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For seasoned travelers, navigating UK customs and immigration is just another checkmark on the ‘to do’ list after your long haul flight before you’re either enjoying your holiday or crying that it’s over.
But for study abroad students in London, first time travelers, or the nervous expat, going through UK customs is an intimidating experience filled with uncertainty and lots of people giving you mean looks despite you having done nothing wrong.
I’ve been through UK immigration and customs dozens of times and I still get intimidated and yell at my husband to stop making jokes in line because THIS IS NOT THE TIME FOR YOUR JOY AND SMILES AND HOW DARE YOU PRETEND LIKE YOU DON’T KNOW ME.
Hey, sidenote! If you’re traveling to the UK or live in the UK, whether for a short period of time or as an expat, why don’t you join my Facebook group where you can ask questions, get advice or just look at pretty pictures of this part of the world! Just click here to request to join and I’ll add you!
Join me as I take you through the process of getting through customs at an airport and tips on going through customs that every traveler needs to know.
Going Through Immigration and Customs: The Process
Before Going Through Customs: On the Plane
When going through customs at an airport, you need to figure out what steps you need to take while still on the plane.
And to be honest, we need to get clear on one thing: customs and immigration are actually two different things.
When you go through immigration, you’re going through the immigration desks where they check your passport and reason for being in the country (or you’re going through the e-Gates, as we’ll talk about in a minute).
When you go through customs, the officials are more concerned about what you have in your suitcase, as you’ve already got through the immigration desks.
It used to be that you needed to fill out a landing card to get into the UK if you weren’t from the UK or EU, but those days are over in favor of a new “e-Gates” system where many people will just need to walk through some gates after scanning your passport.
I’ll talk about that below, but know that you do not need to fill out anything on the plane anymore when coming to the UK.
What you should still know, while on the plane, is what kind of immigration line you should get in when you get there (e-Gates or regular), and also make sure to have written down the address you’re staying at.
If you do need to go through the regular immigration line, this can often be asked and is a bit of a red flag for them when someone can’t produce information on where they are staying.
Going Through Immigration Once You Land
When you land in the UK, you’ll be herded into the immigration hall before collecting your checked luggage.
At this point in going through UK immigration at an airport, you’re going to need to put your cellphone away and keep your wits about you.
There will be a ton of people everywhere and staff members showing you where to go.
They don’t play around, so just be nice and be efficient with where you’re going – don’t block everyone as they’re trying to figure out which line to go in.
There are two routes to go through – one is the E-Gates which are automatic gates that allow you to scan your passport.
It then takes your photo, and then the gate will open and you will walk through.
The other option is the regular immigration line to speak to a person if you do not qualify for the E-Gates or have a reason to speak to a border entry official.
You can go through the e-Gates if you are from: the UK, the EU, Australia, New Zealand, United States, Canada, Japan, Singapore, or South Korea, and you need to be above 12 years old and in possession of a passport with a “chip” in it (which is most of them).
If you are between 12 and 17, you can go through the e-Gates if you are accompanied by an adult.
If you do not fit in this description – maybe your passport isn’t from those countries or you have a child under 12, you need to go through the regular immigration line that ends up at an actual human!
If you are a student in the UK, make sure to check with your university how you should go through immigration as sometimes they will need you to go to an immigration official and not through the e-Gates, but this depends on how long you are staying and where you are studying – so ask!
Families should stay together, so if your partner or someone in your family can’t go through the E-Gates, it’s usually best to go through the regular immigration line with them to avoid them having to explain your existence and talk about traveling with you while you aren’t actually there.
This is also, of course, a blatant test of how much your traveling companion likes you–will they stand in the long line with you, or will they zip through and wait for you on the other side?
Speaking with a UK Immigration Officer
If you do need to go through the regular immigration line, the next step is a conversation with the border control officer.
You’ll wait to be called up – don’t just go to the next open desk unless someone motions you to move forward.
This is the part that makes many travelers nervous, but there really is no reason to be given that you have a legitimate trip planned.
If you’re coming in with a visa, they’ll ask you questions particular to your visa type (where you’re working if you’re on an internship visa, where you’re studying if you’re on a student visa, etc).
If you’re coming in as a tourist or visitor, they’ll want to know who you are seeing (if anyone), they may ask you general questions on your itinerary and they may ask what you do back home.
They’re not looking to see if you know what you’re doing on Wednesday night at 8pm or quiz you on UK geography to make sure you’re worthy of exploring the country, so just answer their questions honestly.
If you’ve planned a real trip, you’ll at least have some sort of idea of what you’ll be up to and where you’re going – or what your option will be.
Breathe, be polite, and don’t be put off if they’re particularly gruff.
If you have one, it’s always good to have a copy of your return flight with you in case they ask to see it or have any doubts about your intentions.
I’ve had a combination of experiences with UK immigration officers, which makes going through UK immigration a bit of a stressful experience as I’m not sure who I’m going to get.
The worst was a woman who wasn’t calculating the months correctly and kept telling me I was planning on overstaying my visa based on my proposed leaving date (I wasn’t).
The best was the woman who gave us the tips on when best to fly in to avoid the lines and the man who made a joke about my boyfriend wanting to be my husband when we were traveling together in the first few months of our relationship – turns out he was right!
What Happens if I Get Detained?
Would you believe that I’ve gotten detained at a UK airport before?
Okay, so not detained as in, arrested, but detained as in, made to sit in the weird holding cell where they put you if they need more time to investigate your visa or your travel situation.
This can be a very stressful time.
For me, it was because for some reason my visa information wasn’t electronically attached to my actual visa, which had nothing to do with me and was solved after the immigration officer physically checked the visa to see it was valid.
For other people, this can be because they need to question you further, and unfortunately if they do think you have the wrong intentions or you’re trying to come in on the wrong visa, you will be escorted onto the next available plane back to where you came from and not allowed entry into the country.
If you do find yourself being questioned, I’m going to assume that you have done nothing wrong and are being honest about your intentions, in which case just keep a cool and calm demeanor as much as possible, answer their questions honestly, and soon you should be sent on your way.
Going Through Customs at an Airport
After going through border control successfully, you’ll reach the luggage holding area.
Hopefully you’ll pick up your own and not accidentally cart away someone else’s unmentionables, and then the final step is customs.
In America, getting through customs tends to include an actual stop with an officer who will double check that everything in the luggage is yours and may search you if they feel you might be bringing something you shouldn’t into the country.
You’ll need to fill out a customs form in the US to declare anything that you have that needs to be declared.
They are strict about this, and while sometimes you may just be waved through, they have the right to pull you aside and check.
Going through customs in the UK is different, as you simply walk through either the “Something to declare” doors or the “Nothing to declare” doors.
You do not individually have to go up to a person to be cleared to leave the area, though again, they do have the right to search your bag as you leave.
Here’s a list of things you must declare.
Don’t let it confuse you, though.
If you aren’t coming into the UK to sell anything and are just coming as a normal tourist, you will have nothing to declare. The vast majority of people will not have anything to declare.
My mom was confused by customs when she first visited and decided she should probably declare the Outback restaurant bread she had brought for me from the American airport.
I like to think they all went home that day to tell their family about the crazy lady who presented them with a loaf of bread to search.
Customs and Immigration is known for being one of the longest and most tedious processes at the airport for foreign travelers, but if you do your best to have everything ready and know what to expect, you’ll be able to get through it much faster.
The e-Gates in the UK have also gone a long way towards making this easier.
To help you along the way, I’ve got some of my top tips for getting through customs and immigration that apply to anyone, no matter which airport you’re flying into.
Tips for Going through Customs and Immigration
Leave Time in Your Itinerary for Going Through Immigration
Depending on the time of day, sometimes immigration takes a long time.
Again, this has sped up due to the e-Gates and the e-Gates usually take about 10 minutes to get through, but if you have to stand in line, it can be a bit of a wait.
Especially if you fly into London Heathrow on a weekend morning during prime study abroad seasons, you’re going to encounter a long line full of weary travelers.
When it comes to planning the rest of your day after landing in a country or even planning a layover if you need to go through immigration before getting on another plane (such as when you’re arriving in the US from abroad and then need to clear immigration before getting on a domestic flight), make sure that you leave time.
Have as Much as Possible Written Down
Whether it’s the address of where you’re staying or the prescriptions to go along with your medication, having things written down on paper and not just stored on your phone is super helpful.
Sure, there are charging ports on most planes, but if you’ve got everything stored on your phone and for some reason the charging port isn’t working or you’ve dropped it in the toilet or something, you’ll be prepared still!
Be Nice to the Staff
It can be difficult to be nice after traveling for hours to a person who isn’t being the kindest to you and seemingly grilling you with questions.
However, keep in mind that they are just doing their jobs.
They need to be on the ball, figuring out if you are breaking any immigration laws coming into the country or if you are there to do anything shady.
I’ve learned time and time again that getting through immigration is so much easier when I just relax, am polite to the staff even if they’re bit a bit gruff with me, and eventually I get through with a smile on my face – or at least not in complete hysterics.
Prep Kids on What’s Going to Happen
Just like when you go to the airport and they check your passports to get on the plane, the staff members will need to see and usually speak to your kids at the immigration desks if they are under the age of 12.
They will be with you, of course, but it’s helpful to prep them in advance that they may be asked questions like their age and name especially if you have particularly shy ones.
Consider Customs and Immigration Part of Your Plane Ride
Often when we land in a new country, we are so relieved the plane ride is over that we view the immigration and customs sections as just another hurdle to jump through that’s holding us up.
You can’t enter another country without doing this step, so consider it just an extension of the plane ride.
Landing is exciting, but save your real excitement for when you’re past those immigration gates and frolicking off into the UK for the adventure of a lifetime.