How to Survive Your First Customs Experience

The first time I travelled internationally, I was alone.  I didn’t really think it was a big deal, I was so stoked I was getting to meet Meg Robinson for a workshop in Ibiza, Spain, that I couldn’t think of anything else.  A week on an island in the Mediterranean Sea, oh my lawd yes!!!  To get there I had layovers at 5 airports.  Chicago was easy.  My dad has gone through there so many times for work – he even told me which awesome Greek restaurant to eat at before boarding (I think I ended up eating at Chili’s because I could never find it).  I even lucked out on the plane and had an entire row to myself.  This never happens.  I got a solid amount of sleep thanks to that.  It did not, however, prepare me for the Madrid airport.  First off, I speak absolutely no Spanish.  Thank you high school French…Needless to say, it was an ungodly early hour in the morning when we arrived (my 2nd layover) and I just tried my best to follow the crowd to where, I had absolutely no idea.  Only Spanish signs.  Oh, not to mention the arrows pointing you where to go were totally opposite of what you might think.  That was a minor setback.  Then my brilliant plan of “following the crowd” started crumbling to pieces.  Everyone was scattering different directions.  The bathroom.  A scary long line of people. An even scarier line of more security checkpoints.  I asked probably a dozen different people where I was suppose to go and they either looked at me weirdly and walked away or tried explaining to me in Spanish.  Sigh.  When I finally figured out I had to go back through a security checkpoint my anxiety mounted.  I’m a person who gets anxious in the grocery store checkout, always concerned I’m going too slow and people will start throwing their purchases at me.  It’s completely irrational, I know, but that anxiety was tripled when I was at the Madrid airport.  Did I mention I don’t speak Spanish?

Long story short, after navigating my way through an underground railway system and realizing everything is color coded and the passport checkers spoke English, I was ok.  The Madrid airport was actually amazing.  It was like walking through a futuristic shopping mall.  They had a Burberry!  I have never been to an airport with a Burberry before, let alone other clothing stores that sold more than souvenir “I Love X-city”.  I thought it was the coolest thing ever.

I went to England a few weeks after my trip to Ibiza and was considerably less stressed going through the traveling process.  I thought I was prepared with my experience from the Madrid airport.  After all, it is huge.  I planned on visiting my friend Katie in Nottingham but was stopping in London for a few days first.  I walked off the plane, exhausted from lack of sleep but buzzing with excitement to see the wonders of England (my favorite place ever).  Once I reached the customs desk, I was prepared to hand over my super awesome passport for a super brief inspection and just walk through to experience ENGLAND.  I was so naive.  The man “in charge” of me was very kind, but I was totally unprepared for the process that the UK employs.  I just thought, oh yeah they look at your passport and make sure it’s you, stamp it, and whew you’re done!  It’s a little bit more complicated than that.  Luckily Katie had given me her address for the form you need to fill out before entering the country so they know you actually have a place to stay.  So I had one thing going for me.  When he asked if I had my ticket for home, I had a total dumby moment and said no.  I thought he meant an actual physical ticket which you can’t get until the day off your flight (I’m so dumb).  He looked at me very concerned and confused until I realized he was only checking to make sure I had actually purchased a ticket home.  I ruffled in my bag and found all my hotel reservations and ticket information, all that jazz.  I was good to go from there.  Pretty sure he sees sorry souls like me everyday.

For those of you who are about to embark on their first overseas trip, or trip to the UK for that matter, here are some helpful tips for you to be prepared for what’s coming.  I didn’t have any idea what to expect, no one told me.  They either expected I would know about it already or…I really just don’t know what they thought.  I was alone and knew nothing.

1. Find the correct line.  If you are from the States, for goodness sakes don’t get in a line that says EU citizens only.  That is not you.  Don’t be shocked when you see other people running around like crazy people dashing from one line to another.  They just didn’t read the signs, it honestly happens a lot.  If you aren’t sure, ask someone.  There’s usually a security officer or other airport official standing by.

2.  Be calm and polite (and patient).  These people are just doing their job and I bet they deal with crazies day in and day out, so don’t be one of them.

3.  Have your information ready.  Seriously.  Everything.  They want to see your hotel reservations and your plane tickets.  Especially your plane tickets home.  Bring more information than you think they will want.  It is so much better to be over-prepared than assume they won’t ask.  They have asked for my student ID.  They have asked for my driver’s license.  They always ask for my plane ticket.  I always put all my information into a secure folder that easily slips into the pocket of my backpack and while I’m standing in line I am ready to hand over everything at their command.

4. What do they ask?  Pretty standard stuff.  Why are you visiting?  How long are you staying? Where are you staying?  Do you know someone here?  What’s your occupation?  The first time I experienced this, it was overwhelming.  I felt like I was being interrogated.  Relax, and answer the questions.  It’s just protocol.  I had one person know the owner of the hotel I was staying at – he asked me to tell George hello.

5. Don’t joke around.  Customs is definitely not the place to crack jokes about anything because it will get taken the wrong way.  Save your humor for the pub.

6. Get your passport stamped.  Ok this one is tricky.  Some airports are super lax and sometimes don’t even check your passport when you come in.  I always thought it was weird.  I travelled from Rome all the way up to England before it eventually bit me in the butt.  I had never received a stamp at Fiumicino because no one even checked it, they didn’t even look!  I had already gone through 7 other countries before entering England without having my passport checked a single time so I wasn’t really concerned.  Blindsided again by my love of the country (I must learn to control this)!  I got held up at the border control in Belgium for a long time.  Long as in, I was one of the first in my tour group to go through and the absolute last to come out.  Because I had no stamps proving I had ever come to Rome or any other country I had been to the past month, they were, let’s just say, a little hesitant to believe I hadn’t been holed up in England drinking tea for the past 7 months since my last trip there.  I did, however, have a stamp that showed I had gone to Toronto right after the trip to England in March, so that helped the situation a little.  Needless to say, I severely regretted throwing away the piece of paper with my ticket information from VA to Rome on it.  Seriously y’all, keep everything with you.  It’s also not the easiest to get your passport stamped wherever you go, but if someone is physically checking your passport at least ask if they could stamp it.  I’m also a little sad that I don’t have stamps from all the countries I have gone to so I can brag about it with evidence!

I wish I had known what the experience would be like before I went through it.  I’m so accustomed to it now, it’s not a big deal, but when you are going alone and have no idea what to expect the whole process can be intimidating.  I personally just like to be mentally prepared and fully aware of what to expect in scenarios like this.  Good news, you will make it out alive!  And when you do, you can delight in all the charms England has to offer – check out some of my favorite things in Thursday’s blog post!

In the meantime, here’s a collection of bridal shots taken at Wollaton Hall in Nottingham.  Yep, it’s the Batman mansion.  And Natasha is stunning in this pastel ball gown.  One of my favorite shoots ever!  An absolute dream location.  You would never know we experienced sunny skies, then rain, then snow and then a heat wave all in the same few hours we were there.  Oh England, you and your weather delight me.

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January 15, 2014 - 4:27 am

When in Rome, in a Nutshell » Kait Winston Photography - […] expect to be put through the same longwinded experience of UK Customs.  They didn’t even check my passport when going through Fiumicino.  What you do have to […]

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