With all these new immigration regulations coming I am absolutely sure that crossing borders will become harder than before. And not only in the US.

A few months ago I got detained in the UK border, while I was trying to get to Belfast. I can honestly say that it was one of the scariest situations I’ve ever faced. I didn’t have any previous experience on how to deal with that sort of problem and I am sure I made many mistakes. That’s why I decided to ask other bloggers for their advice and share it with you, guys. But first, let me tell you my story:


As I said before, my border horror story happened in the UK. I was flying from Brussels to London and then catching a connecting flight to Belfast, Northern Ireland. I had been in Heathrow Airport before, while I was traveling to Scotland back in August and my experience had been quite nice. The agents were very polite and they barely asked me questions while I reached passport control. I though this time would be no different, but I was wrong. I was so wrong.

My flight arrived to London with a bit of delay so I was already nervous when we landed because I had to catch another flight to Belfast. I got to passport control in a hurry and counting on the fact that many border agents don’t give you a hard time when you are trying to connect a flight. However that wasn’t the case.

The lady who questioned me was very suspicious when I told her I was travelling alone and that I didn’t know anybody in Northern Ireland. I tried to explain that I was doing a European tour and that I liked to explore new places, but she didn’t seem to buy it. She asked my exact itinerary demanded to see how much cash I was carrying. I told her that only had £100.00 in cash, but I had my three debit cards with me as well. Then she asked for a printed bank account status, which, of course I didn’t have and that’s when she confiscated my passport and leaded me to a secluded area full with other terrified people.


I was locked up for nearly four hours. They took photos and fingerprints. They searched my luggage and, besides the passport, they also confiscated my personal journal and some letters from the friends I had made on the road. I lost my connecting flight to Belfast and finally, when I though I was surely going to get deported, they moved me to an interrogation room where another lady asked me all the most personal, invasive questions ever and made me sign up a bunch of documents afterwards. And then, when I was right in the edge of desperation, the lady finally told me that the agent had overreacted and she shouldn’t have detained me for so long.

They granted me a permit to stay in the UK for six months and fed me with water and a chocolate croissant. However, when they finally let me go, they told me that they couldn’t book me another flight to Belfast until the next day. However they were not responsible for finding accommodation for the night. It seemed so incredibly unfair at the time, but the last thing I wanted was to get myself in another argument with the immigration authorities, so I left without a word.

I was there, alone, hungry, tired and scared in London, with no place to spend the night and no access to a hot shower. At that point, I had not only lost my connection, but also my hotel reservation for that night in Belfast. I was trembling and on the verge of tears and I knew I could just spend the night in the airport, but I decided that the situation deserved to use my emergency money. Therefore, I booked a hotel room near the airport, ordered room service without looking at the price and managed to catch some hours of sleep before continuing my trip.


I learned the hard way a few tips to cross through passport control without major troubles:

  • Keep calm and don’t fight: some of the procedures might be humiliating, but you are walking on a fine line here. Sometimes I like to speak my mind more that I should and that usually leads to trouble. So don’t resist or talk back and try to be as helpful as possible.
  • If you don’t like carrying cash (like me), carry a copy of your bank account’s status with you, just in case. Border agents like to know that you have enough money to afford your trip.
  • Plan an itinerary: I like to be spontaneous and wander around a new place without a schedule. The border agents don’t. So even if you are not sticking to your original plan, find the most touristic attractions and repeat them to the agent if he or she asks.
  • Have a return date: Again, this can change, but if you answer confidently and quickly when they ask you, there is little chance that they will double-check. The lady that interrogated me assured me that not having a clear return date is one of the main causes for detention.


Photo from www.pixabay.com

Facing the prospect of being thrown off a train at 3 am, in the middle of nowhere between the border of Hungry and Serbia is something that you would want to avoid at all costs!

This very situation happened a couple of years ago to my sister and I, which left us terrified and feeling vulnerable on a 10 hour journey between these two countries. We had, let’s say ‘a mix up’ with our train tickets and essentially in the eyes of the conductor we were fare evaders.

My sister and I were subjected to a conductor who was screaming abuse at us in Hungarian and then a threat of being ‘dealt’ with at the border; we took this as being ‘detained’. To cut a long story short, we were helped out by other passengers on the train and we eventually made it to Belgrade without further incident once we exited the train. We basically did what we had to in order to avoid being detained and that involved handing over more cash. Unfortunately this type of incident has been played out many times in the past on unsuspecting tourists taking this train route.


If you ever find yourself in a situation at the border, and particularly land crossings, I have some advice:

  • Remain calm and keep logical, you want to defuse the situation rather than inflame it. You are the one in the vulnerable position, so you will need to cooperate and comply within the law.
  • If you are on a train like myself, and if it’s appropriate, ask other passengers for help, even if it’s just to explain your plight.
  • Always take responsibility and don’t make excuses, conductors in the EU aren’t willing to listen to how you ‘planned to get away with’ fare evading, even if it wasn’t intentional.
  • Double check that you have been sold the right tickets, even when sold by the official ticketing booth, which is what happened to us.


Photo from: http://www.picxclicx.com

I’ve done a number of weekend trips in my life, and I have never thought that if you’re flying to a foreign destination for only 2 or 3 days, it might look “suspicious” to the authorities.

I’ve learned this the hard way at an airport in Alberta, Canada. I arrived there on a Friday evening, and when my turn came to go through the passport control I answered all the questions honestly – that yes, I came from NY to visit Alberta and its beautiful neon-blue lakes for just… a weekend. And that yes, I was traveling alone.

I was immediately sent to another room and as I came in there, I saw a number of nervous and scared looking people waiting to have their papers checked. About 20 minutes later, an immigration officer called me and he started yelling uncontrollably at me that “only Canadian citizens are allowed into this country” and that he “doesn’t care that I have an American passport”. I was in shock. I asked him if he wants me to go back since I had no problem with that. However, after checking all my documents and finding “nothing wrong with them”, he let me go. Without apologizing, of course.


After going through this horrible experience, I made a few notes to myself:

  • Never say that you’re visiting a country for 2-3 days; count the arriving and departing days and always add a day or two “extra”. If your return ticket will be checked (which almost never happens) you can always lie and say “oh yes, I miscalculated” (i.e. blame it on travel fatigue/jet lag).
  • Never mention that you’re traveling alone. It’s much better to say that you’re visiting a friend for a birthday/wedding etc. than to say that you came to do some sightseeing, if you’re traveling a lot that is (no one is going to check anyway!)


Photo by Jessica Elliott

I thought I had prepared myself. I planned my visit to the Stans somewhat carefully and did all my due diligence with the appropriate embassies to get visas sorted in advance. Or so I thought.

I read a bunch of stories of issues for people getting visas to Turkmenistan. So I was pleasantly surprised when the employee at the Turkmenistan embassy in Tajikistan said that everything was processed with no issues and that I would receive my code needed to get my visa at the border via email in a few days. However, I did not receive the code.

I went to cross where I was told that “100% guaranteed, no issues” my visa would be ready. It was not only not ready, but the Turkmenistan guards wanted to deport me at the border for trying to enter without a visa (I think they technically have to let you in first, before they can deport you, but that’s neither here nor there). This was the start of my four days in the desert – in no man’s land – stuck between countries. With an expired visa from Uzbekistan, I couldn’t turn around, and with no visa in sight to Turkmenistan, I couldn’t go forward.

Photo by Jessica Elliott

The language barrier was an issue and I quickly learned why people compare the Turkmenistan government to North Korea. My first day, I waited all day outside, mostly in the sun, with no food, water, or access to a bathroom. 9 hours later, they kicked me to the literal curb where I got ready to sleep (outside in the desert) for the night. The Uzbek guards took me in and looked after me. But it would take 4 days, the US Embassy and $240 to get me out of my desert “oasis.”


Don’t let this happen to you. If it does, it’s not your fault. And if even you’re “prepared,” know that it’s going to take a physical, mental and emotional toll. But there are a few things that you can do to avoid and be ready for situations like this:

  • Get as much documentation as you can when preparing to enter a country with known issues. Do not trust even employees of an embassy when they assure you there won’t be issues.
  • Have the numbers for your country’s embassy in the countries in which you will be traveling written down. You probably won’t have internet access when you most need to look these up.
  • Pack water and snacks for tough crossings!
  • Communicate with someone prior to your crossing attempt and give them an anticipated follow-up time. If they don’t hear from you, there’s a problem and make sure they know whom to contact.
  • Join program(s) offered by your country that will make things easier. US citizens have STEP and I’m glad to be a part of it. This is how the embassy so easily had my information, and even offered to call my listed contact (mom) on my behalf.
  • Be sure to have emergency cash, preferably USD, so you aren’t screwed without an ATM. I was so happy that I replenished my reserves just two days before this, after having to use some for visas in the Stans.
  • Give yourself enough overlap in time with your visas when going between two countries that require them for entry.
  • Be nice to everyone helping you out – they will feed you.


detained at the border
Photo from: http://www.picxclicx.com

When I got to passport control at Lubango airport, the officer drew a big five with his finger, making it clear he wanted money. I thought he meant five Kwanzas, and, since it is such a small amount of money ($0.04), I complied.

When I handed over a five note he started laughing, saying he meant 5000 (around $40 USD). After this, I just kept persistently mumbling the words “Estudante, estudante” (student) until he eventually let me through.


  • Hide all money and wallets (put it in the socks even).
  • Stick to the story that you’re just a poor student. They tend to be more lenient when they believe so.


I hope you never find yourself in a situation like this, but let’s face it, if you are travelling, you may have a trouble or two on the way. It’s part of the fun. So at least you’ll have some tips on how to deal with being detained at the border.

I guess I’ll see you on the road.


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