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I hate crossing UK borders

America nowadays is likely the country with the world’s most stringent border checks for foreigners. But I’ve been a US citizen since mid-90’s, so I never had to experience the long queues and the indignity of fingerprinting and all. You occasionally end up in a fairly long queue for US citizens as well, but they at least have a tendency to move comparatively briskly, based on my visual observations.

The only country that I’ve repeatedly entered as a foreigner is, unsurprisingly, the United Kingdom. And, as my rotten luck would have it, it is likely the country with the world’s second most-stringent border checks. There are landing cards, one per person, that the border agent has to write upon and stamp; there is requisite passport scanning and stamping; the agent invariably chats you up, sometimes asking formal questions (where do you live? what do you do? are you still with the same company that sponsored your work permit?) or sometimes just engaging you in a non-committal chit-chat. I understand the need, I do not bemoan the thoroughness, I actually do feel safer knowing that it is not easy for a persona non grata to enter the country where I make my home.

What I have a problem with is the accommodation, or lack thereof.

There are normally a handful to a dozen of agents in any given airport border control hall dealing with long queues of disembarked passengers. Those assigned to the UK/EU desks keep their lines moving by giving a quick look-over to each passport and waving people through. Those at the non-EU desks are the ones who need to be very thorough and deliberate. Of course, every other passenger that they see either does not speak any English or has a red flag among his visa stamps or, for any number of reasons, behaves in a way that suggests the need for in-depth interrogation.

All the way while I’m stuck in the queue.

In a large stuffy room that is not properly air-conditioned.

With a tired 8-year-old who has to go to the bathroom.

Next to a bunch of nice folks whose views on personal hygiene are incompatible with my sensibilities.

You see, there are no “non-EU permanent resident” desks, which would be similar to what I remember a standard “Green Card holders” lane in the US airports. Instead, it does not matter to the border agency that I make my home here in the UK. When I show up at the border with my US passport, I don’t get to differentiate myself from other non-EU citizens who happen to be visitors to Britain.

Hey, I pay taxes in this country. You might even guess without me expressly pointing it out – but I’ll do that anyway – that what I pay in taxes is considerably above what the average UK citizen pays. Why don’t I deserve the courtesy of having a speedier procedure for entry!?

Ah, but there is one way to expedite your entry into the country if you are a permanent resident with non-EU credentials. It is called IRIS and I first mentioned it two years ago. When you are registered and the system is operational, it literally takes 20-30 seconds for your retina scan to confirm your identity and grant you entry to the UK. There aren’t long queues either.

Except, children are not eligible to register for IRIS, due to some nonsense about ensuring that “every child’s welfare is considered by a human agent at the point of crossing”. I travel for leisure a lot more than I travel for business. When I travel for leisure, I have my kids in tow. I don’t have any choice but to get into the stupid queue.

I realize it sounds like such a trivial thing, but with our relatively frequent escapades abroad, crossing UK border has become one of the things I hate the most about living in England. I’ve flown into a dozen European countries – some, like Italy or Spain, many times over – and I’m treated as a visitor at their borders better than I am treated as a resident at the UK ones. (Only once on our travels, in Poland, we were inexplicably subject to a lengthy copy-down-all-of-the-passport-information-by-hand border crossing procedure, but I’m willing to discount that as remnants of cold-war suspiciousness, and I lack enough of a sample in Eastern Europe to confirm or refute that generalization.)

I wish I lived on the continent instead. In any case, there is only one time in the foreseeable future that I will have to get into that queue again…


  1. John the Scientist

    Japan also lets “Green Card” holders go through the Japanese citizens line.

    “Next to a bunch of nice folks whose views on personal hygiene are incompatible with my sensibilities.”

    Uhhhhhhh. When *I* lived there, Russia was a country in desperate need of some deodorant factories. And damn did it get ugly in May or June when they turned off the central hot water for weeks at a time to perform cleaning and maintenance.

  2. Ilya

    Somewhat weirdly, I have a vivid recollection from my high school days exactly along the lines of what you recall, John.

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