I had quite the experience trying to enter the UK The Time I Almost Got Deported.
After exploring the European continent for three months, time was up for me to return home—not by choice, rather because my visitor status was about to expire. Having almost been deported already, I wasn’t going to take any chances.
In true form of my last-minute travel “planning”, I purchased my flight home the day before I was set to leave. Only one caveat. Since tickets were extortionately high (maybe a bit my fault), it was cheaper to buy a return ticket rather than a one way. So there I was, ready to return to London—again—without any concrete plan two months down the road.
While home, I managed to get accepted into a graduate program in the UK, which was set to start at the end of September. After a whirlwind of university paperwork was complete, I paid my deposit and was all set to finish my student visa paperwork abroad.
Perfect! The return ticket purchased for September 2 was suddenly worth it. That would give me some time to straighten out my visa and maybe do a bit more traveling.
I was stoked. I sold everything—T.V., electronics, car and even the silver bullion I purchased when I had extra money to
waste spend. I needed every dime.
My life was jammed into a suitcase. After a tearful sendoff from my parents, I was off; next stop: London … via Los Angeles.
Goodbye, America. I don’t plan on seeing you for a while.
My plane landed at Heathrow around 1:00 p.m. local time. I had plenty of time to kill before meeting my girlfriend.
Having had some misfortune at the UK Customs window before, I approached with my air-tight, true story of why I intended to enter the country.
“I’ll be studying at Anglia Ruskin University. Here is my CAS Letter and proof that I paid my 3,000 pound deposit,” I confidently told the customs official.
“It looks like you were given a temporary visa a few months ago, Mr. Webb,” Mrs. Jobsworth pointed out.
There it was. She identified the glaring crossed-out entry stamp. A red flag and a warning that I could potentially be a border-jumping, leaching immigrant.
“If you are a student, where is your student visa?” she protested.
In hindsight, this is where I fucked up.
From what I had researched, you weren’t allowed to be issued a student visa while in the country.
I’ll just take a short, 10-hour bus trip to the US Consulate in Paris where I’ll be issued my visa.
Check mate, UK. I had your system figured out.
“I already had my plane ticket booked for today and wasn’t able to get my visa in time, that’s why I’m taking a trip to the US Consulate in Paris. Here’s my bus ticket,” I rebutted.
I could sense this was going south. The official couldn’t see how she could trust that I wouldn’t slip past the border and disappear into anonymity forever, dodging immigration officials and taxes alike.
I couldn’t see how she honestly thought I would waste 3,000 pounds on a deposit just to “sneak” into the country.
We were at a stalemate. I knew where this was heading. To the back I was sent—again.
Luckily Heathrow had some money to invest in electronic finger printing machines. Too bad they came up short of funds to provide training on how to use them. I spent nearly an hour watching two incompetent “officials” try to register my fingerprints.
You idiots, I’m already in the system.
The detainment center at Heathrow was much larger than Stansted’s. Clearly they use this room more often. I was offered a drink from their vending machine but declined the Starburst-flavored fruit juice.
There was another man in the room who looked like he had been there for quite some time. We chatted a bit. He pleaded his case to me that he “had a National Insurance number” and he “already lived in London before, so it shouldn’t be a problem.” He was confident. His story sounded dialed in, but it wasn’t for me to judge.
After a while, an official came in to tell the man he was being denied entry. He was due to be transported to the overnight detainment center in an hour. Shit that sucks.
His phone was running low on juice and he didn’t have a converter to charge it. I offered him mine. “Keep it,” I said, “you’ll need it more than me.”
In return he handed me a business card as a sign of gratitude. “Thank you. Maybe we can stay in touch.”
I made a friend with Kwame that day, a General in the Sierra Leone Army, according to the title on his card. Complete opposites, we were about to have more in common than I had hoped.
Around 6:00 p.m., the official who originally flagged me at the window pulled me into a room.
“Mr. Webb, you are being denied entry to the UK because blah, blah, blah.” …
I didn’t need to hear any more. What was going to happen to me? Was I still going to be able to study? Does that mean my girlfriend and I have to break up because I won’t legally be allowed to be in the same country as her!?
The situation could have been worse. At least I wasn’t getting banned from the UK for 10 years like they claimed. I was just being sent back home. Unfortunately, the next available flight was the following morning at 7:30. I was to be transported to the overnight detainment center. Maybe I would be reunited with my friend Kwame.
I had to call my girlfriend. “Sorry, Charlotte, but I’m being sent home. I won’t be able to see you tonight. I don’t know when I’ll be able to see you. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
I did the only thing that seemed right at the time. I cocooned myself in a linty blue blanket under the world map stretched over the wall and tried to forget the madness. A few hours later I awoke; still in the depressing detainment center at Heathrow; still under the world map. Looks like it’s time to bone-up on geography.
At 10:30 p.m., I was loaded up in a paddy wagon, nothing more than a box on wheels. We made a stop and picked up another unfortunate traveler. This time it was a man from Mauritius. I knew where that was now because I was studying the massive map on the wall back at the detainment center! He did nothing wrong as well. Now I understand why all prisoners are innocent.
Upon arriving at my hotel for the night, I had to be registered, along with five or six others. Since my flight was the earliest of the bunch, I was sent to the front of the line so I could “try and get some sleep.” How considerate of them.
The check-in took forever. I had to see a nurse before being admitted to my cell. They had to make sure I wasn’t a danger to anybody else or myself. They asked if I had suicidal tendencies. I was handed my “case file” in a large envelope. Guess they didn’t think I was a nut.
I made a few more friends while waiting, then was introduced to my new cellmate, Diptish (or something like that) from Bangladesh. Like everybody else I had met that day, Diptish was innocent. He was dressed in a full tuxedo.
“I was on my way to my wedding to marry my girlfriend from Slovenia. We have been living together for three years. They didn’t think this was going to be a real wedding,” he confessed to me.
Sorry, Diptish, but your story sounded way too rehearsed.
We chatted a bit in our cell; a cement box with an unplugged T.V. and a tiny slot on the door, presumably where food was to be slipped through.
Diptish continued to plead to me that his wedding was real. He didn’t understand that it wasn’t up to me to decide his fate.
I pleaded to him that I was actually planning on studying and my intentions on entering the UK were also legitimate. We were on the same team.
Probably around 2:30 a.m. I fell asleep—Diptish on the top bunk in his tuxedo and me on the bottom bunk, covered in blue lint.
At 5:00 a.m. there was a loud bang on our cell door. The food slot opened. “Mr. Webb, you’re ready to be transferred.”
I rolled out of bed. My dream was over. I fumbled for the light to collect my belongings, then remembered everything was confiscated upon entering.
“Later, Diptish. Good luck with your wedding,” I whispered before leaving.
I was walked across the complex to another room where I was greeted by a few other fellow “border jumpers”. Breakfast time. We were handed bags with chips, apple slices and a cheese sandwich. At least we received a continental breakfast.
“What are you doing here?” the man handing out the breakfast bags asked me. Clearly I didn’t look like the rest of the guys in the room.
“I didn’t have my student visa,” I gave him the condensed version. I don’t think he was used to seeing Americans at work.
I sparked conversation with the guy next to me. He had been there for three days. I felt lucky. Then I took another bite of my cheese sandwich and found a hair. Breakfast was over.
“Muhammed,” a voice from the processing window called out, “come forward, please.”
One, two, three, … Six. There were six people in the room. Exactly half stood up after hearing their name called.
The man at the window quickly realized his mistake. “Uh, Muhammed … Islam.”
There we go, now we’ve narrowed it down. Two returned to their chair while Muhammed Islam continued forward to the window.
Finally it was my turn. I was given my bags to load up in another paddy wagon. The drivers were confused when they saw me. “What are you doing here?” they questioned. By now I realized this was going to be a theme.
I entered airport security at on offsite building. My bag was scanned and I went through the typical steps: take off your shoes, remove everything from your pockets, etc.
After my bag was scanned, I was put back in the paddy wagon and driven to my terminal. An official collected me. It was his job to not let me out of his sight, you know, because I was a threat and all. He escorted me through another security checkpoint, this time the one with all the other passengers. For the first time in nearly a day I felt normal.
I made my last friend of this trip. Unfortunately I never caught his name. He wasn’t used to dealing with Americans at his job either. After explaining to him the story, he assured me that everything would be fine, he’s “seen similar situations before”.
My escort offered me a chance to go through Duty Free, in case I wanted anything for the plane. This was clearly against protocol, but he knew he could trust me.
I received rockstar treatment. I passed everybody waiting in line and was walked all the way to the sky gate. My escort handed the flight attendant a sealed manila envelope and instructed her to give it to me only after we were airborne.
First class had already boarded. They were on their first glass of complementary champagne from United. I was on a complementary flight home from United.
Nearly five minutes after the wheels were off the ground and the seatbelt sign was turned off, a flight attendant approached with the envelope. Inside was my passport and ticket for the next leg of my flight; Los Angeles to Sacramento. As if I hadn’t waited enough, I would be holed up in LAX for another three hours before the last 50-minute leg of the race home.
I planned on getting wasted on the flight. After everything, it was worth it. I drank a beer. Before getting another one, I shut my eyes to try for at least 30 minutes of rest. I cocooned myself again in another linty blanket, shutting myself off from the rest of the world.
I awoke when the flight attendants were making their rounds collecting garbage before we made our descent. I hibernated. I went to sleep in London and woke up in Los Angeles. I was exhausted.
Nearly two days later, I was back at the Sacramento airport, wearing the same clothes as when I left. Only now they had accumulated a significant layer of lint and possible stench from not having showered in two days.
Three weeks later, I made my second attempt to enter the UK. This time I had the required visa in my passport. I hoped I would get the same official who denied my entry the last time; a big F-U would be coming her way.
I made my way forward to the window. It was a man. Since my name was in the system—twice now—and having been sent through the ringer in my last ordeal, I was again set aside to wait.
For nearly an hour I waited for the officials to review my case. Everything checked out. I was a legitimate international student with a valid visa. I was granted entry and rushed away before they could change their minds.
I collected my luggage and my girlfriend collected me. I was off to write a new chapter in my life.