As I was sitting in the Salzburg, Austria airport with my friend, Ben, and his family, I was in a zone. I could hardly interact with anyone properly. I was in fear; a fear of London. There was just something about the city that I was admittedly scared of. I hadn’t felt as scared about travel at that moment as I had since I was driving to the Kansas City airport about ready to leave everything I knew for Europe for a year’s time.
Bound for problems
I was nervous to return to an English speaking country. Would it be harder for me to communicate in my own language being away from native speakers for so long? However, I was at ease knowing that I would be able to read signs and maps and everything in between.
The beginning of my experiences in London started off rough. I had some suspicions that I would have some difficulties entering into the United Kingdom because of stories I have heard from others in similar situations as me.
I was in Europe on a 90-day traveling visa that is automatically granted to all U.S. citizens (for now. . . Thank you for making that complicated, Mr. Trump). Those 90 days were extended because I was studying in Malta, and I was granted to the end of my semester but not a day longer.
Well, I had done a lot (A LOT) of research about ways to extend my tourist visa even further so that I could do some backpacking around Europe that I had wanted to do for so long after the semester ended.
Visa Overstay Solutions
Thinking through some crazy scenarios (including living in Algeria for three months before returning to Europe), I decided I would fly out of the Schengen Area for a weekend and come back to Malta with a stamp that renewed my 90 days in Europe.
The technical rule is: any American citizen can be in the Schengen Area for up to 90 days on a free tourist visa, but after the 90 days have expired, you must leave the Schengen Area for another 90 days before returning to renew your passport stamp.
However, I read in numerous travel blogs that it is a very loose policy. As long as you have a stamp notifying that you left the Schengen Area before your 90 days expired, you should be allowed to travel freely in Europe for an additional 90 days with no problems. That is what led me to spend four days out of the Schengen Area in Sofia, Bulgaria; to renew my stamp.
This isn’t a legal option and I knew I would be traveling on an overstayed visa which could result in severe penalties including fines, bans, and future traveling privileges being revoked. I was timid to take this chance, but it was my last option. Besides, my thought process was that, if caught, I could always play dumb about the visa rules and most likely wiggle out of any punishment. That’s what I thought anyway. . .
My plan worked! I traveled around Europe by train, bus, plane, and any other modes of public transportation that you can imagine for several months without a single question about it. The unforeseen problem was the fact that all of that travel was done within mainland Europe. The United Kingdom, it turns out, checks passports a little more thoroughly.
Detained at the Airport in London
As soon as I arrived, I was questioned at customs for 45 minutes before being detained at Stansted Airport.
I knew right from the get-go that I was talking to the strictest border patrol officer. She wasn’t letting people enter at nearly the rate of her colleagues. By chance, I was called to her line with a two-month old expired visa. I knew there was going to be some delay.
I remained calm, which was key; even after they took my passport from me for further background checks and put me in their detainee “playpen” with a couple of older men who could only argue their case in broken English – it was quite interesting. I’m not kidding; their detainee area was literally like a big baby crib for adults. It was comical.
They asked me invasive questions as well as having me tell my “story” to three different security personnel. They took me to an ATM to show them proof that I had the means to stay in London. Most importantly, they made me feel inferior to them.
Luckily, after about a four-hour delay, I was finally allowed to enter through the gates. They only let me enter because I had proof that I had already booked my flight home in a week’s time. That was the only reason I was able to avoid any sort of punishment.
I do not suggest overstaying your visa ever. However, if you are going to do it, avoid the U.K. at all costs. Book a flight home from mainland Europe. The countries in the mainland are much more relaxed about the visa policy.
I narrowly avoided trouble that day. However, if it meant I could travel Europe for several months longer, I would do it again tomorrow.