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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Top 10: Crossing borders

UK colleague, approaching U.S. immigration officer with her then-fiancé.
IO: What is the purpose of your visit to the United States?
UK: For a holiday, plus, we're getting married while we're here.
IO: Do you have any intention of staying longer than you're allowed to?
UK (looking at him like he is a nutjob): And pay for health care?!
IO: Good point. Next!
This same colleague, on another occasion, was asked by the U.S. IO what she did back in the UK. She was a bank manager. I guess the IO decided someone who was a bank manager in the UK was unlikely to harbor secret ambitions to work in her cousin’s gas station in America.

One of the key goals of The Discreet Traveler is to visit different countries, as easily as possible. The first step in doing this is usually “immigration”—the officers who are in charge of letting people into their country, or not. These officers are called various things depending on where they are in the world. For the purposes of this post, immigration officer (IO) refers to them.

If you’re a typical traveler, you’re just planning to visit a different country from where you live, not “immigrate” there. So it may not make sense to think of going through “immigration.” The first step of your trip, though, is getting into that other country, and these are the guys (and gals) who will let you in, or have the power to keep you out of it. Since many different rules and unwritten understandings govern the way IOs do their job, and your goal is to get past them quickly and lawfully, it will save you much time and heartache to think the way they do.

If you’ve traveled a lot, and had many different experiences at many different borders, some of them are bound to have been less pleasant than others. You may have developed views about IOs in general, or those of one country in particular, that are less than positive. You may even believe that many of the laws and regulations of international travel are ridiculous, that people should be freer to travel than we currently are—and The Discreet Traveler has sympathy for these views. Nonetheless, thinking like an IO, no matter how contrary to your personal opinions, will make your life easier. It is for that reason that I have these tips for you here—not because I necessarily agree with them.

An IO thinks in a certain way because it is his or her job. IOs have a great deal of individual discretion to let you into a country, or not. Having a visa, or a visa waiver, or a passport from a particular country does not guarantee that the country you’re visiting will let you in—only the IO can decide this. You can think this system is fair or not. The point is, make your life easier by acknowledging the way IOs do their job.

They are called immigration officers because their default position is to assume that you are immigrating. Again, you may think this is ridiculous—you have a perfectly nice country to go home to, do they really think everyone in the world wants to immigrate to their country, etc. Nonetheless, it is up to you to convince the IO that you are not immigrating (unless, of course, you are, and have the proper visa for that) Take a deep breath, and look at your situation the way the IO does. How do you look to him or her?

The other thing to remember is that The Discreet Traveler recommends discretion—not dishonesty. Answering the questions the IO asks, and not volunteering all sorts of other information, will save both of you time. Answering a question less than truthfully could, if the truth is uncovered later, get you in more trouble than the original answer. Of course it is none of the IO’s business, but that’s the point—they can ask you anything; you have no rights at their border. 

Top 10 tips:

1. Assume that those around you, unless they have gone through immigration themselves, do not know correct information about their country and its policies. Expect to have to research this yourself, from official sources. Expect your friends to be surprised when they learn of your experiences.

2. Assume that it will be harder to get into a country than you think. Expect to have to apply for something, or pay for something, ahead of time. Expect to have to provide evidence, and pack it in your hand luggage. Be pleasantly surprised if it turns out you don’t need this.

3. Be prepared, and therefore relaxed. Even though you might be tired from a long trip, relax and be pleasant to the IO. There is always the chance s/he will reciprocate. A tense or confrontational person is the most likely to get grilled, regardless if you have any bad intentions or anything to hide.

4. Countries are different. U.S. and Canadian passport holders rarely attract any attention at all from European IOs, except for the United Kingdom, which pays a great deal of attention to people at the border. The U.S. reserves the right to give everybody a hard time, including its own citizens. Other countries may have legal and cultural aspects, for example on homosexuality, that require extra care or may even deter you from traveling there. Think these things through and decide in advance how to approach the IO (lawfully and honestly). Don’t just turn up at a border and grandstand, unless your purpose is not to get into the country (ever), but rather to publicize something politically.

5. Every experience is different. Every IO has discretion to do his/her job differently from the next person. You will stand in one line one time, fill out different forms different times, etc. Sometimes you will be made to feel welcome in a country you’ve never visited before, and sometimes your own country (or one of them) will treat you rudely. Just keep breathing and treat it as part of the adventure. Your only objective is to get in, and if the IO happens to be friendly and make it a pleasant experience, that is a bonus.

6. Satisfy the IO that you can enter the country. If you need a visa, have it, and open your passport to that page. If you need a visa waiver, get it in advance and carry a printed copy just in case. If your passport allows visa-free travel, know that—and appreciate it! Some nationalities rarely get that opportunity.

7. Satisfy the IO that while you’re visiting, you will behave consistently with the terms of a visitor’s visa (or whatever you have). Unless you have a work permit, the IO wants to know that you will not be undertaking work of any kind, not online, not even volunteer (check the immigration laws of the country in advance). If you’re traveling on business, make sure it covers whatever training or meetings you’re going to do. If you’re visiting friends, know where they live, and be honest about your relationship with them. The IO doesn’t really care, but if you don’t know anything about these “friends,” you might be suspected of making them up.

8. Satisfy the IO that you’ll leave when you’re supposed to. A return or onward ticket is extremely helpful to have (printed out), though not always possible. A home, job, family to go back to is useful to be able to demonstrate. If you can’t point to anything that ties you to another country, the IO may decide you are a risk to overstay, especially if you do have ties to the country you’re visiting—a girlfriend or boyfriend, for example.

9. All these tips assume that you do intend to abide by the laws of the country you are visiting (even if you disagree with them), and leave when you are supposed to, and that you are telling the IO the truth. If you choose not to do any of these things, please know that it is not recommended. Not only from an honesty point of view, but pragmatically. You are more likely to have problems, both now and in the future, if an IO thinks you have lied.

10. When, as will happen, you learn better and some other traveler makes a naïve mistake that could have been easily avoided if s/he had known in advance what you know, be compassionate to those travelers. Their intentions may have been honorable and they have had a bad experience. Try to help them for the next time, not blame them for their previous mistakes.

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