UK Employment: England Border Officials Turned Me Away

England, Leaving & Coming Home, Solo Travel, Travel Philosophy, Working Abroad — By on December 2, 2010 at 6:00 am

Many people dream of working abroad in England. For Americans, British work visas are harder than ever to obtain, even with the promise of sponsorship from a British company. Lost Girls Maggie Parker was set to work in England–her dream country. She had a job lined up, a company to back her, and just a tiny problem of overlapping dates that she assumed could slide by the customs officials with a little fib. But, her plan was all too good to be true. She discovered that even the whitest of lies doesn’t fly with stickler customs officials, and not having a visa nailed down before leaving the states makes entry into the UK near impossible…and in fact, it got her into big trouble.

This past summer, I was dumped by England. Our romance began when I studied abroad in 2008 and fell in love with London. Luckily, this past March the program I studied with offered me a job in Oxford for July. With a visitor’s visa, I could stay in the UK for 6 months, this was my ticket in. In August I planned to go to London to live with a friend for the rest of the six months. It seemed like fate, but on July 7, I discovered (much to my dismay) that my stint in England was not meant to be. That day I flew from JFK to Heathrow and spent ten excruciating hours in the airport before British customs officials sent me home.

My flight there went smoothly and I arrived at border control ready to answer their questions. But here’s where it gets a little hairy. I couldn’t admit that I was getting paid to work for a month and then planned to look for more work in London afterward because my program didn’t officially sponsor me for a work visa, so I didn’t have one yet. My future boss, Sarah, instructed me to say that I was visiting her instead, to avoid awkward questions about the month overlap. Unlucky for me, the immigration officer found this all suspicious. She wanted to contact Sarah so I gave her Sarah’s work number. I figured if Sarah didn’t pick up, everyone else in the office knew that I was scheduled to start work there. They would surely back me up.

Maria came back after she called and said, “are you taking any courses in Oxford?” I said no, which was the truth. She then said “the woman I just spoke to said you are registered in this program as a student for the next four weeks.” I froze. I had no idea what she was talking about or how to respond. I asked who she spoke to and she said Barbara, the director of the program.  Apparently, the director herself was not filled in, and the customs official was left with two drastically conflicting stories.

Maria became more suspicious. I was taken to the “holding room” which looked like a waiting room for a pediatrician’s office, but smelled worse. There were huge windows looking into a security room, so they would see if I tried to dig through the floor and escape. Puppy posters littered the walls. Did they honestly think cute puppies were suitable for a grave situation like this? It seemed ironic. A Canadian, a homeless man from Sudan, an angry Russian man who had been held for days, and a nun from Moldova waited with me–we were a hodgepodge of frustration and anxiety.

I called Sarah to figure out what was going on. She had already spoken to the immigration officer and told her I was her friend–not a student–and that I was staying with her. Barbara wasn’t in on our plan so her slip up made Sarah unsure of my future, but I was still confident that at some point I’d start my 6-month adventure.

A few hours of anticipation, interrogation, and several phone calls later, I wasn’t as hopeful. A new immigration officer took me in for an interview. He spoke to me like I was 5 years old. He accused me of lying. I had to be patient and remain neutral because I knew sarcasm and yelling would get me nowhere.

About an hour into our interview, this question almost knocked me off my chair: “Barbara called back and said that she made a mistake. The student she referred to was Margaret PALMER, not PARKER. Margaret Palmer is a student and Margaret Parker isn’t. She got mixed up. Sarah said the same thing when we called her again. Why would they say this?” I was shocked. Sarah and Barbara, realizing the mess we were all in,  tried to fix this by making up a non-existent person–Margaret Palmer. Immigration, hearing a zillion different stories, didn’t believe them. I didn’t blame them. It was all too fishy and I refused to go along with it anymore. What started as a simple plan to get me into the country temporarily without a visa turned drastically wrong. My story was now completely unbelievable and I knew this interview was over. Margaret Palmer just handed me my return ticket home.

The interview lasted two excruciating hours. When it ended the officer told me that they might send me to detention. The only detention I’d ever been in was during the 6th grade, but this “detention” I knew had nothing to do with losing playground privileges. I panicked. When he asked me if I had any questions all I blurted was, “is detention going to be like ‘Bridget Jones’ 2?’” He laughed even though I was totally serious, I had been thinking about Bridget Jones all day.

I went back to holding for another hour. Delirious after 10 horrible hours of waiting, questioning and waiting some more, the officer finally came back to tell me the British government was sending me home. I wasn’t shocked. I just wanted this to all be over. I was drained physically and emotionally. The officer told me to head to Oxford for two days to stay with Sarah–my no longer boss–until my flight back to the states two days later. Great.

It felt like a slap in the face. The two days where I’d planned to live for a month was a tortuous, tantalizing taste of what would never be. Not even a chocolate Cadbury Crème Egg milkshake could cheer me up. Truthfully, I was happy to fly back. I boarded the plane, and three movies later, I landed back in the states, the hopeful remains of a British career crushed into a broken heart. My love affair with England was over. The border control officer at JFK looked at me sympathetically, as if I should never have left them in the first place. And to this day, I’m still not quite sure if he was right.

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  • Wow, what a terrible story! Not that shocking, though, I suppose. The UK is very strict when it comes to Americans (probably retribution for how we are to every other country in the world!). I used to live in Denmark, and every time I left the country, I’d fly Ryanair from Aarhus (my town) and have to connect in London Stansted. They started getting suspicious and even held me a couple times–even though I had a resident permit of Denmark and always had a connecting flight elsewhere! But they were total jerks to me nearly every time–completely unnecessary.

    Sorry your story didn’t have a happy ending =(

  • L says:

    The problem here wasn’t one of overlapping dates, it was that you were trying to come into the country to work without a work visa. That’s actually a big deal in any developed country and especially one like the UK who have to deal with so many people trying to work there illegally. Valuable lesson is to always research visa issues thoroughly and if you are going to fib, have your story straight in advance and evidence in place to back it up.

  • kmg says:

    I feel your pain! I was held for 2 hours in Liverpool because they were suspicious that I was looking for employment in the UK. I was there to travel and to visit some ballet companies, so I had resumes in my bag. They searched everything, and before I knew it, my portfolio and pointe shoes were spread across a table in a private screening room, leaving me scrambling to explain that I was a “law abiding citizen”…of the United States. I eventually got through. But I’ve told all of my other dance friends this story in hopes that they will learn from my mistake. Lesson One: Any time you go through customs, declare nothing other than HOLIDAY as the reason for your visit. Lesson Two: Pack your tutu’s, pointe shoes, and resume’s in your checked luggage! 🙂

  • Maggie P says:

    Yes I have definitely learned my lesson. They also went through all my luggage, and I am an actress and singer and they looked through all my music. So I totally understand what you went through with your dance stuff.
    I am glad you got through!
    I have learned many many lessons from this, I am glad you are spreading the word! Thanks for reading.


  • Maggie P says:

    Yep. Did all that stuff, still had problems. Oh well!! Onwards and upwards

  • Melissa says:

    After scrambling to fill out all the required paperwork myself (with no help from my university whatsoever, even when I had attempted to ask for it) I landed in the UK for my first year of a 5-year degree with an incomplete student visa. In the time crunch I had to reschedule my biometric appointment, and assumed I could complete this kind of paperwork at a consulate here (when in reality I was required to go to a Homeland Security office to have fingerprints and photos taken). My au pair work visa in Switzerland the year before had been a relative breeze, so I assumed I could wiggle past by saying I was planning to travel for a month. When the rather unpleasant, eyebrow-furrowing immigration officer asked to see my return ticket, I panicked (being a horrible liar) and ‘fessed up.

    I was detained, sitting in a private room crying until someone came to interview me and search my things. After four hours I was released, because I had numerous copies of all of the other paperwork required to enter the country. I squeezed past – but my interviewer said that usually someone in my case who tells the truth is given a six-month leave to remain period, and are then required to return home and complete whatever your visa requires. I had to book an unplanned flight home for Christmas break for a 30-minute appointment (ouch) and afterward I had legal permission to live and study in the UK.

    Even though I now have legal permission to live here, I still dread going through immigration in the UK. I know that their job is to weed out those who have no legal right to work/study/live there, but the environment standing in line is so inhospitable that everybody feels like they’ve done something wrong just by being there.

    Last year, my brother and I were coming through Edinburgh, and the very professional lady asked me to place my index fingers and thumb on a scanner to prove that my student visa did actually belong to me. My brother says, just loud enough, “Good thing those were the only three fingers we removed from the real Melissa Bedinger!” Luckily she smirked and shooed us on, but thanks, dude. Thanks.

    A friend was recently turned away from London and sent home because the family who hired her as an au pair had said they would take care of her work visa, and didn’t. It sucks that that kind of experience ruins traveling, working, or living abroad for a while until you can shake it off. I hope you make it here someday!