It’s one of the worst things that can happen to a traveller. You’ve just arrived in another country, excitement and thrills await on the other side of the terminal doors and now suddenly there’s something that doesn’t quite look right to an immigration official.
Denial of entry can happen even when you think you’ve done everything by the book and for reasons that seem bizarre, and it’s going to get chalked up in your book of life’s unhappiest experiences. You’re going to be interrogated, shamed, possibly even undergo a search and held in immigration detention while a return flight is organised. A cancelled entry stamp is probably going to appear in your passport and it’s a scar you might have to reveal every time you apply for a visa forever after. Here are some of the ways you might be caught out.
Working on a tourist visa
You can’t, end of story, and fair enough you might think. But if you’re providing a service and not being paid, does that constitute work? Sure does, according to both the UK and the US, and a number of house sitters have fallen foul of this interpretation.
House sitting in this case involves looking after a property and pets while the owners are away. No money changes hands. The sitter gets to live in the property rent-free and in return they walk the dog, scratch the cat and feed the pet anaconda.
Yet Queenslander Madolline Gourley was denied entry to the USA on the grounds that her house sitting assignment contravened the ESTA visa waiver rules under which she was expecting to enter the US “because homeowners would need to pay for someone to feed the cat if it wasn’t for me,” Gourley was told. En route to housesit in Scotland, Californian Corrine Petteys was turned back from Gatwick under similar circumstances.
According to the website of TrustedHousesitters, the agency that facilitated Gourley’s housesit, “House sitting can occasionally be misinterpreted as work by border officials. We’ve produced the letters below for our most popular house sitting destinations which you can show if needed to help border control officials understand that we don’t regard house sitting as work.”
A letter helping an immigration officer “understand” they’ve got the wrong end of the stick is not likely to smooth entry. As a result of being denied entry to the US, Gourney is now several thousand dollars out of pocket. She also has a “refused entry” stamp in her passport. On its “Advice for International House Sitting” page, TrustedHousesitters makes no mention of the need to apply for a work visa in some cases. Despite a string of emails from Gourley to TrustedHousesitters expressing her frustration, the agency continues to rely on its advice to housesitters that the letters explaining to border officials the concept of “work” will facilitate entry, rather than advising them that a work visa might be required.
A damaged passport
Believe it or not, your passport is not your property. It belongs to the country of issue. If you draw in it, bend or mutilate it or leave it on a windowsill in the rain, expect things not to go quite so smoothly when you next pass through immigration. Whatever you do, don’t rip out pages, as Scots blogger/model/influencer Lacey Montgomery-Henderson discovered when she landed in Bangkok for a conference with other influencers in 2019 and presented a passport with two pages torn out.
Why would anyone rip pages out of their passport? Write a shopping list? Emergency toilet paper? Seriously? But that’s not the first thought that leaps to the mind of an immigration officer, and Thailand’s border officials did not come down with the last shower. Protesting that the missing pages were due to a “liquid spill”, Montgomery-Henderson was hauled off to a “stinky 12-bed cockroach-infested cell” and “treated like an animal” before being put on a flight back to the UK.
No ticket to leave
Border officials want to know you’re not going to overstay your welcome, and that means a ticket out. Sounds simple enough, but not in the case of the US. Australians are entitled to apply to enter the US under the Visa Waiver Program, which allows entry for up to 90 days. You also need an onward ticket, but if that ticket is to a “contiguous territory or adjacent islands”, according to the US Department of Homeland Security, that doesn’t count as a ticket out. When his aircraft landed in Hawaii, Victoria’s Jack Dunn had a visa waiver and a flight ticket to Mexico, but that wasn’t good enough to satisfy a Customs and Border Protection officer, who refused him entry and sent him to the slammer where he was handcuffed and subjected to the soul crushing humiliations of the US criminal justice system for 30 hours before being returned to Australia.
Tribal bling, dreadlocks, exotic body piercings and tattoos and luggage that suggests a long stay in an exotic country are just some of the things that might say to a border official that further investigation is needed.
The Australian Border Force’s own website admits this, stating: “No examination or search is randomly conducted. Risk assessment techniques are employed to identify which passengers will be examined or searched.”
Appearance is one of those risk assessment markers. By itself the way you present is not enough to get you booted but it can draw unwanted attention, and if border control wants a reason to exclude you, they’ll find one. You can be denied entry to Japan for health or hygiene reasons and back in the 1970s Singapore was notorious for excluding males with long hair, since shoulder-length tresses were the hallmark of a degenerate.