What to Expect at UK Border Control

Travelling to the United Kingdom (UK) can be stressful if you’re not sure what to expect at the border.  Brushing up on the rules around entering the region and what you can and can’t take in your luggage will ensure you avoid any high-risk encounters with UK border control agents. 

In this article we cover passport control, choosing the right passport queue, border control interviews, travelling with children, customs and baggage checks. Travel with peace of mind and begin your stay on the right foot!

Selecting the Ideal Airport

“Sometimes it’s helpful to book your route via Gatwick or one of the other smaller airports, which has fewer travellers than Heathrow – the UK’s largest airport – and therefore shorter queues at border control,” said Ryan Rennison, managing director of UK-specific immigration firm, Move Up.

British Airways fleet parked at Heathrow Airport.

After disembarking from the plane, travellers must make their way to passport control before being allowed to proceed to baggage claim. 

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“The passport control area is divided into sections with an ePassport option for certain passport holders, too.  However, after Brexit the way they divide up these sections could change,” added Rennison. 

Good news for South Africans is that travellers from non-EEA countries no longer need to fill in a landing card upon arriving at the UK border.

Passport Checks

The UK Government’s website says that passports will be checked on arrival at ports or airports to make sure travellers are allowed to enter the country.

Passports should be valid for the whole of your stay and even an extra few months beyond your planned visit.  South Africans are required to have a visitor, settlement or transit visa attached to a page in their passport, which must be applied for and granted before leaving South Africa.

A South African passport.

“Before you get to the front of the queue make sure you have removed your sunglasses if you are wearing them and remember to move through passport control together with your family members if you are travelling together,” Rennison said.

Once your passport has been examined, scanned and stamped, you will most likely be questioned by a border control agent.  Agents will ask about your reason for travelling to the UK to ensure that you are not planning to break the conditions of your specific visa.  (For example, visitor visas and certain settlement visas do not allow the bearer to seek employment). 

“South Africans are often unsure of whether they need a transit visa when their flights have a layover in the UK – unfortunately we are required to obtain transit visas even you are planning to stay in the airport while waiting for your next flight,” he advised. 

ePassport Gates

If you carry a passport from these nations, you will be able to use the automatic ePassport gates:  Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and the United States.  

If you use the ePassport gates you must also:

  • Be age 12 years or over (travellers between 12 years and 17 years must be accompanied by an adult);
  • Have a valid visa or a biometric residence permit;
  • Have a valid passport for the duration of the stay;
  • Have a passport with a ‘chip’ on it.
  • Follow the UK-EEA immigration lanes at border control.
Immigration and passport control at the airport.

You must see a border control officer and get a stamp in your passport if you are from a non-EEA country and entering the UK:

  • On a short-term study visa up to six months;
  • With a Tier 5 Creative or Sporting certificate of sponsorship for up to three months (and would like to enter without a visa);
  • On a permitted paid engagement;
  • To accompany or join your EEA family member.

Note that you cannot get a stamp if you use the ePassport gates.  Without a stamp, you won’t be allowed to carry out the activities you are visiting the UK for.

Travelling with a UK biometric residence permit

You’ll have a biometric residence permit if your fingerprints were taken when you applied.

Your fingerprints will be checked at border control – they’ll be checked against the ones stored on your visa document.

If you’re joining or travelling with an EEA or Swiss family member you should see a border control officer instead of using the automatic ePassport gates.

If You’re Refused Entry to the UK

You’ll be told in writing:

  • why you’ve been refused entry to the UK
  • if you can appeal against the decision
  • when you will be removed from the UK
  • You’ll usually have to leave the UK immediately.

You may be allowed into the UK temporarily (usually for up to a week) but your passport will be taken from you and you must report to immigration officers at set times.

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Travelling with Children

You may be asked at the border to prove the relationship between yourself and any children travelling with you, if you do not seem to be the parent; for example if you have a different surname.

Family holding boarding passes and passports at airport.

You can prove this with:

  • a birth or adoption certificate showing your relationship with the child
  • divorce or marriage certificates if you’re the parent but have a different surname from the child
  • a letter from the child’s parent giving permission for the child to travel with you and providing contact details, if you’re not the parent.


What you may take into the UK will depend on where you are travelling from. Persons must declare to customs:

  • Anything over the duty-free allowance;
  • Banned or restricted goods in the United Kingdom, for example, meat and dairy products from most non-EU countries;
  • Goods that are for sale;
  • More than €10,000 (or its equivalent) in cash if persons are coming from outside of the EU.

Customs officials may search you and your baggage for anything that must be declared.

Baggage Checks

You must co-operate if you’re stopped and asked about your baggage.  If your baggage is checked, it will usually be checked in front of you.

Customs officers keep a record of:

  • all baggage they open and check
  • any damage to your baggage or belongings during a check
Airport security check.

If your things are damaged you may be offered compensation if your baggage or belongings are damaged during a customs check.

You may ask for the duty manager if you want to complain about a customs check while you’re at the border.  If you’d prefer to, you may send your complaint to Border Force later.

EU Citizens

The UK Government has this notice on their website:

“Please note that there will be no change to the rights and status of European Union (EU) citizens currently living in the United Kingdom until June 30, 2021, or December 31, 2020, if the United Kingdom leaves the EU without a deal. Persons and their families can apply to the EU Settlement Scheme to continue living in the United Kingdom.”

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