I’m back but it wasn’t easy

Warning to all who enter the UK, they have changed the “landing card” forms to make them more extensive, which means that on entering the UK you now have to provide much more information such as passport number, place of passport issue, and most puzzlingly, “Port of Last Departure”. I was surprised when the landing cards were not handed out on my flight into London from Salzburg yesterday, but then was less surprised when I saw they had changed the landing cards–perhaps the plane did not have them. I was then slightly dismayed, and eventually amused as we all stood in the arrivals area discussing what on earth was meant by “Port of Last Departure”. Leave it to the Brits to ignore the rule about forms for general use being at an eighth-grade reading level. We were pretty much all Americans, and thus native speakers of the English language, and since we could not figure it out, I can only imagine how confusing this one will be to true foreigners. Even more puzzlingly, they now also ask for your flight number, which means if they really want to know where you just came from, they are being redundant. If they want to know where you will leave from when you go back to your own country, “last” for “final” instead of most “recent” well, who knows what they want. Since “port” is technically a place for receiving ships and cargo, and has been appropriated for use in the “airport” sense, I think the language choice for this one is extremely poor.

I do admit, for those who I know will start to complain about my ranting when the US entry procedure is even more onerous, that these forms now do far closer resemble the ones that are filled out even by US citizens on entry to the US, which I will be doing again in a mere twelve days (yes, I know I travel too much!) However, I still reserve the right to be annoyed at being asked the same stupid questions by immigration every time I enter the UK, since I have a visa to live and work here and yet that doesn’t seem to actually confer any sort of status difference from the throngs of tourists entering on a visa waiver. Of course, I was not asked anything on entering Austria (typically it’s fairly straightforward going into most of the EU except the UK) but on leaving they asked where I reside after seeing all the stamps in my passport.

I have three new stamps (into Austria, out of Austria and into the UK) from this trip, added into my increasingly crowded passport, and I anticipate having to sort out additional pages in the next year. With my sister moving to China and a friend spending a year in Russia, I can anticipate some interesting trips that will require visas. All of my companions on the trip to Bavaria had EU passports, which means my stamps were the envy of the group–some of them had no stamps at all since they had travelled only within Europe. I, on the other hand, have stamps from each of the ten (I think!) EU countries I’ve been to plus Singapore, dozens of entries into the UK and a few random stamps when entering the US. My sister and I are already plotting our next adventure, with the rule that we will go somewhere that neither of us has been before. This turns out to be slightly tricky, as our lists of EU countries visited are remarkably non-overlapping, but I think we have it narrowed down to a few good choices. But my next few trips are just to the US and my sixth or eighth time in Germany, so not much more interesting for a while.


21 responses to “I’m back but it wasn’t easy

  1. > Even more puzzlingly, they now also ask for your flight number, which means if they really want to know where you just came from, they are being redundant.

    On a long-haul flight, the plane may land at several places along its route, and pick up passengers from them. So the flight number does not necessarily describe where they came from.

    I’m truly amazed that Americans should have difficulties with the idea that the expression ‘port’ can also mean ‘airport’. I would have thought that the fact that the word ‘airport’ includes ‘port’ in it might have given them a clue.

  2. I suspect one of the reasons they ask for the same information several times is to see if you have changed your story.

    “City of Departure” the US equivalent to “Port of last departure” is arguably more ambiguous and less precise, though perhaps less clumsy English. Does it want:

    a) Where will I leave the country
    b) Where did I board the flight that brought me to the country.
    c) I’m on a transit flight, so the city of the airport I started at.
    d) The city I started my journey to the airport.
    e) Where I started my round the world trip.

    I guess they are asking for (c) in both cases – and in neither case is it always possible to determine this from the flight number (nor vice versa).

    I do wish forms like this would include notes on how to fill them in.


    PS I don’t want my plane to land momentarily, I want it to land and stay landed so I can get off.

  3. Howard, as usual you assume the worst, the confusion was as Chris notes, not to do with the word “port” which I was merely trying to wryly comment on–what an odd combination to call it an airport in parallel with a shipping port. Most people who use the word “port” alone ARE referring to ocean or sea ports, not air ones which are almost always called “airports” not just “ports”…

  4. Chris,
    Is it that common to have a multi-stop flight that stops in different countries and requires you to actually enter the country through customs and immigration as opposed to just hanging at the airport? In that case I think this would be even more confusing. I’m puzzled as to why the flight number would be such a problem, I don’t get this one.

  5. > Most people who use the word “port” alone ARE referring to ocean or sea ports,

    … But not when they are expecting airline passengers to complete a form. The context, surely, makes the meaning obvious.

  6. NFAH,
    Stopovers of a few days are commonly advertised for flights from the UK to Australia. I’ve even seen stopovers in Iceland advertised. I’m only aware of the US requiring a visa for transit passengers.

    I was really thinking of transit flights though. For example flying from from Tokyo to London where you can have come via any number of European cities, Moscow, Dubai, of Seoul. Your flight number will only tell customs/immigration where your last flight departed , not where your journey originated.

    They probably want both – if they refuse you entry, the need to know both where to send you back to, and who to send the bill. No doubt there are other reasons too.


    PS Wikipedia says “A port of entry is a place where one may lawfully enter a country… . International airports are usually ports of entry, as are road and rail crossings on a land border.”

  7. Good god people, I never said that the word “port” was used incorrectly, just that it was a funny and less common (dare I say archaic?) usage in this context. The wikipedia article starts with, “A port is a facility for receiving ships and transferring cargo. They are usually situated at the edge of an ocean, sea, river, or lake.” One would assume that coming into an airport one could ask for the “Airport of last departure” although as discussed without defining the last departure part more clearly it would still be ambiguous.

  8. Pingback: More British grammatical adventures « Not From Around Here

  9. “Port of entry” is a legal term, and the general one for all places where you cross into a country. If this was the universal landing card that they use at all airports, harbors, and train stations – basically anywhere you can enter the UK – then I’d understand choosing the more generic phrase. But if the form specifies flight number, then I think there’s no excuse for using a legal term that is inevitably going to confuse foreigner visitors, English speaking or otherwise. Most of us who do not deal with legalize associate ports with ships. We’re not stupid, we’re just not lawyers. Just use “arriving from” or something… like the rest of the world does.

  10. NFAH:

    Filling London Heathrow in a US I-94(W) means a person will be sent to the end of the queue and made to fill another form from scratch. So as far as legal inflexibilities go, all countries are outdoing one another.

    And I do not think you can ever win the ‘number of stamps in the passport’ against any of the “universal lepers” – the Indians and others. I had, within 6 years, filled up 3 booklets of 36 pages each. We needed visas, entry stamps and exit stamps. If you live outside India, India will award you with stamps on entry and exit too. Beat that if you can! 🙂

    PS: Since you are them smart, engineer type and you travel so much, how come you have not signed up for Iris scan at Heathrow yet? Yes, even reviled foreigners can get one and be done in seconds.

  11. Shefaly, what are you actually supposed to put if you get sent to the back of the queue as you note?

    I never claimed a universal victory re: passport stamps, just a local one with all my EU companions on the trip 🙂 My sister with her frequent trips to Asia has the coolest set of passport pages that I’ve seen so far.

    As for the Iris thing, it’s never been working when I came through! My last entry at Heathrow there was no line for “Rest of the World” at T4 and I walked straight through. Similarly at Stansted the line for us non-EU types is often better than the EU one. It was filling out the landing card that caused the delay this time, not the line itself!

  12. NFAH: We are supposed to put London. In ‘country’, writing England, Scotland (even considering there are direct flights from Edinburgh to Newark etc) is not acceptable; only UK is. The airline staff tells everyone many times over so that they do not get sent to the back of the line.

    AFAIK, one does not have to fill any card if one walks through Iris scan. Hence my comment.

    On passports, remind me to show you mine when I see you next 🙂 As I said, nothing trumps being ‘universal lepers’ a term I stole from my friend Siriusminor (who writes on proclivitas.blogspot.com).

  13. Shefaly,

    Ah yes, it reminds me of when I was trying to check in at one of the Virgin terminals at Heathrow and it asked for the three letter country code of origin and I was completely flummoxed… UK was clearly not it, in the end it was GBR that worked but it took many errors…

    The Iris thing seems like a great idea and I’ve talked to people at arrivals there about it quite a lot but as I said it’s never open when I come through T4 from the states, maybe when we finally transition to T5 it will be better.

    We need to plan something NOW for the next time we catch up… time is travelling fast!

  14. Well, NFAH and Merry, it seems I am less gloomy about your fellow countrymen’s intelligence or powers of comprehension than you are!

  15. Howard, probably, but as I noted above, we are told to make things at an 8th grade (13-14 year old) reading level for any important documents in the US, there’s some legal requirements for things like consent forms in medical practice and they actually go through and make you cross out big words or words that don’t fall under common usage. One could be cynical, and say it was a requirement due to poor literacy, or less cynical, and say that in a country that embraces immigration (or did pre-9/11) that it was due to the large proportion of non-native English speakers, and that in this way it was welcoming and useful in this context of international travel.

  16. Oh good god, Howard. I’m beginning to question your reading comprehension. It’s not that using the word “port” is some mysterious and indecipherable term that no one can grasp; it is that it is not the easiest or clearest way to say that, and the damn forms are supposed to be easy and clear to understand. If you were arriving from China, you’d look up “port” in your Oxford Chinese-English dictionary and get 港, which is a sea port or a harbor, and they you’d turn to your neighbor and say, “怎么回事?” or, roughly translated, “what the hell…”? It’s stupid phrasing, plain and simple.

  17. > It’s stupid phrasing, plain and simple.

    Possibly, Merry, but despite what you and NFAH seem to suggest, U.S. official documents appear to be as full of ‘ports of departure’ as the British landing card that provoked this discussion, and equally to disregard the 8th grade reading rule. A quick google reveals quite a number of these, including the following, from the U.S. Embassy in Ljubljana:

    “It is very important that you complete the back of the card listing the port of departure and date of departure from the United States and the carrier/flight information.” ( http://slovenia.usembassy.gov/i94.html )

    … and a list of ‘ports of departure’ in a PDF document (page 9, if you choose to look at it) from http://www.ice.gov/doclib/pi/specialregistration/WalkawayMaterial.pdf which clearly lists a number of airports along with a number of non-seaports.

    I’ll leave it to people to find more examples via Google.

    I’m a great believer in plain English, but I also believe that it is unwise for pots to call kettles ‘black’! Accordingly, I would always be reluctant to start a sentence with “Leave it to the Americans to ignore …”

  18. Howard, trouble will always arise if you read every word I write as literal and miss the tongue planted firmly in cheek. Irony is what the whole of English comedy is supposed to be known for, and yet I seem to get harpooned over and over when my ironic statements are read as straight….

  19. > Irony is what the whole of English comedy is supposed to be known for

    Oh, absolutely! There is nothing quite so delicious as irony, not even day-glo orange American-style cheese slices as an accompaniment to ‘Mexican’ street-food!

    I should have said earlier how much I enjoy your blog, and thank you for writing it. 🙂


  20. Thanks so much Howard, today I really needed that!

  21. Also in Europe, though not the EU, did NFAH include the Bailiwicks of Guernsey and Jersey, or the Isle of Man. If these are too British, then Monaco would probably have better weather.

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