Anyone who has traveled to a foreign country or even merely boarded a plane has experienced security or immigration. It seems that even if you know that you have done absolutely nothing wrong it is still scary!
It’s the same feeling I get when a cop pulls up behind me as I am driving. I immediately look down at my speedometer and recount the last few minutes or driving. Was I speeding? Did I swerve wrong? Did I not stop completely? I did pay that registration….right?? In the more practical part of my mind I do realize that the officer is simply sharing the same road as me, and I have not broken any rules. It is just for the first few panicky moments, and perhaps until I finally see him drive out of sight that I am compelled to drive like the instructor is still sitting in the car beside me.
I don’t know what instills that sense of fear in us. Perhaps its too many Hollywood movies, and a secret desire for adventure. I can still remember the feeling of standing in line waiting for passport control to give me the stamp of approval. Standing there heart racing, and palms sweating always fearing that they will see something on my passport and not let me through, or deport or detain me.I know that the chances are slim to none, but it does happen. A friend of mine scared me plenty with her deportation story. She was deported from London back to San Francisco after not obtaining the correct visas in time. The London immigration was kind enough to put her on a plane home to San Francisco. Eventually, she figured everything out and is now living in Germany.
I traveled extensively throughout Europe only on a Tourist Visa. I knew there were ‘time’ rules and allotments, but I was also told by many that you only have to leave the country or Schengen District after 3 months and re-enter. That’s not entirely accurate according to visa laws, but it is pretty much shrugged off unless you’re causing trouble. My passport had so many ‘in’ and ‘out’ stamps into German airports it always made me nervous as I approached the passport control. I always feared that when the officer ran my passport through the scanner some big red alert would flash across his screen alerting him to my ‘technical’ overstay. It was my worst fear that I would be put on a flight back to the states without my belongings or so much as a goodbye to my family and friends. Or even worse perhaps be banned from the country, as in the stories my imagination schemed.
Luckily, it never happened. I can say the most nerve-wracking time would have been shortly after leaving Brugge and preparing to board the ferry at Calais. We were all lined up, our entire tour group, in the dreadful immigration line to enter the United Kingdom. Our group was multi-national with varied passports. In my travels I tended to notice more favor toward the European Union Passports, and then the American, and then the rest. I’m not saying anything derogatory toward the other countries, but an observation was merely less questioning generally for the former.
I think that is why this particular time was so nerve-wracking. There were 4 immigration officers all in a row waiting to stamp our entry into the United Kingdom. I did my usual assessment of the officers, looking to see who was in a good mood, and who looked like they were out for blood. (You know the look). In observing the poor souls in front of me I was able to quickly distinguish which line I really, really did not want to be in.
The very first officer to the left was definitely not who I wanted to meet. I watched and listened as he interrogated various tour members. There were several international students (Australians studying in the UK) and it seemed as if they were subjected to a serious inquisition. How long have you been here? What have you been doing? Where have you been? What are your plans? When are you leaving? When did you last go to the bathroom? (Well ok, I made that one up…but seriously). I think my heart rate elevated to a dangerous degree. Even though I knew I had not broken any serious laws at this point ‘technically’. I didn’t want to find out if he thought I did. As I stood there praying that the poor soul he was interrogating would take just long enough for me to get someone else…. I lucked out. I did.
Luckily, I got the man all the way to the right and he was very nice. I did get asked similar questions, but not as extensively. I did know that I was only days from my tourist visa expiration, and had quite a few interesting back and forth stamps on my passport. I didn’t know if this would be considered bad, or wrong….just like the policeman that pulls up behind me in the car, so I panicked. What did I do? I created some crazy, distracting story about how I was taking some last-minute trip before I get hitched and totally distracted him.. I lied. While, I am not proud of that moment… it worked. He stamped my passport for a 6 month entry into London..though I only needed a few days, congratulated me, and I was on my way. Of all my immigration memories this one stands out the most, because of that little “story” and how the immigration officer forgot to ask anymore questions or look at any of my stamps. He just sent me on my way to wipe the sweat from my brow travel onward.
Ironically, in all of my travels I had the most difficulty returning home. Pushing a cart of 3 suitcases/backpacks through the baggage claim at San Francisco airport toward customs and passport control attracted attention. I was immediately confronted with, “How long have you been gone?” “Where have you been?” “What were you doing?” “How did you pay for it?” “Do you work here in the States?”
I never thought I would have so much more of an issue with my own border than crossing another. I guess we can thank 9/11 for that one, sadly. I can still say that even with all of the experiences with sweaty palms, racing heart, and wildly imaginative scenarios racing through my head, that immigration fears are still not enough to hold me back. I know that every time I venture through those gates, and every new stamp on my passport is only the beginning of endless discoveries to come.
What is your scariest experience with security and passport control?