(Un)welcome to the UK

I knew I was in trouble with Agent #3293 at London Heathrow’s Terminal 5 the moment she turned her eyes to me.

“Greeted” would be far too kind a description for the way she looked at me. Cold eyes, “fish eyes” I call the lifeless orbs that assessed me. She started right in.

I see you overstruck all these letters on the form. Were you bored?

No, my pen was running out of ink so I tried to make it clearer.

For the next 20 minutes her questioning became more probing, more edgy, and more judgmental as I felt myself slipping from the status of a 59-year-old guy traveling to the UK to meet up with his British-born wife to a “person of interest” in the global quest to assign guilt and responsibility.

She breezed past the openers (“where are you coming from,” “how long will you be here”, etc.) and, seemingly intrigued by something missing or present in me, got to work.

You are a writer. Who do you work for?

Myself.

So you don’t work for an organization?

No

So you’re freelance (she wrote freelance on my declaration form). What do you write?

Just about anything. Speeches, public relations, news, opinion, features.

What do you write about?

Just about anything. (Thinking: where am I? Myanmar?)

Do you have a specialty? You must have a specialty.

As I said, just about anything.

What is the last thing your wrote?

A remembrance of a friend who recently passed away.

Is it online?

Yes.

So you don’t have a specialty?

No.

You said religion?

No, I did not.

Her tone became more accusatory, more aggressive. I was on the defensive, tired after a sleepless overnight’s flight and annoyed at being treated like a criminal. I guess it showed, though I said nothing to reveal my angst or provoke her further.

Now things got really interesting.

Sir, you seem agitated. Is there a reason why these questions are bothering you?

Yes. I am tired. It’s been a long day, and I have never been subjected to this kind of questioning in all my years of traveling. So yes, I am concerned.

You are at border control. How do you think I am treated when I enter the US?

She shifted gears.

When are you leaving the UK?

March 2.

Where are you going?

To France.

Why?

To house sit in another place.

Do you have a flight out of England?

(Forgetting that Gabi had made a reservation). No, I don’t. We haven’t planned that yet.

You must be able to produce an itinerary to exit the UK, otherwise you will be delayed.

Hold on. Now I am being threatened with detention at Customs because I do not have an exit itinerary? In all my travels (except China and India, and there it was only a perfunctory requirement) I have never been required to produce proof that I wasn’t really a terrorist or a squatter seeking to take advantage of an unsuspecting host country, and that I truly planned to move on. As if I’d choose the UK if such a quest should be mine.

Here? At customs?

Yes.

Why? I’ve never been asked to produce an itinerary for my exit, and we haven’t booked that yet.

(I paused and remembered that Gabi had indeed booked a flight to France).

Oh, wait. I apologize. My wife did book a flight.

You must provide me with an itinerary.

I don’t have one. It’s online.

Well, you must produce it. Do you have a phone?Yes, but I don’t have a UK sim card yet.

(Expressing what I can only describe as contempt) We have free wifi.

I accessed the email and showed it to her, which clearly showed a Luton-Nimes flight.

Where is this flight going?

(Pointing). There. To Nimes.

Where is that?

In France.

Where in France?

Near Marseilles. (At this point she wrote numerous comments on the back of my declaration form about my travel plans and other answers I provided to her questions)

What is your wife’s name.

Gabrielle.

What’s her date of birth?

11-9-59.

Where is she now?

In London, waiting for me to arrive.

Why did you go to the US.

To attend the funeral of my friend.

(She expressed no condolences, no reaction at all, in stark contrast to the other border guards – notably, the US – who expressed sympathy for my loss.)

It was clear to me that I was at the hands of a border guard who had had a nasty experience entering the US and was bent on taking it out on me. Maybe I represented all she loathes: someone who is traveling the world, unrestrained by a job I despise or a life that I resent. Maybe she hates men, or Americans, or maybe simply American men.
Whatever her bias, it became obvious that I was the target of her disdain.

And I was powerless.

Part of me wanted to say, “Know what? You can take the UK, the border rules, your attitude and lousy job, and shove it. I’m turning around, buying a one-way flight to a friendly country and will spend my time, money and energy in a place as far from people like you as possible.”

That’s what I thought. What I said was quiet, calm, respectful, mindful that with the flick of her wrist she could have me into Secondary Inspection and in for a very, very long day.

My crime seems to have been complete honesty in answering her questions.

So you don’t have a job?

I am a writer, as I said.

And you don’t have a home.

No. I had a career in the States, retired and moved to Cambodia for nearly four years, and now my wife and I are traveling.

Why isn’t your wife traveling with you?

I left France so I could attend my friend’s funeral, and she remained at the place where we were house sitting.

Why were you in France?

To house sit.

Where do you live in the US?

As I said, I do not live in the US at the present.

You must have some things. Where are they?

I have a storage unit in Massachusetts with some personal belongings.

But you have no home address.

No.

And you have no home in the US.

That is correct.

She was running out of queries and I could see in her face that she was weighing her options, making a decision. She took one more shot at me.

Your passport is very full. There are a lot of visas.

Yes, as I said, we have been traveling. It’s been a lot of fun.

She glared at me.

She stamped my passport, and without so much as a wave or a greeting from her I had been granted entry into the UK.

But I remain unsettled, angry and unwilling to accept her treatment.

I am a writer. It’s what I do, so I’m writing about the experience. But I’m also a respectable US citizen who has been abused at the hands of an inappropriate and aggressive border guard, so I’m taking the case to the UK Border Protection’s complaints department.

We’ll see where this goes, but I am asking for a review of her questioning (I have it all recreated to the best of my ability and memory, in writing) and a formal reprimand of her for her unacceptable behavior.

I wonder what has happened to a world where this sort of treatment is more commonplace than any of us would imagine or wish. A quick Google search reveals tons of complaints just like mine.

I remember the smile from the border guard in Chongqing, China, upon our arrival there, and his halting English welcoming me to the Peoples Republic of China.

And I missed it desperately.

      19 comments

      • Sarath

        I bet she had problem at home she had no where to throw it but on you . Pity you . Maybe find her email send what you write to her she will feel regret. It really good experience

      • Yes, the only borders I have ever been hassles at (as an American) have been the Canadian and British ones. That said I have always been asked to show proof of onward travel when entering the UK, and was almost denied entry ones when I didn’t have the printout, so now I am very sure to always carry it.
        I also never tell people I’m a writer, I’ve been going with “student” for years now although I might be getting too old to pull it off…

      • will carless

        Hey Skip!

        Bummed you had such an awful entrance. That certainly sounds completely unprofessional and rude.

        Follow up, dude! Keep on them!

        Doubtless they will make it tiring, miserable, annoying and frustrating to get something done, but there will be a process to complain and you should do so.

        Who knows, maybe this jerk has been complained about twice already and three and she’s out.

        Keep at it. Don’t let em win!

        After all, you are a homeless, traveling “writer” with nothing better to do with your time 😉

        Love to you both

        Will

      • Rick R

        Whether she’d had a bad day at home or not, this seems to be fairly typical behavior for any official working in airports. god help you if you joke or complain to a TSA agent.

      • Heang

        You really do need a smart dress to avoid such an unexpected people and especially such a lady ha ha ha…

      • Michael

        Amazing and I love the British. Must be some rogue agent who should be fired on the spot. Bad name for England, bad name period, what a jerk.

      • Jeez. I apologize for this experience at the hands of a compatriot.

        Wasn’t that great for me either when I stepped off the Eurostar on the way to my mum’s for Christmas and got pulled to one side for having ‘a too recently booked ticket’ (I had missed my original Eurostar due to a cancelled connection).

        And then got searched and told there were traces of MDMA in my luggage.

        So I feel ya.

      • Wow – poor you. I hope you can get some satisfaction. I am glad you are sharing your story. Unfortunately as an Australian I had a similar situation when I entered USA in Hawaii. Grilled by a lady officer and nearly didn’t get in. I think it is a personality issue, not a country issue.

      • Steve L

        Were you wearing that keffiyeh again?

      • It’s unfortunate you has this experience. I had something similar entering New Zealand, a fellow commonwealth country!
        England is generally a friendly if reserved country. Come to Liverpool to see the friendliest people in the UK!
        I beg to differ about the food, I miss English food when travelling the world. You can’t beat a Sunday roast or fish and chips.

      • I was nailed by an American TSA agent in Frankfurt while waiting to board a flight to Denver about two years ago. He wanted to know if I’d had a chip implanted in my neck. Seriously. I must have answered “no” in a snotty way because in seconds he had alerted two other agents and told them I seemed irritated and out of sorts and then I got totally peppered with questions. Insane questions … things about my mother, my kids. It was total intimidation. I was very irritated but the longer it went on the calmer I got – which irritated THEM. All in all it was a horrible experience.

      • I too am a freelance writer (but I’m no sketchy writer -I have a specialty! travel!). I declared as much on my visa application to Myanmar. (No point in trying to hide it). My application was approved in less than 48 hours, I had no problems entering in Mandalay (polite, reserved, professional) and no one seemed too concerned about where I had gone or what I had done when I was leaving. In fact,the customs officer in Yangon had a giggle with me over my husband’s non-flattering passport photo. Who knew that a travel writer would have more trouble in the UK than in Myanmar.

      • I’m very surprised by your experience. Neither US, neithER UK border officers ever treated me badly, actually quiet opposite! They have always been polite and friendly. Having said all that there is always some percentage of error in this world. I think that taking it so far as UK Border Protection’s complaints department is a waste of very precious time and energy for you. Nothing will happen to her, those people have a full right to investigate, interrogate and ask the same questions for hours only on the slight suspicion. She will say you remind her someone from the wanting list and the case is over.

      • ingride

        This is when you wish you could have come up with some classic one liners to absolutely floor the lady in question….but I think you did remarkably well!!!!!!!

        It’s pretty sad that you have that kind of welcome on entering a country!!!!!!!How to win friends etc.

        You are right – she must have had a bad experience with an American….and we can fantasize why etc…….and be prepared should it happen to me …..

      • Suzie

        Don’t back down!! This is ridiculous. I believe that type of position breeds people who become extremely full of themselves. They are given power, even if only from 9 to 5, and use it abusively. Take her down, pal.

      • Jack

        You could have solved this by adding one word. “I’m a *talented* writer.” You would have been passed right through. It’s all in beaming forth the right attitude, Professor Yetter.

      • roger hudson

        Peace & love to you both from storm battered Eastbourne. I see Collette regularly and hear your peripatetic news!

      • I’m hitting 50% for this type of entry into the UK. First in 2001 as a student with all the student papers and again as a respectable university professor in 2009 where the agent in question peered at me through the reading glasses hanging onto his nose and said, “You? A university professor?”and then proceeded to berate me. The other two times have been easy-cheesy, no-hassles, welcome in type things.

        My take: In the UK (as in the US and probably a bunch of other countries) the job itself sort of invites a–holes to apply, sort of like being a police officer. However, like you, I’ve had all good experiences at country borders with the one exception of the UK. It’s like some of them go out of their way to be jerks.

      • Elizabeth Dawes

        This reminds me that all my entries to the U.K. since the 1980’s have been fairly nasty. Before my first trip, friends who used to live in the U.K. prepped me for what to expect. First, they said you’ll notice that all persons of color are guided to a different line. The segregation will unnerve you. Second, your Irish last name will be questioned (original or married?). Third, any passport stamps from the Irish Republic will be questioned. I experienced all of this. On a later trip with my teenaged brother in the early 1990’s, a customs agent’s inspection of my backpack included opening a package of feminine protection, unwrapping each piece, and fingering through the absorbent materials rendering the products contaminated and unusable. It was more humiliation than high security. And those were the good old days.

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