Detained in London — I’m an Idiot

Written as a dumb, naive 21-year-old. Please don’t roast me too hard.

Photo by Phil Mosley on Unsplash

** Republished from 2016, please don’t call me an idiot. I already know. **

In the Salzburg international airport, I sat quietly. I was in fear; a fear of London.

There was something about the city I was scared of. I hadn’t felt as intimidated about travel as I had since I first left home.

I was nervous to return to an English-speaking country. Would it be harder for me to communicate in my own language being away for so long? Still, it’d be nice to be able to read signs and menus.

The beginning of my experiences in London started off rough. I had a suspicion I’d have difficulty entering the United Kingdom. Based on stories I heard from others in similar situations as me.

I was in Europe on a 90-day traveling visa. It’s something automatically granted to all United States citizens. Those 90 days were extended because I was studying in Malta. I was granted to the end of my semester but not a day longer.

I did a lot (A LOT) of research about ways to extend my tourist visa even further. I planned to do some backpacking after the semester.

Thinking through some crazy scenarios, I decided I would fly out of the Schengen Zone for a weekend and come back to Malta with a stamp that renewed my 90 days in Europe.

The technical rule is: any American citizen can be in the Schengen Zone for up to 90 days on a free tourist visa. After the 90 days have expired, you must leave the Schengen Zone for another 90 days before returning to renew your passport stamp.

However, I read in numerous travel blogs that it is a very loose policy. As long as you have a stamp notifying that you left the Schengen Area before your 90 days expired, you should be allowed to travel freely in Europe for an additional 90 days with no problems.

Note: I don’t advise working around visa restrictions even if it seems full-proof. This was in my early and naive years as a traveler. Just follow the rules, dummy.

That is what led me to spend four days in Sofia, Bulgaria; to renew my stamp.

This isn’t a legal option. I knew I would be traveling on an overstayed visa. I knew it could result in severe penalties including fines, bans, and future travel privileges being revoked.

I was timid to take this chance, but it was my last option. Besides, my thought process was that, if caught, I could always play dumb about the visa rules. That’s what I thought anyway. . .

My plan worked! I traveled around Europe by train and bus for several months without a single concern. The unforeseen problem was the fact that that travel was done within mainland Europe. I never had to take a plane. The United Kingdom, it turns out, checks passports a little more thoroughly.

As soon as I arrived, I was questioned at customs for 45 minutes. Finally, I was detained inside Stansted Airport of London.

I knew right from the get-go that I was talking to the strictest border patrol officer. She was letting people enter at a snail’s pace compared to other officers. By chance, I was called to her line with an expired visa and I knew there was going to be some delay.

I remained calm, which was key. Even after they took my passport for further background checks.

I started to worry when they put me in their airport “playpen” for detainees. I’m not kidding; their detainee area was literally like a big crib for adults. It was comical.

There were a couple of old Eastern European men who joined me. They could only argue their case in broken English.

They asked me invasive questions as well as having me tell my “story” to three different security personnel. Then, took me to an ATM to show them proof that I had the means to stay in London. This all made me feel inferior.

Luckily, after about a two-hour delay, I was allowed to enter. Only because I had proof that I had already booked my flight home in a week. That was the only reason I was able to avoid any sort of punishment.

Note: I was a dumb 21-year-old at the time of writing this. Just don’t fuck with the laws in other countries. It’s that simple.

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