Sunday, January 4, 2009

Welcome to England. Papers, please.

For those of you who were under the impression that the US and UK were allies and good friends, we can report that this is no longer true. After an uneventful 3+ hour drive to Philly airport (thanks Misha and Stefan), we endured the overnight British Airways flight to Heathrow. No major problems there either, other than BA's meal service seems to be in need of some efficiency expertise. We arrived at Heathrow on time, got ourselves to immigration, and were happy to see just a very short line. We had visions of sailing through, grabbing our bags, meeting our car service, and being at our rented flat in Islington in no time flat. This is when things started to go awry.

Our immigration officer (from the Home Office) seemed to be somewhat bewildered by the fact that we were staying for so long in her fine country. I explained that I was a uni professor on sabbatical, and would be conducting research while in the UK.

Her: "Have you been to a British embassy and secured visas?"
Me: I reported to her confidently that, "according to the Home Office website, as visitors under six months we did not need one."
Her: "Did you know that the regulations changed recently?"
Me: "Um, no - last I looked on the website, that was the requirement"
Her: "Well, I'll need to ask some questions. We need to make sure that you and your family don't end up on the dole here."

I'm a bit stunned at this point, to think that she's afraid the four of us have come all this way so that we can take advantage of the British welfare state. But I decided not to act overly incredulous, and try to calmly answer her questions. To make a very long discussion short, we had to demonstrate that we:

1. Had the financial resources necessary to sustain ourselves in London for the duration (she asked for the amount of money we had in the bank to tap for our stay)
2. That we had enrolled our children in a fee school, so that we wouldn't be taking advantage of state-provided schooling for our children
3. That we had already secured housing
4. That we had health insurance that would cover us while in the UK
5. That I would be employed by Penn State during my stay and would not be paid by a British uni.

After providing written documentation for numbers 2 and 3 (luckily I had this with me), she went off to talk to a supervisor about our situation, while we were asked to sit and wait as every other visitor - as nefarious looking as us, to my eyes - filed calmly through the immigration checkpoint.

After 30 minutes of waiting, and reassuring our children that they were not going to put us on the next BA flight back to Philly, she returned and asked Anne and me to speak with her. She informed me that in fact I was right, that we did not require visas for our stay. And she also told me that if we had gone to the British embassy, they would have given us the same answer (no visas required). So after another 10 minutes of waiting while she stamped our passports with some very special stamps (including one that designated me as an "Academic Visitor"), we were granted entry. She suggested that if we leave the UK temporarily to travel elsewhere, that we bring all of our documentation with us as we would likely get the same type of questioning upon our reentry. I have to say that through the whole ordeal she was very polite and respectful, but she clearly had a job to do.

So after approximately a 40 minute delay, we retrieved our eight checked bags which were circling by themselves on the BA carousel, and headed to the exit to try and find our car service - thanks to Claire for arranging it. Luckily, the drivers had persevered and not given up on us (though the 40 minute delay ended up costing us 24 pounds in waiting fees), and after loading us all up into the two cars necessary to ferry us and our bags, drove us to our flat in Islington. We were greeted by the flat's owner, who happens to be a New Yorker. The flat is just wonderful, but I'm going to save its description for another post, complete with pictures when the sun comes up again.


  1. Welcome to the blogosphere Prof. No doubt, the experience will all be up from here. London should be spectacular. Hopefully you will have some down time to enjoy the local.

  2. As I was reading this it sounded more and more like a Monty Python skit. I was waiting for the Minister of Silly Walks to start interrogating you. Glad you made it through--good thing they didn't do a background check :)

  3. Joe -- I know enough when to keep my mouth shut, so as not to encourage a *full* background check.