10 tips for dealing with Immigration

This one is for @NeilRaden, whose family member is having problems at UK Customs & Immigration in London. In my experience – and I’ve spent my fair share of time in immigration – there are a handful of things to do to make your life easier. Too late for Neil, perhaps…

1) Dress Smart

It doesn’t matter if you’re going through on a tourist visa to a one-off country, but if you are a frequent traveller or you have a working visa, then appearance matters. I happen to like to travel business-casual anyhow, and always wear a jacket. Don’t pre-dispose someone to judge you because you look sloppy. First impressions matter.

2) Drink coffee, not booze

Need I say more? It may be tempting to have some nerve-calming drinks on the flight, but you need your wits about you at immigration, especially after a long transatlantic or overnight flight when you will be tired. Have a cup of tea or coffee to wake you up.

3) Get prepared

If you turn up to the gate without your forms filled in, or filled in incorrectly, they will send you back to the end, and will judge you. You need to do everything you can to make the immigration officer’s life easier. He or she has enough hassle in a day. Turn up with your forms clearly and correctly filled in, and ask for help if you need it!

What’s more if you are coming on a stamped visa then bring documentation. You don’t have to slap it on the counter up front, but bring it all. Bring a letter from your company stating what you are doing. Bring a letter from your immigration lawyer if you have one. Memorize this information.

4) Wait your turn

So many times have I seen someone walk up to a counter without the immigration officer beckoning them – which often makes them really grumpy. Stand behind the line, wait your turn and they will beckon you.

5) Engage and be friendly

I always start by looking them in the eyes with “Good morning/afternoon/evening sir/madam, how are you today?’. Curtesy goes a long way. Usually, they smile and respond. All of these little things make a difference and predispose a human being towards you.

6) Remember that any border control officer can deny your entry to the country

I took this from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed and it is always important to keep in the back of your mind. It doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong – they have the power to deny you or allow you in. Your behavior will control their discretion if there is a grey area. I have had situations where an immigration officer has said “I will let you in this time, but next time you need to do X”.

7) Always answer the question simply, clearly and do not offer excess information

When they ask you a question: “Why are you coming to this country”, answer it with the minimum information. “I’m going to the following conference”. Be specific, clear and brief. Whatever you do, don’t offer them your life story. They want you to go through as fast as possible too and if they need more information, they will ask for it.

8) Never, ever, think you are an immigration expert

Especially if you are coming in on a business visa, be very careful when you are asked the question “Why are you coming in on this visa?”. The answer is: I am doing X (the truth!) for my company, and this is the visa they applied for on my behalf.

9) If they send you to secondary inspection, smile and move on

If you travel a lot, you will go into secondary inspection. The primary officers will refer anything they are unsure about. If you’re not doing anything wrong, don’t worry about it. It’s a process and it can take anything from 30 minutes to 5 hours or more, depending on how busy they are. If someone is picking you up, text them when you land and let them know you are going into immigration. Let them know that you will text them when you are out and not to worry.

10) Be mindful of what is on your cellphone/laptop/social media/luggage

If you go to secondary inspection then never get your cellphone out. It’s forbidden in most countries and they hate it. But also be mindful that they may confiscate your cellphone or laptop and read the contents. So be mindful of what you text and email – even jokingly. I’ve seen people get in big trouble over this.

I added social media and luggage, which I should have pointed out. Neil’s family member had posted “Living in XXX” on Facebook and had a utility bill. If you’re a non-immigrant, these are a fast-track to getting deported. It doesn’t matter what you believe your intentions are, it matters what the immigration officer believes you intend to do.

11) Bonus tip: Never, ever, lie

I’ve spent my fair share of time in secondary inspections in various countries and there is a pattern. Every time I’m sat there, I overhear the same conversation. It’s someone who is lying about their travel and reasons for entering the country. Trust me – the immigration officers – especially the very experienced ones in secondary inspection – know their stuff.

They can see your travel history in most cases. They know everything you told them in the past. And they see people like you every day. So don’t insult them by lying or pretending you don’t speak their language when you do. They get really angry and usually deport those people.

Final Words

I hope this helps someone, some time. What are your tips?


2 thoughts on “10 tips for dealing with Immigration

  1. Natascha Thomson

    I know a fair bit about immigrating to the USA, not much about the UK, but I can’t believe it’s very different.

    My number one tip is: say as little as possible. Try to answer with “yes” and “no” as much as is possible.
    Do NEVER volunteer any information that was not requested. That means, don’t get chatty. Stay serious and focused on giving exact answers to exact questions.

    It has been my sad experience that many immigrations people are not capable of dealing respectfully with the power that has been given to them. They treat people demeaning, make them wait for no reason (but to wear them down), and assume that you are guilty of something.

    I once was pulled out of the customs line at an American arrival airport and asked to call my lawyer. The immigration official told me: “You are at the doorstep of America, you have no rights”.

    Need I say more? I am sure these are isolated incidents but where there is power placed in the hands of people, there is abuse of that power.

    Protect yourself by saying as little as possible and never sign anything without a lawyer present.

    They always have signs at customs saying: “How are we doing? You can report xyz here”. As if somebody who is not a citizen and wants to live in the country would report anything :-).



  2. Meir Chernetsky

    Good points and very useful post, John! Thank you. And good tip by Natascha also. I am also so many times saw the situations when telling extra information to immigration officer or security inspector offices in airport leads to additional checks and tome wasting. Be friendly, smiley and seriously and speak less!

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