The UK border is still terrifying even with indefinite leave to remain

No boarding pass until ‘visa check’

I already knew there would be some border friction before I even left for my holiday for Gran Canaria. When trying to check in for my return flight online, I couldn’t get a boarding pass because I apparently needed to get a ‘visa check’ as a US national flying into the UK.

The print-out of the non-boarding pass Ryanair gave me when I checked in. It looks like a boarding pass except it says visa check and does not have my name or a barcode on it.
The print-out I got when I checked in online. It looked like a boarding pass but it didn’t have my name or a barcode on it. Instead, it lists my nationality and says to go to check-in for visa check.

I normally don’t have to do this, so I’m guessing this was a result of having a 1-way ticket. I flew a different airline each way, so I had two 1-way tickets instead of a round-trip.

As I had no luggage to check, it was annoying to be asked to get to the airport that much earlier for an in-person check-in. But it was just that: a minor annoyance.

At least, it felt that way until I got to the airport and saw the lengthy queue of people with massive suitcases to check in. A queue I now had to join…all so I could get a boarding pass.

I waited 30 minutes in line to get a piece of paper they wouldn’t give me when I checked in online. I just gave them my passport and they gave me my boarding pass. They didn’t ask for any proof of UK residency.

When they handed me the pass, they told me to go to a different desk to get my boarding pass stamped. If my pass wasn’t stamped, I wouldn’t be allowed through security, they said.

I assumed this was where they would check my proof of residency, so at this desk (no queue, thankfully) I handed over my passport and residency permit, and they stamped my boarding pass.

The paper boarding pass from Ryanair that says visa check in pen and has been stamped by the ticket desk.
The boarding pass I waited 30 minutes for and had to get stamped.

From a minor annoyance to anger

At this point, my initial feeling of annoyance turned to anger.

I was angry at what a waste of everyone’s time it was to make me queue only to show I have indefinite leave to remain (ILR).

Angry at how there wasn’t capacity to ask for this while checking in online like passports are asked for.

Angry that having ILR feels no different to how traveling with limited leave to remain felt.

That anger very quickly turned into fear when I reached security.

From anger to fear

When I got to security, the gate wouldn’t open when I scanned my boarding pass. I kept trying to scan this thing every which way. No matter what, it wouldn’t work.

No staff were near to help so I moved to another security entrance where I saw someone. This entrance was for people with accessibility needs.

I tried to tell the staff member (who did not speak English) that my boarding pass wasn’t letting me through. Unfortunately, they could not understand my English, and I did not have the words to communicate this in Spanish.

I kept trying to signal with hand gestures that the gates were not working for me, and what I could gather from what they were saying in Spanish was I could not go through these gates because it was only for those with access needs.

Yes, I knew that already. I tried that other gate. It didn’t work. That’s why I was here. No matter which way I said or gestured it, they gave me the same reply. We couldn’t overcome the language barrier.

Exasperated, I finally said ‘I need help’, and they understood that and got someone else’s attention. But they still indicated to me to go back to the original gate entrance I failed to get through.

I went back, and this time someone came over to help me. I showed them the boarding pass was not working. They tried it, too, to no avail.

I started to tear up, afraid that I might not be able to get through in time and make it to my flight. I kept thinking, I just want to go home. Please let me go home.

Not understanding what was wrong with my boarding pass, the staff member eventually let me through. I was going home, but I was shaken up by the experience.

Another gate that wouldn’t let me through

I thought that’d be the end of my border troubles. As a US national, I’m eligible to use the e-gates that British citizens use to let them back in the country by scanning your passport.

Except when I got to the e-gate at Edinburgh Airport, it didn’t work for me. I held my passport in the scanner a long time, and nothing happened.

I asked an airport staff member for help and they directed me to the last place I wanted to go: to speak to a border officer.

An unsettling question at the border

I had never spoken to a border officer since getting indefinite leave to remain, and I didn’t have fond memories of doing so when I had limited leave to remain. I feel like you’re treated with more suspicion and disdain as a legal resident than as a tourist.

I went up to the border officer. They asked me how long I had been away for. As you lose your ILR if you are out of the UK for 2 years, I guess I could understand why they ask this.

But then they asked a question I was not prepared for and was very unsettled by:

How did you qualify for settlement?

In other words, they wanted to know through which route I got settlement. So things like work, marriage, or long residence.

There are reasons I don’t want to get into about why this question unsettled me so much. But what I will say, is the thing that upset me most about it, is it made me feel like my right to live here is not my own.

It’s like this government sees that right as being forever owned by my sponsor.

I got IRL. My right to live here isn’t tied to anything anymore. I’m not supposed to be subject to immigration control anymore. And yet, that question was still treating me with suspicion. Still making me prove myself like I had to when I had limited leave to remain.

If you saw me writing these last two paragraphs, you would have seen my entire body tense up. No one should ever have to feel this way simply because they live in a different place to where they grew up.

I spent the entire bus ride back into Edinburgh crying. Not exactly the way I wanted to end my holiday.

The privileged immigrant experience

Before I wrap up this piece, I have to acknowledge that my experience is among the most privileged for people who are not UK citizens. I’m well aware of how being a white American female protects me from so much.

If the e-gates had worked, my bad border experience would have stopped when I left Gran Canaria. There are plenty of other UK permanent residents from other countries who don’t get to use those e-gates and will always have to speak to a border officer.

But that is what absolutely terrifies me about this experience flying back to the UK: this is the privileged experience, and it had me in tears.

ILR feels meaningless

I’m coming away from this experience feeling that having ILR is meaningless when it comes to travel.

The permanent right to live here means nothing when all an airline asks you for is a nationality and passport number.

Granted, I did have one previous international flying experience with ILR that didn’t come with all this hassle and fear. It was a round-trip ticket to the US and the e-gates at Heathrow worked for me.

Maybe I was naive to think traveling with ILR should mean no (or at least less) hassle no matter what type of ticket you book. But why shouldn’t it be?

Why shouldn’t I be able to book a 1-way ticket and declare I have ILR? Why, as some who does not have a visa, should I be made to do a ‘visa check’?

Heck, who even cares about ILR at this rate. Anyone, with any sort of leave to remain, should be able to declare their status and have it verified when checking in for their flights.

We’re UK residents. We live here. It is a colossal waste of time and resources to treat us any differently to citizens.

I know that the UK immigration system is intentionally designed this way, but I won’t stop saying things like this. I won’t stop advocating for a world where we don’t hurt people who choose to cross borders.

Borders are a waste of time. Borders are violence.

I’m not ending on a low note

It really sucked that my nice time away had to end this way.

I don’t want the border experience to have the final word on my holiday, so here’s a photo of me the day before leaving while on a tour of the island’s mountains.

I look happy and super cute, so I want to end by saying that.

Oh, and that the Home Office can go suck it.

Me in sunglasses smiling with a rocky forest behind me.
Me enjoying the last day of my Gran Canaria holiday.

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Lauren Tormey

Lauren Tormey

Content Designer. Runner. Immigrant. I write about things related to all 3.