What happens when you land in a country without entry rights?
I like to think I'm a pretty savvy traveller, and while I have the odd horror travel day, it's usually pretty smooth sailing during my regular jaunts abroad.
However, on a recent trip to Pakistan I had a nightmare experience when I didn't have the correct documentation to enter the country. I was heading there for the very first time to review the national airline's premium product on a flagship route. But first I had to get a visa.
Despite much forward planning, there was a huge delay in obtaining it, but I had been assured it would be approved and processed upon my arrival in Lahore.
It had not.
So from planning the trip to being petrified I'd be banned from Pakistan for life, here's what happened.
As an Australian passport holder, I was required to obtain an online e-visa in advance to enter Pakistan. I did a fair bit of research about the visa process before applying, and all reports were very positive — the process was quick, easy and straightforward. Most people received their visas within just a few business days. I booked my flights to and from Pakistan around a month in advance and immediately applied for my Pakistan e-Visa online. As I am a resident in the U.K. I applied from the U.K. with my Australian passport. This caused some sort of major hiccup in the e-Visa process — I believe my application went to the Pakistan Embassy in the U.K. rather than Australia, as officials seemed mighty confused about why I was living and working in the U.K. with an Australian passport.
Around 10 days after applying, I received an email from the (outsourced) visa processing service asking for some additional information, including a letter of invitation from a local tour provider, explaining my reason for visiting the country and what I intended to do while I was there. I provided this within a day as I had been planning to do some tourism activities anyway. A week later, they then asked for proof of employment in the U.K., as well as evidence of the accommodation I had booked in Pakistan.
A week after that and just less than than a week before my outbound flight departed, I received another email asking me for bank statements proving I had the means to support myself for the whole five days I was there, as well as proof of my address in the U.K. This seemed incredibly excessive for a tourist visa and nowhere in my research of other e-Visa applicants had anyone had to provide this much information. Had the information not been sent and received through an official government portal, I would have suspected I was being scammed.
I started to panic because I was running out of time but quickly provided this information, as well as a page with a scan of my passport and U.K. residence permit and a written statement explaining in absolute clear terms that I was an Australian passport holder who had the right to live and work in the U.K. and I thought this might have been the reason for the delay.
I checked both my email and the online portal every few hours for the next few days. There was no phone or email contact anywhere on the e-Visa portal or website — you could only submit feedback, which I did numerous times in the days before the flight, explaining I was running out of time and needed the visa to be approved urgently. I received a few standard email responses saying the visa was still being processed and I would need to wait.
A few days before the flight — now around 22 days after applying — I started calling the Pakistan embassies in both the U.K. and Australia during the office hours, trying to speak to someone. No one answered the phones.
The day before my flight from the U.K., I finally managed to speak to someone in the Australian embassy. He said he understood my issue, took down my details and assured the visa would be approved by the time I landed in Pakistan.
Panic sets in
My day of travel arrived, still with no visa. I was now checking hourly — still no visa. In hindsight, I should never have boarded the flight to Istanbul connecting on to Lahore in Pakistan, but I believed the visa would be approved by the time I landed around 16 hours later. I had printed out every single document I had submitted as well as the full application form and all correspondence. And on the off-chance I landed without the e-Visa being approved, I thought they might be able to process it on the spot.
In Istanbul, the Turkish Airlines gate agent asked about my Pakistan visa. I explained the entire situation to them (and showed them the documentation). They made some notes in my booking but allowed me on to the flight.
I landed in Lahore around 4:00 a.m., took a deep breath, crossed my fingers and walked up to the immigration counter. The officer asked where my visa was and I explained the situation. He took me over to the e-Visa counter and looked up my details on the same portal I had been checking. He frowned and then said the words I was desperately hoping not to hear: "Your visa is still processing".
I told him how long I had been waiting for the visa with all the dates and showed him all the documents I had been asked to submit. He was genuinely shocked, saying repeatedly: "This definitely should not have taken this long", and encouraged me to lodge a formal complaint at the Pakistani embassies in both the U.K. and Australia.
I then asked him given I had all the information required for the visa with me if he could either finalize the visa now or provide some sort of visa on arrival. He was polite and apologetic but told me that they were unable to do this and I had to apply online.
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I then realized in all my travels I had absolutely no idea what would happen next.
With no return flight for several days I then asked him what would happen. He explained there was no way I could enter the country that day without the visa. I had a return flight from Lahore back to London and I asked him if I could just change that flight to today, stay airside and transfer straight back to London. He explained that legally, I could not do that because it was the responsibility of the carrier who flew me to the country. I asked what would happen next and he replied: "We have to send you back to Istanbul on the plane you arrived on".
Lahore is a very small airport and Turkish Airlines only has one flight per day. Fortunately, because the airport is small, the immigration process had been very efficient and it was still only around an hour after my flight had landed. There was a flurry of activity and phone calls as the Turkish Airlines station manager was summoned to take me back to Istanbul and the immigration officer handed him my passport. As he whisked me away, the immigration officers apologized profusely for what had happened and insisted this was the last thing they wanted tourists to experience in Pakistan. I asked what would happen once the visa was approved thinking I might be banned from Pakistan for life, but they encouraged me to return as soon as it was approved, repeatedly assuring me it would not be a problem to enter.
Back to Istanbul
The Turkish manager made repeated hurried phone calls and then raced me through the airport into the check-in area. He whipped out a credit card machine and asked me for a credit card to pay for the return flight back to Istanbul. I nervously looked at the cost. Realistically, for a last-second ticket, Turkish could have charged me whatever it wanted and I had no option but to pay it. Fortunately the price - around US$400 for a oneway coach/economy ticket, while not crazy cheap, was not outrageous.
My passport was sealed in a big white envelope and the station manager filled out some details on the front. I wasn't able to read it but I believe it was a deportation order — the Pakistan government was ordering Turkish Airlines to deport me back to Istanbul. I was rushed through security, through the terminal and onto the same plane that was fully loaded and waiting to takeoff. The envelope with my passport was handed to the crew for their custody and I was seated not far from where I sat for the inbound flight.
As the plane left the gate, every crew member on the flight came and found me and told me the exact same thing in the same polite but very firm voice: "When we land in Istanbul you MUST not leave the plane. You must remain on board until all other passengers have left and we will escort you from the plane ourselves".
As the plane took off, it was probably the worst moment I have ever had while traveling. I had absolutely no idea what was waiting for me when I landed in Istanbul. Had I broken the law? Would I be arrested? Fined? Banned from Turkish Airlines for life? Banned from entering Turkey?
I had a five-hour flight to ponder my fate.
Just before we landed, several crew members came past to repeat their strict instructions that I was not to leave the plane. I didn't have my passport in my possession, so wouldn't have gotten far anyway.
When all passengers deplaned, the crew finally retrieved the envelope containing my passport and handed it to a Turkish Airlines ground staff member who instructed me to follow him.
Where to next?
He asked me where I was headed and I explained I had no onward ticket as I had expected to spend five days in Pakistan. An added wrinkle was that Australians are required to obtain a visa on arrival to enter Turkey. This is normally a very straightforward process, but I didn't even know if I could.
I explained to him that as I had no onward travel plans and had been traveling for almost 24 hours straight by this time I wanted to enter Turkey, collect my thoughts and catch up on some sleep at a nearby hotel and decide my next move. I knew I could get back to London for cheap if I had the time and freedom to choose my own carrier — I certainly didn't fancy another expensive last-second Turkish Airlines deportation fare.
I asked if I would be allowed to enter Turkey given everything that had happened, to which he replied, "I don't think you will be allowed".
He took me into a back office behind the Turkish Airlines sales desk and instructed me to wait while he made phone calls and spoke with managers, still with my passport.
Around 20 minutes of phone calls and impromptu management meetings later, the Turkish staff member simply walked over to me, handed me my passport and told me I was free to leave. I asked him if I could enter Turkey and he replied, "Yes that's fine. Just don't try and enter a country without the right visa again".
There was no fine, no police report, no banning, no backroom discipline. Everyone I dealt with was professional and friendly. Within 30 minutes I was in a taxi to a nearby hotel to get my life back together.
Of course, within 24 hours, my Pakistan e-visa was finally approved.
I considered going straight back but the flights were too expensive. Given the visa was valid for six months I decided to reschedule the entire trip and found a cheap, scenic way to return to London a few days later. I rebooked flights and returned to Lahore about a month later, handed over my e-Visa and was welcomed into the country without any questions at all.
So what did I learn from this?
From my experience, I learned that you should try and give yourself sufficient time for entry rights to be granted if they can only be granted in advance. This is not always possible when the delays are as obscene as I experienced — I allowed for around four times the average processing time, and this was still not sufficient.
It seems obvious, but I learned that you shouldn't board a flight without entry rights at your destination. If you do land in a country where you do not have the right to enter, the carrier who flew you there is legally responsible for taking you back to where you came from. You will be responsible for paying for your flight back after you are denied entry.
It was not a crime (in Pakistan or Turkey at least) to try and enter the country without the proper entry rights, though it was obviously an expensive, stressful and very time-consuming experience. The not knowing what was awaiting me when I landed in Turkey was by far the worst part of the entire experience, given how sternly every crew member had warned me not to try and leave the aircraft.