Story Time: London Heathrow, I’m Back!

Mary Murray University of Westminster, England


September 25, 2018

It’s been just over a week since I’ve arrived in London, and I’ve already got a crazy story to tell.

My first week in London up to the point where this story starts was great. I got to explore the city of London and see sights like the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and the Houses of Parliament, but one sight I wasn’t expecting to see so soon was London Heathrow Airport’s International Arrivals Terminal.

No, I wasn’t taking a weekend trip to France before classes started up. Let’s start the story from the beginning (it’s a bit long, but bear with me).

Classes are due to begin on Monday, September 24. As a study abroad student at Westminster, I had to sign up for a mandatory enrollment meeting with an advisor with Westminster’s Education Abroad office. Here, they check our passports, change our class schedule if we want to make any changes, and most importantly, enroll us in the University. My appointment was on the last day of the meetings, Friday the 21st, and it was one of the last meetings before the Education Abroad team went home for the day.

All I had to do was change one class. I was dropping a class that made me commute from my campus in Harrow into the city to the main campus at Regent Street, and I was picking up a Media and Public Relations class that I really wanted to take here. I walked in thinking that it would be an easy meeting, and that I’d get the class with no problem. After all, I had already gotten it cleared by my advisor back home and I had it on my original course form that I had submitted during the application process.

The first thing my Education Abroad advisor did was take my passport and look at my visa – that’s where everything went wrong. She did a double take, looked up at me, and asked me if this was the visa I had been given for this trip. I said it had, and she told me that I wasn’t given a short-term student visa, but rather a visitor visa. She consulted one of her bosses to check, and she was right – I was given the wrong visa.

This all took me by surprise, but what I was told next broke me down. I was told that I had a week to get on an international flight to anywhere in Europe (except Ireland), come back, and get the correct visa stamp in my passport. If I didn’t do it before Friday, I wouldn’t be able to enroll in the University, and I’d pretty much be sent back home to America.

They told me that I did absolutely everything right on my end. After explaining that I had shown the Border Force officer all of the necessary paperwork for the short-term student visa, Westminster staff told me that, unfortunately, this has happened before. A student has shown all of their paperwork, and a Border Force officer at passport Control mistakenly stamps the students’ passport with the wrong visa.

I was taken into a private room, where one of the staff members let me call my mom and my Arcadia program advisor. I called him and told him my situation, and after I asked if I could head to the Arcadia London Center, he said that the person I needed to talk to would only be there until 5:00pm. It was 4:15pm.

I tried my best to wipe the tears that had escaped since I was upset and frustrated. I quickly told the advisor the change that I wanted to make to my schedule, and I left the office. Apple Maps told me that it would take me 30 minutes to walk to the Arcadia Center, and I knew I’d have to book it. I basically sprinted through central London to the Center and got it down to maybe a 20-minute trip.

When I arrived, one of the Arcadia London staff members directed me to who I needed to talk to. I stepped into his office, and he told me that he had already been on the phone with Westminster and knew the situation. He asked for my side, and after telling him what happened, he smiled at me and told me to relax.

Relax? How could I relax? I was about to have to miss my first week of classes to get a £60 flight to somewhere in Europe and back just to get my passport stamped, when I had done everything right the first time.

He told me that usually, in this instance, the Immigration and Border Force agents at Heathrow are pretty nice about this, and that I might be able to just take a trip to Heathrow to get the visa stamp that I needed. He called Immigration at Heathrow and talked to a Border Force agent, and told me that I would be allowed to go and get the right visa.

So, after getting directions from him about how to get to Heathrow using the Tube and what to do when I got there, I decided to go straight there and get it taken care of. After an hour ride on the Piccadilly line from Holborn, I arrived at Heathrow Terminal 3. I had to go into the Arrivals Hall and find a telephone that said “For Immigration Enquiries Only” to explain my issue and ask to get it fixed. After waiting by the phone for a little while, a Border Force agent came to me, took my passport, and before heading back to fix it, asked me, “Why did you wait over a week to come back and get this fixed?”

I said, “I had my enrollment meeting today, and that’s when I found out that I had the wrong visa.” She took my passport back to Immigration, and probably 20 minutes later, she came back and showed me the new, correct visa in my passport. I thanked her and headed back to the Tube for another hour ride back home.

Those three or four hours were probably some of the most terrifying and stressful of my life. I was on an emotional roller coaster, from feeling upset, angry, frustrated, and lost, but I knew that I had to get this fixed and that I had to use the resources around me. I grew so much in those three hours, as I was forced to draw on my resources and be independent. Though I got guidance and help, this was something that I had to go and take care of on my own.

I have to thank my Arcadia program manager James, and the Arcadia staff member at the London Center who helped me through this whole ordeal, David. From communicating with Westminster and UK Immigration on my behalf, printing out a duplicate confirmation letter, showing me a map of Heathrow giving me detailed directions to get to the Immigration phone in the Terminal, and showing me a correct picture of what the short-term student visa should look like in my passport, David and the Arcadia staff in-country calmed me down and told me exactly what I needed to do to resolve the situation. I have no idea what I would have done without them, and I’m extremely thankful to have the amazing Arcadia London staff on my side for the next three months.

So, after that long story, here’s my takeaway: No matter how far you are from home, you aren’t alone – especially in a situation like this. The Arcadia staff in-country in both my experiences in Australia and in England have been extremely supportive and have helped me through every bump in the road, from homesickness and culture shock in Australia, and now this in England. Lean on your resources when you need them, but also use situations like this to see yourself grow. The time you spend abroad will change you as a person and make you more independent – embrace the changes you endure and know that you always have someone on your side.