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6 tips for avoiding a lengthy wait at London Heathrow immigration

Sept. 27, 2021
7 min read
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The gradual relaxation of the United Kingdom's strict travel rules is leading to longer immigration wait times at the country's busiest airport. According to the Daily Mail, some travelers have reported waiting in line for three hours.

Fully vaccinated American travelers can now travel to the U.K. without quarantine on arrival, but the increase in arrivals is just one reason for long queues after landing. The U.K. currently has a complex documentation process for all arriving passengers, which includes a completed passenger locator form, as well as evidence of two prebooked COVID-19 tests and complete vaccination.

Since this paperwork is manually checked by Border Force immigration officers, the process takes much longer than a quick flick through your passport and a few cursory questions about the purpose and length of your visit.

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And there are other factors exacerbating the bottleneck at London Heathrow (LHR), too.

Border Force officers have either tested positive to COVID-19 recently or have been in close contact with someone who has (such as a fellow Border Force agent). The U.K. National Health Service's app to track and trace COVID-19 outbreaks has been alerting hundreds of thousands of Brits to advise them to self-isolate for 10 days because they have been in close contact with a positive case, and checking arriving passengers at Heathrow Airport is not a job that can be done from home.

(Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP via Getty Images)

Arriving passenger numbers have also been difficult to estimate due to the constantly changing U.K. government travel rules. While the traffic light system will be scrapped early next month, destinations moving to the amber or red lists have caused tens of thousands of Brits to race home within just a few days to avoid new quarantine requirements.

Delays at Heathrow, the Daily Mail also reported, have been due to extensions in Border Force shift hours to cope with the increased arrival numbers. Some staff are now forced to work 12 hours each day which has caused an increase in staff calling in sick due to exhaustion.

So, if you're planning to travel through Heathrow in the near future, you'll want to keep these tips for reducing your wait time in mind.

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Use ePassport gates whenever possible

The fastest way to pass immigration quickly is to use the electronic gates wherever possible. I recently passed through Terminal 5 in less than two minutes this way.

U.S. passport holders have been able to use U.K. ePassport gates at major U.K. airports including all London Heathrow terminals since 2019. The electronic gate recognizes your passport scan and verifies your identity electronically by taking a photo of you at the gate, so you can pass straight through without a manual check of your passport, documents or vaccination status.

Related: US passport holders can now use ePassport gates at UK airports

If the electronic gates cannot process you automatically you will be sent to a manned desk for manual processing, though these are special desks near the gates; you won't have to rejoin the main immigration line.

To assist the gates, you should ensure your passport page can be easily read (basically, avoid damaging or staining your passport).

You'll also need to make sure the gate can easily match your face with your passport photo. So, remove your hat, sunglasses and your face mask for the photo.

Heathrow terminals can have dozens of electronic gates open for your arrival, or it may only have a handful. They will often switch on extra gates if the lines to use them increase. Look for the big blue ePassport gates signs as you enter the immigration hall. If the gate processes you electronically you may not have any of your COVID-19 documents checked on arrival at all.

Unfortunately for families, children under 12 can't use the gates, regardless of their passport type. This means families traveling with children will have to join the main line and have all their documents checked manually which will take much longer.

Avoid landing at peak times

(Photo by Tim Ireland/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Depending on your flight to Heathrow, you may not have the luxury of choice, but some times of the day and week see far fewer arriving passengers.

Many flights from the United States arrive at Heathrow between 6:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. (local time) each day, so this is when you can expect long lines at immigration. Similarly, each Sunday from 5 p.m. onwards many Brits will be returning from weekends away so there will likely be long waits.

You can check the Heathrow website to see how many flights arrive at each terminal at different times of the day and week. For example, early afternoon on weekdays should be a relatively quiet time for arrivals, so if you can book a flight arriving then your wait time should be quicker.

Be first off the plane

This is when booking a premium seat will be very valuable.

Most aircraft at Heathrow are deplaned through just one or two doors at the front of the airplane and premium passengers are usually the first to leave.

If you're coming off a flight of 300 passengers, being among the first travelers to leave the plane will get you to the immigration gate before the hundreds of passengers sitting behind you.

Related: Business-class battle: The best lie-flats between the US and London

Use the restroom before you land

You should also make your way directly to immigration as soon as possible.

You may see people physically running through the terminal to try and beat the lines. Unfortunately, you won't know how long the wait time is until you enter the terminal.

If possible, use the restroom on the aircraft before landing to avoid needing to use a terminal restroom before reaching the arrivals hall. These precious few minutes you spend in a terminal restroom could allow hundreds of other passengers to join the line before you do.

Have your documents ready

It's not completely necessary to have everything printed, but it will be quicker for Border Force officers to verify your documents if you can hand them over rather than scrolling through emails and downloads on your phone.

I've seen some travelers who have everything printed in a folder ready for the immigration desk and this works well, especially if you're traveling in a group.

Remain calm

Photo by Andrew Holt / Gettys Images

The longer you wait in line, the more frustrated you're likely to get.

You may be tired and hungry, or have restless children who have become thoroughly bored of the "let's wait in this slow line" game.

I've seen some passengers become visibly irate at the long wait times and take this out on Heathrow airport staff who move through the arrivals hall to direct and monitor travelers. Abusing these staff members will not get you to the front of the line any faster.

If there's only a handful of electronic gates open and hundreds of passengers waiting to use them you can politely ask staff if they could switch on more gates, though they may decline this for reasons outside of their control — and yours.

Also, no matter how ridiculously long the wait is, don't film it for social media. Staff members are very strict about this and will have a stern conversation with you if they observe you filming their workplace, no matter how outrageous the line is.

Heathrow airport's arrival process is rarely a pleasant experience, but it has become significantly worse due to a combination of constantly changing travel rules, isolating immigration staff and uneven arriving passenger numbers. The best tip is to use the ePassport gates when available, get to the arrivals hall as quickly as possible and, when all else fails, calm and carry on in the main line.

Featured image by Getty Images
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