you are guilty of "moral turpitude," whether you're planning crimes or "immoral activities" and whether you suffer from "lymphogranuloma venereum" (don't ask). If you're involved in terrorism or genocide - and for some reason you've decided to take this opportunity to inform the United States government - there's a box for that. And if you're a spy - a particularly artless one - please let us know.

Naturally, no one with anything to hide will answer honestly. Such purposeless questions recall Thoreau - "I saw that the State was half-witted" - and should astonish Americans, who know better than their government how to welcome guests.

ESTA has other problems. It's an almost uniquely American burden: Among the major European and Pacific democracies that Americans can visit without a visa, a few countries (Britain, for example) require some travelers to complete a simple onboard landing card, but only Australia requires some travelers to complete a fee-based, online pre-registration like ESTA. ESTA also duplicates the personal data that passengers must still provide for the separate Advance Passenger Information System.

Aesthetically, ESTA's Web site - America's digital front porch - is a disaster: uninviting and embarrassingly inconsistent with America's information technology pre-eminence. Ten dollars of ESTA's fee is earmarked for "visit America" ad campaigns. Tourism promotion is common sense. But we might reconsider the wisdom of requiring travelers to subsidize it in exchange for a grilling about their sexual health and genocidal activities.

Before landing, travelers (including Americans) must additionally complete a paper customs form. But asking travelers whether they are carrying snails or "disease agents" is as futile as asking whether they collaborated with the Nazis (another ESTA question). Sweden, Germany and many other countries not yet overrun by snails take a practical approach. Those countries post rules in the customs hall and skip pointless paperwork that only the honest will complete honestly.

Finally, when travelers actually disembark, they are too often subjected to inaccurate lessons in American manners and common sense. Americans may be surprised by the conclusions of a 2006 survey by the U.S. Travel Association, which found that foreign travelers were more afraid of United States immigration officials than of terrorism or crime. They rated America's borders by far the least welcoming in the world. Two-thirds feared being detained for "minor mistakes or misstatements."

Since then, according to Geoff Freeman, the travel association's chief operating officer, the border experience for visitors "remains a significant issue." Partly, Mr. Freeman said, that's because border staff members are overwhelmed by the volume of travelers; but the larger problem is a mind-set that sees "security and customer service as mutually exclusive."

This security mind-set occasionally veers into the absurd. Recently, two young European tourists were detained at Los Angeles International Airport for tweeting loose banter about plans to "destroy" America (an apparent reference to partying) and to disinter Marilyn Monroe. Vigilant border personnel reportedly searched their luggage for shovels, then deported them. Overseas commentators reacted with eye-rolling weariness but little surprise.

Add in long lines and senseless, disparately enforced rules - for instance, agents shouting at travelers for using cellphones in some arrival halls, while at others, such technology is treated as something other than a threat to the republic - and we give the strong impression of an authority-minded culture that's coming slightly unhinged.

Fortunately, there are secure, inexpensive ways to restore American values to our borders and show the world we're open for business. Let's remove ESTA's foolish questions and hold a contest to design a beautiful Web site.

Let's get rid of customs forms - saving money, trees and time - and do what many countries safely do: post customs limits to assist the law-abiding, and use intelligence and random searches to catch criminals.

And let's hire more border staff, to shorten lines and reduce the pressures on agents (a better use, perhaps, of ESTA's fee). For people skills, we might look to China. At Beijing's glittering airport, travelers are invited to electronically rate their immigration agent.

No country's border staff is perfect, as every traveler knows. But America - a land where strangers greet one another in elevators, waiters act as if they like you, stores deploy professional greeters and government serves the people - should aim to be the best. That means a smile or "hello" as we approach every agent, a "please" and "thank you" to bookend every official request and an occasional "welcome" as we cross a secure border.

Our guests deserve no less.

Mark Vanhoenacker is a writer and airline pilot based in New York.