UK Border Control: Bests and Worsts, Mostly Worsts

Two stories about the UK border agency. First, the worst airport in London. Second, the immigration officer who not so subtly hinted I should leave the country.

1. THE WORST AIRPORT IN LONDON

Especially with the Olympics coming up and tourists already swarming in London now that it’s spring, there’s been a lot of talk about how awful the delays are getting through immigration at Heathrow. Reacting to that, there are the “What delay?” articles. As well as that great tool of lazy reporting, crowdsourcing.

I’ve had two visitors come in through Heathrow in the past week, and both of them said they breezed right through. So maybe Heathrow’s not so bad after all. Flying into Gatwick has never caused any problems, and Luton is by far the easiest: quick, painless and a straight shot to the bus. (By the way, for service from Luton, I love easyBus. If you arrive earlier or later than expected, they’ll put you on the next bus free of charge.)

Without a doubt, the absolute worst immigration control is at Stansted Airport.  Given all the heat that Heathrow’s been getting, a few media outlets have been analyzing Stansted too. This from the BBC:

A spokesman for the airport, owned by BAA, said: “The majority of passengers arriving at Stansted pass through border controls quickly and securely. However, at peak times, and similar to many other UK airports, immigration queues can be unacceptably long.”

Ha! Well, truth be told, getting through the EU/UK citizens line seems easy enough. But there is no airport in London quite like Stansted for discrimination against non-EU/UK passport holders.

Even when there were only eight people in front of me with two desks open in the “All Passports” line, I waited for an hour. No exaggeration. The people in front of me were Turkish passport holders who seemed like a group of family and friends, and each person who went to the desk had to talk to the immigration officer, wait while the officer called for help or verification, then sit off to the side until they were summoned elsewhere. Each took about ten minutes, and the officers kept getting up to leave the desk in between! Drive. me. crazy.

The second time, there were about fifteen people in front of me, with only one desk open. A group of Chinese students who were travelling together ran into the same situation: Desk. Wait. Call up. Sit to the side. Get summoned. Officer leaves with them. Students here on visa have to match up their fingerprints, and the system wasn’t retrieving any of theirs.

Stansted Airport. Worst.
Photo source: The Telegraph

Problems: (1) Too few officers. (2) Broken systems. And (3) inefficient design. The wheelchair access lane should not go through the All Passports line. No discrimination here against handicapped access, but for efficiency’s sake, when there are eight desks open on the EU/UK passports side, it would make more sense for everyone involved to have the handicapped access line be serviced there instead. (Wanting to be careful about how I described this, I took particular note of whether the people being served through the handicapped access lane were EU/UK citizens or not. And indeed, all handicapped access passengers are served through the “All Passports” side, including EU/UK citizens.)

As the line behind me grew longer—up to thirty or more—and still ten more to go in front of me, I could hear people sigh audibly every time our lone immigration officer had another holdup, or another handicapped passenger took precedence. And the crazy thing is, just when you get excited that a second immigration officer has come down to open another desk, once that desk is open, the other officer leaves!

Enough griping. How about something to be thankful for?

Well, with an American passport, when I do finally make it to the immigration desk, I answer two questions, match my fingerprints, and I’m outta there in thirty seconds. God bless America!

2. “PLEASE LEAVE NOW,” IN SO MANY WORDS

So much for the stereotype that Brits are polite.

Returning from Paris by Eurostar, I thought, on a 7.30am train there shouldn’t be bottlenecking at immigration (which you have to pass through as you leave Paris). But bottlenecking there was.

An American family—a girl studying abroad in London and her parents— was in front of me. The parents were flying out of Heathrow later that day, while the girl would stay on in London.

“When are you leaving the UK?” the officer asked.
“Today,” the parents replied.
“Where are your boarding passes?”
“We haven’t printed them out yet.”
“I need to see your boarding pass.”
“But we haven’t printed them—here, I have it on my phone.”
“No sir, we cannot accept electronic passes.”
“But our flight leaves today, we’re going to pick up the e-tickets—”
“I’m sorry, I need to see your boarding pass.”

The officer may as well have been a robot. How much more obvious could the circumstances be? After a few more minutes of fumbling, they, too, were summoned for further questioning. How long will you be in the UK? What time is your flight? And you, how long will you be studying in the UK? What are you studying? Where? 

When it was my turn, the immigration officer asked me:

“Where are you studying?”
“LSE.”
“Have you booked your flight back to the States?”

Excuse me? This was in early April, and my visa is valid through September. Time to pack those bags—apparently I’m not wanted here!

*Shakes fist*

EPILOGUE

I did make it onto my train with barely three minutes to spare, and the family scrambled on only moments before the doors closed. I know this because they happened to be in the same train car as I was, and they talked loudly about what had happened for forty-five minutes. On a 7.30am train. What sympathy I had for them vanished after the first fifteen minutes. Not a single other person was talking; most were sleeping. Fulfilling the stereotype that Americans are loud.

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8 thoughts on “UK Border Control: Bests and Worsts, Mostly Worsts

  1. I always feel so bad when I hear these customs horror stories. I usually breeze through customs everywhere in Europe because of my French citizenship. I understand in a post 9/11 world, security has to be tighter but seriously some immigration officers like to go on power trips–I think they secretly like holding up long lines!

  2. Heathrow is so freaking massive. Their employees are also, from my experience, a bit rough around the edges.

    A guard told me to “DON’T STAND THERE, KEEP IT MOVING, MATE!!!” when I bent over to lace up my shoes for a very brief moment while in line to have my bags x-rayed, etc.. Geeze…

  3. I once went through passport control with a damaged passport. The customs agent held it up with her fingertips and dangled it in the air like it was a moldy sock. I can’t remember if she also pinched her nose, but it would be a fitting image.

    1. Haha~ When you recount anecdotes, I can practically visualize them as one of your comics! I love that mental image. So on point.

  4. Immigration controls are no fun, that’s for sure. And I’ve seen the sad practice of replacing one officer with another instead of addin’ em up too many times. However, putting it back into perspective – I wonder what would a US customs officer say if I had no return ticket?

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