That one time I was almost rejected by the U.K. Border Patrol and detained for 4 hours without any outside contact.
Disclaimer: This event is my recollection of a very long day, and the details have blurred a little. I have reconstructed what happened to the best of my memory. The story needs no stretching, I have not added anything fantastical or extra to make it sound any worse than it was. If anything, details have been omitted.
Nov. 24th, 2015 07:20 GMT+1
It was travel, like any other day.
I woke up at 07:00 – okay, fine, it was 07:20 after hitting snooze – packed only the bare necessities into my backpack (RyanAir baggage limits and all).
I said goodbye to Melina and hopped onto the local bus route with Chris.
“Today’s going to be an interesting day,” we both agreed. At the time we thought we just meant how weird we were going to get by the end of everything. You see, we have a habit of never-ending, strange conversations by the end of long days… and we were both already tired and feeling a bit odd.
The first bus took us to the Trier Hauptbahnhof, where we hopped on the PostBus, which would lead us directly to the Köln Bonn Flughafen by a bright and early 13:30.
The flight didn’t depart until 21:50. Eight hours to kill at the airport. Outlets, wifi, and snacks. No problem.
Already, the day took a turn for the worse as Chris had to handle some serious family issues. This lasted for hours. Emotions ran high. We made it to about 19:00, when we decided was a good time to check-in and get through security.
“We might as well see what’s on the other side!” we pointed out, eager for a change in scenery.
The RyanAir desk was small. A woman asked if she could help us. I waved our home-printed tickets towards her, asking “Is there anything we need to do to check-in? To get our boarding passes?”
“Nope!” she grinned condescendingly, “Those are your boarding passes.”
We shrugged and turned to security. It wasn’t a long line. They pulled my bag aside. “Any knives?” Just clippers and a tiny pair of sewing scissors, I said. “May we search your bag?” Sure.
They searched my bag. The found my sewing kit. Nothing they cared about. “Here’s your bag.”
Moments later, Chris was being asked to remove his shoes. Then they pulled his bag over. “Any knives?” Not that he knew of. “May we search your bag?” Sure. Chris forgot one of his old pocket knives was deep in one of the pockets of the bag. They led him away in an ominous procession, only to have him surrender the knife to a deposit box. No problem.
The ordeal felt incredibly long, at the time.
“I was positive they were taking me away to cavity search me,” Chris shook his head as we walked away.
Moments later, I was reviewing the board passes for the rest of our flight information. Great. It said we needed to go to the RyanAir check-in desk before passing through security to get a stamp to confirm our passports were checked. Otherwise, there’s a 60€ fee.
We took turns watching our pile of belongings while the other left the secured area, got their stamp, and returned through the security line. It was tedious, to say the least.
Finally, we got to passport control. A smile, a nod, and an exit stamp later, we were to our terminal.
It was sometime after 20:30. We were hungry, and had planned on eating to kill the last hour. Oddly, there was nothing available on this side of the passport control gate. And so, we waited without food.
21:50 came and went. A long line formed to wait for the plane. We didn’t bother moving yet.
Eventually, they began boarding the plane. We waited until the line grew smaller. Finally, on the plane. Where we sat, and waited some more. “I wonder if we’ll make our bus booking into the city,” I frowned at the clock.
This was the McDonald’s of planes. It was not comfortable to spend any extra time in. This is what you get for a 12 USD flight.
“Well, if it takes off now, we might just make our bus,” I followed up.
The plane began to move. “It’ll be close,” Chris mumbled.
“I just want some real fish and chips. I’m so hungry.”
Nov. 24th, 2015 22:45 GMT
One shockingly uncomfortable hour later, we were landing.
I checked the time as we touched down. If we were quick, we could still catch the bus.
It felt I couldn’t get off that tiny plane fast enough.
Out of the plane. Through the hallways. Oh, right, we have to fill out an entry form. I’d filled so many of these out by now that I didn’t think twice about this. At least the line for border control was short, we should be through in no time.
“Yes, they’ll want an address, we’ll just put one of the places we’re staying,” I told Chris absentmindedly.
We scribbled out our forms. Down the queue. “I think I messed up the lines on this,” I mentioned as I reviewed my card.
“Yeah, I definitely didn’t use block letters. It’ll be embarrassing if we have to re-fill these out.”
“Eh, it’s not so bad, I’ve had to do it before. It’s usually not a problem.”
At the front, already. A woman in her mid-50s with mousy brown hair called me over.
I grinned, handing her my passport, still thinking about that bus. “Good evening,” she said.
“Good evening,” I answered cheerily, “And how’s your day?”
We made small chit-chat as she peered through my passport. It started out with the usual questions about my purpose for travel and intended length of stay.
“Are you traveling alone today?” she asked wearily. I’d been asked this a million times on my travel with Emma, so I naturally gestured towards Chris.
“I’m traveling with my friend Chris, here.”
And so began our dual interview. It continued as she went through our border control cards.
“Freelancer? What kind of freelancer?” she pointed at my entry.
“Oh! Web designer and developer.”
She didn’t seem pleased with this. “And you?” she looked pointedly at Chris, “What kind of engineer are you?”
“And your job? When do they expect you back?”
“I am a student.”
“So, you don’t have a job,” she pinched her brows together. She turned to me. ”Where did you fly in from today?”
“What were you doing there?”
“So you know some German, then?”
“Ein bisschen,” I answered. That’s when everything took a strange turn. She squinted at me before speaking again.
“Wie lange werden Sie bleiben?” she spoke so quickly I didn’t realize she was speaking German.
“Wie lange werden Sie bleiben?” she said a bit louder.
It took me a few moments to process what was happening. Bleiben. Couldn’t remember that word. But I heard how long. I took a stab at the right answer.
“Ein Monat,” came out of my mouth very painfully.
“Okay, I believe you.” She leaned back in her chair. ”Now, I’ve backpacked before, so I’m actually probably more lenient than others you would have gotten here.”
Usually, if you have to tell people that you are lenient, you’re probably not actually very lenient.
“Now, the problem, is that we get a lot of young backpackers like yourself who are staying over in the Schengen Area, and come over here to avoid running out their visa time. They just run around here to avoid being there, and we really don’t like that. They’re just border-hopping. It’s not right.”
We failed to see the illegality of that, provided these young backpackers and ourselves were operating within the limits of visa restrictions and actually leaving the country on time. Of course backpackers are border-hopping. That is literally what traveling is.
She only got more rigorous after that bizarre statement.
She wanted financial information. She asked to see bank statements. To be fair, I didn’t have a lot to my name as I usually make just enough as I go along my travels. Chris had a fair lump of change in his account.
“How do you expect to survive in the U.K. with essentially only 500 US dollars?” she questioned, indignantly. “I’m very disappointed in you, I can see you’ve been to the U.K. before, you should know how this works.”
“I have always made enough to get me through with my freelancing. In the worst case scenario, Chris has offered to help me in an emergency.”
“And are you two a couple?”
“No, we’re good friends and have traveled together the last 2 months.” I knew as I said it that Chris thought I should have said yes. It would have been easier. Simpler. Things would have been smoother. But I felt she would have questioned us about our relationship. Details. Stories.
“And why would he support you then?”
“He hasn’t had to. As I said, I freelance. I make enough as I go.”
“And you’ve known each other, how long? Where did you meet?”
“We worked in close quarters together for four months over the summer just outside of Yellowstone. We’ve been traveling together ever since.”
None of this pleased her. She wanted to know about our outward tickets. We hadn’t booked any. She told me I wouldn’t be able to live and then afford to fly myself out. She drilled us on our plans in the U.K.
She kept reminding us that she acted as gatekeeper for all of England, Scotland, and Ireland. “If you are denied entry into the next country, I am the one who gets in trouble for it.”
Chris and I maintained politeness as much as possible.
“So, let’s go over your plan for the U.K. – this address, is this, what is this?”
Chris and I rarely made plans, only we had actually made plans and booked some of our trip ahead. We had real dates and locations, people we were staying with, hostels we had booked, coaches we were taking.
Step-by-step, we walked her through the plan. Everything was going okay until we got to Ireland.
“And, after Dublin, what then?”
“We are staying with a family in Letterkenny.”
“How do you know them?”
She stopped everything, pursed her lips together, and sighed heavily. At this point I had lost all hope for making our bus.
“So you don’t know them.”
“It’s from a reputable website with reviews from multiple other people who have stayed with them.”
“And you’ll be working for them? Do you know you’re traveling on a tourist visa and cannot be working?” she stated, and then directed at me, “You, I’m not sure what you’re doing with your freelancing is legal, either. We’ll come back to that.”
“We are not working traditionally, we are not earning money here, merely trading a few hours of volunteering in exchange for food and board.”
“Do you know what the weather will be like? In Ireland? In December? It’s going to be pretty foul. Pretty. Foul.” She punctuated her words as if it would change our answer.
“Yes, we know the weather will be terrible. We still wanted to experience it.”
“I still think that this sounds illegal. Have you looked up the visa requirements for this sort of arrangement? I’m not sure that you can do this. We also have had quite a lot of trouble with people heading out for work and being turned into slaves. They go off to a remote farm somewhere and then they are forced into labor all day and aren’t allowed to leave. As such, I’m also concerned for your safety.”
We briefly defended the legality of WorkAway.
“I think you need to research your visa laws a bit better,” she told us matter-of-fact. “Now, I need to take care of some of these people behind you. I’d like to talk to you a bit more. So, I’m going to fill out this piece of paper and ask you to sit over here in this holding area.”
She guided us to a small pen sitting just in front of the entry gates. I took a longing glance at the entry gates. How could we be so close to our destination, yet so far?
We waited about half an hour.
I messaged a few people to see if they would testify that I would be able to obtain a flight home with their help in case of emergency or the complete depletion of my funds. My phone was dying, already down to 38% and the charger to my phone only worked if I held the cord just so and pinched it with my fingers. Up one percent. Lost charge. Down one percent. Up one percent. Down two. This was not a good day for the cable to need replacing.
She finally called us back to the counter.
Taking out the first passport, she began to say, “I’ve decided to grant you access to the U.K. provided that you will actually leave, I am still not sure about this WorkAway thing but if you are not earning money I will let you go. It’s a lot of paperwork to actually turn you away and I’ve just started the nightshift.” She held up the passport, saying, “This stamp means that you had to go through more than just the regular interview. If someone asks whether you had trouble, just explain to them the situation. Now, it also says 6 months, but I expect you to leave when you said you would – in one month. I don’t want to find you here past that. We will be watching your movements through the U.K.”
She handed the passport to Chris. I eagerly awaited as she went to grab my passport. My heart sank when she began speaking again.
“Now you, I’m still not pleased with. I’m going to be putting you into detainment until I can speak with you further.” She led me back to the pen. “I have to clear this whole block of people, so it will be a while. Please pull up whatever you can to prove your income situation. My colleagues may come by,” she said cryptically as she walked away.
My phone was already down to 22%, the cord was even less reliable now. In desperation, contacted a regular client to ask for a statement regarding future work so I could prove my potential for earning money. I tried to get PayPal to load my monthly statements for various months through the year. I took screenshots of my bank account over the summer. None of my finances looked very good, as I’ve always earned exactly as much as I’ve needed as I traveled.
Nov. 24th, 2015 23:52 GMT
It was all too soon before two agents came to the pen for me.
I was still in the middle of explaining to my client the statement I needed from him, as two agents arrived and asked me to come with them. They didn’t say much. “Bring your things.”
I shoved my phone and its failing charger into the bag and bundled up my jackets. One agent walked in front of me, the other behind me. They led me to a small hallway, into a small room. “Leave your things outside the room.”
After some hesitation, I did as they asked. I wasn’t comfortable leaving my things there. I wasn’t sure what was going on.
“Take a seat. The woman who has been dealing with you is about ready for you.”
So, I waited.
There were no clocks. I listened as a crying woman in the next room over was denied entry. “You’ll be put on the next flight back,” she was told coldly.
Agents and officials walked in and out of the office across the hallway. Paperwork. Standing idly. Long conversations. Pacing. Other folks like myself passed my room, always looking at me a bit odd. I watched at least one other detainee arrive and leave in the time I sat there.
The room was small, painted white, and had only a small wooden table with a conference phone and four metal chairs.
I kept waiting. I was getting antsy. Would my phone die? Would they have a way for me to access the things she asked for? Why wasn’t I allowed to have contact with anybody?
I tried to maintain composure. My leg always bounces, even when I’m not nervous. I tried some breathing exercises. I mentally reviewed my life story, the aspects that would help normalize my strange travel history and background, I rehearsed so many different ways to make everything okay. I tried thinking about what it was she wanted from me. My mind raced with what I would do if I had to return to Germany right now.
Nobody came for a long time.
About 35 minutes later, an agent who had passed me several times gestured at me to her colleagues. “Whose is this? She’s been there a while.”
She poked her head in the door. “Can I get you something to drink? Water? Tea? Coffee?”
I instinctively started to turn down her offer, and thought better of it. “Actually, coffee would be great.”
When she returned with the coffee, she asked if there was anything else I needed, if I was feeling okay. “Do you know what’s going on?”
“No, actually, not really,” I answered. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
“Ah, so what will happen is that they will come and search your bags, and search you. It may take a little bit. If your agent still hasn’t been able to interview you, we’ll move you to the room next door where there are seats, blankets, and food.”
“Oh good, I haven’t had the chance to eat in a while.”
“Did you want something now?”
“That would be great,” I said. She returned a moment later to tell me there weren’t sandwiches at the moment, but give it 5 minutes and there would be more.
5 minutes came and went.
A little while later, the two agents who had guided me into the room sauntered past my window. They shrugged, saying they might as well do this now.
They came into the room with my backpack and jackets. “We’re going to search your bags now.”
Searching my jackets, digging through the backpack, reviewing whether I had weapons or anything to report to customs, writing down my belongings down on a sheet of paper.
“This is all you packed?”
“Yep. As you can see, I didn’t exactly plan to stay for very long.”
“Do you have a purse?”
“You mean you don’t have any money or cards with you?”
“Oh, I have a wallet.”
“Right – I forgot you don’t call those purses in the States,” the woman laughed.
They itemized the single U.S. dollar still in my wallet, along with my debit cards and driver’s license.
“Please come with us. Leave your things.” I don’t like leaving my things.
Again, one led in front of me, and one followed behind as they walked me into a room. They took what felt like a mugshot, and then fingerprinted me. Then the returned me to the room.
A little while later, a peppy young woman who looked about my age entered the room. She had a very different attitude about her. “Oh! I was supposed to bring you a sandwich. I remembered, like, 30 seconds before I walked in the room. I am so sorry. We’ll get you one just after this.”
She smiled a lot and was very jolly. However, it concerned me as she had two thin, tapering rubber sticks with strange bases on the end. As she spoke she began putting on latex gloves. “I’m going to have to ask you a few questions, and fill out this form, which I’ll explain in a moment,” she gestured at more paperwork, I guessed medical.
“What is going on, exactly?” I hoped I could avoid the inevitable somehow. “I’ve never had this happen before.”
“What’s about to happen, it’s only going to get weirder. Trust me, this has never happened to you.” Oh, great.
Because, sure. Doctors are always jovial to try and relax you, I thought to myself. This was it. I was actually about to be searched. Like, really, t_ruly_… searched.
“So, I’m in charge of making you feel better. I have to fill this out, itemize a few things, and tag your bags. After that I can take you to a much more comfortable room, and all that. There you can have 5 minutes free on the phone, as well.”
As she spoke I managed to take a better look at the form. Not medical. Thank god.
“I just, I’ve never been in a situation like this. I always play things pretty cool and I never have legal trouble so all of this is really overwhelming.”
“Yeah,” she grimaced, “A lot of times that’s the case.”
“Is there any way I could charge my phone there as well? My cable is not working and my phone is nearly dead, and the agent interviewing me wanted documents that I have on there.”
“Depending on your phone, you might be lucky! I’ll see what we can do.”
The rubber sticks turned out to be fancy tags for baggage, not probing devices. The latex gloves were merely cautionary as she went through a few of my things again and checked my wallet for razor blades. She did a light pat-down over my clothes.
Then it was over.
Nov. 25th, 2015 00:20 GMT
The waiting room was a relative palace.
She led me into the nicer room. She got me a sandwich, water, and soup. She showed me where the rest of the food was. There were toilets. Albeit, toilets that felt like prison toilets. I guess I’d already had a mugshot and my fingerprints taken.
“I have no idea how long it may take, so you should get comfortable,” she said as she left me in the room.
Shortly, she also helped me get my phone on a charger. Once the phone was out of use, she allowed me to access the contact information on my phone to call Chris.
Thankfully, he answered.
“Hey! So, I don’t have much time,” I told him. “I wanted you to know I’m in detainment and things don’t look good, so I think you should go into London and I wanted to give you the contact information for our first host. Just in case. I’ll let you know as soon as I do whether I’ll be making it in.”
As I waited in the room, I chatted with a Brazilian girl. She was waiting for her deportment flight back to Bulgaria. I tried to keep things light with her so that both of us would feel better. She had all sorts of Christmas and New Years plans in the U.K. with her boyfriend and all their friends, but now she was going to have to figure something else out. “I’m really glad you’re here, it’s good to have someone to talk to,” she told me.
About an hour later, I was told I would finally have my interview soon.
The original agent came in with a folder and asked me to follow her. We returned to the first small white room. “Take a few,” she said. I figured this was British for, “Have a seat.”
“Since I’ve held you in detainment, we must conduct a formal interview where I will write down everything we say. We may go over some of the same questions again.”
“No problem.” I was going to make this as easy on myself as possible.
We covered the basics. We covered the logistics. We got back to my freelancing.
“To be clear: I travel for pleasure. My freelancing work is based from a personal brand in the U.S. and I have done it since 2007. I do not stay places to live and work illegally, I travel through and take care of my work as necessary. I am only contributing to the economy of places I visit. I only work just as much as I have to in order to pay for what I need,” I explained. This was not travel for business.
“So, you fund your lifestyle.”
“That’s illegal. You can’t do that in the U.K. or other European countries. See, your friend Chris doesn’t work but he saved a lot of money before traveling. And frankly, he looked a little shocked when you said he would support you.”
I was the one feeling pretty shocked at this point. I was staying completely above board and honest about my means, and I had done a lot of research to make sure that I was staying legal. I never travel with the intention to make a life somewhere specific, and I can’t simply ignore my clients or the software I create based on the fact I am traveling. If I were ever to stay somewhere to live and work, I would get the appropriate visa.
“I didn’t realize that. This has all been a very big mistake. I love to travel. It is in my best interest to stay legal and safe everywhere I go. The last thing I want is to cause trouble or do things illegally.”
She gave me a long look to evaluate me after that statement. “Lets go over all of the countries you’ve been to, along with the dates and times.”
My breath cut short as I realized she was serious.
Was she really going to expect me to have memorized every single place I traveled in the last 2 years? With the exact dates? Did she think I was a spy with oddly specific memory about these kinds of things? Never in my life had I needed to have any kind of alibi from memory. This is why I post things to social media – all the details get bookmarked for me. I can let the details slide.
I began to try and recall my movements from the U.S. since the beginning of 2014. It wasn’t a good start that I forgot my 3 week trip was a separate event before my 9-month stint around the world began.
She pulled out 2 sheets of paper with chronological notes she had drawn up based on my passport stamps.
We reviewed everything in full detail. I had to explain the digital passport entry through Australasia. She ranted about how irritating it was as she couldn’t verify when anyone had done that. At this point I realized she wasn’t angry at me about this, just angry in general.
“And where do you call home, exactly?”
“How do you mean? I haven’t had an apartment for a while.”
“Where is all your stuff?”
“I don’t really have stuff. It’s with me, for the most part. I have a box of important items in California with my mother. Otherwise it’s usually all with me. I don’t like to stay places. And I don’t intend to stay here, either.”
We discussed my entire life inside and out of the U.S. since 2014. House sitting for friends. My bicycle tour. Living and working in Yellowstone.
As our conversation continued, I pointed out that I was being very honest, that I have a good travel history without visa violations, and that my light packing should clearly indicate that I really wasn’t planning to be here long. I just wanted to see London, re-visit some of my favorite cities, and experience a real version of Ireland. I hadn’t booked a flight back because I was still picking the best date with the best combination of transportation, and I always travel very strategically.
“As you can see, when I look at your finances and your instability, I have no real reason to let you enter the U.K. as it appears you can’t support yourself. I want to hope for you that Chris is waiting for you out there and everything will be fine. But what if he’s not? What if things go wrong?”
“If everything goes wrong, that is why I always make sure I have some kind of fallback.”
“How old are you? 26? Isn’t that a bit old to be relying on your parents?”
“I haven’t had to. Of course I’ve visited and stayed there every now and again. But I’ve always made things work,” I swallowed. This was starting to feel really personal. She also questioned the validity of my step-father and mother, how long had they been married? How did my step-father feel about having to vouch for me?
She spread her hands over the paperwork. “None of this looks good. But I’m going to discuss everything with my colleague about your freelancing and your situation. We’ll see whether this is above board. I hope you can understand I don’t have much to go on for you.”
“And I completely understand that. I can’t tell you it looks good. I’m not going to argue with you. You are right. The numbers look terrible, and I know that. That doesn’t change who I am and that I will leave on time, one way or another. Even if I need to buy myself a ticket and fly right back to Germany to satisfy you, at this point I just want to keep my travel record clean. I love to travel and I don’t want to cause issues here or have to explain them in the future. Let me know what I can do.”
She just kind of shook her head.
I added, “When I traveled before, things were a bit more planned for me and now I am learning my lessons the hard way.” My voice was starting to tremble a bit and I was really trying not to have a melt-down. “I will not be making this mistake again.”
She finalized our interview paperwork and had me sign it.
I was returned to the waiting room. The Brazilian girl asked me how it went. “At this point, I can’t know. I’m hoping that she just wants to freak me out and will let me in. But I don’t think I should really hold out hope.”
“Yeah. That’s what I thought. But here I am with a flight back.”
We waited in relative silence after that. Suddenly, the agent was back. She looked pleased with herself as she motioned me out of the room with her head.
I leapt up, still expecting the worst. This was it. I was convinced she had come to send me back to Germany.
I couldn’t believe my ears as she told me she was going to let me through.
“You’re in,” she said, “I think I understand your situation, but next time you need to be much more prepared.”
“Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you so much.” I gathered my belongings. After explaining to me the terms of my visa entry and that I received the same stamp that she gave Chris, she led me to the entry gates. Everything was empty. The airport was eerily quiet.
“The busses don’t run again till 05:00. I recommend you wait here until then.” It was 03:00. “I hope that Chris is out there waiting for you.”
I practically ran out of there. I texted Chris that I got through. He was still at the airport. It was finally over. I made it out. I was in the U.K. – but only just barely.
The moral of this story is, traveling is hard when you don’t travel with loads of cash all at once. And, don’t fly into London. They don’t like backpackers.