Denied Entry—Or How an Expired Tourist Visa Got Me Deported


Okay, it wasn’t technically deportation, but I wasn’t allowed into Spain.

In 2009, I was blissfully unaware of all things Schengen. I came over to Spain in September to work a campus organization at the University of Salamanca. Before coming over, my then-future employers had advised me not to worry about a visa, as it “had never been a problem before.”

Famous last words.

Thus, I packed up all my belongings (those I could fit into one suitcase, that is) and set off for the magical land of tapas, cathedrals, and café con leche. I was very naïve and knew very little about how Spaniards actually lived, but that all changed when I met Mario in late September. (Didn’t take me long, now did it?) By October we were dating, by November I had met the parents, and by December I was already plotting ways to return after my internship had finished. Brilliantly I thought of being an au pair, a fancied-up babysitter with a better title. So I booked my return ticket for December 31—because cheap. Cheap is good.

On the airplane, the Iberia flight crew ate grapes and drank champagne (none for the peons in Economy class), while I tried, unsuccessfully, to fall asleep. These efforts were, as always, in vain because 1) I was going to see my boyfriend of three months, and 2) Sleeping on airplanes is impossible for me.

After a breakfast that incongruously included a Kit-Kat bar, as Iberia seems to think Kit-Kats are for breakfast, I set off down Barajas Terminal 4’s never-ending moving walkways until I finally reached customs. I went to the non-EU passport line, naturally.

Passport Control

Ominous music here.

You can guess what happened. Mr. Grouchy Pants Customs Officer looked at my passport very thoroughly, something Spanish customs officers are not wont to do. Then, after a few curt questions, I was sent to a room. Rather upset, I called Mario on my Spanish cell phone, who reassured me that everything would turn out fine. After all, I’m a United States citizen, and normally we aren’t discriminated against like people from other countries. (Oh, don’t you love it when stereotypes work in your favor?)

No such luck. The new customs officer, a lady this time, tried to sympathize with me, but I was clearly breaking the rules: I had overstayed my tourist visa by nine—nine!—days, and I was attempting to reenter the Schengen zone after only a week’s break. Nothing doing, she would have said, had she been able to speak English. (None of them do.)

The kicker: I wasn’t able to even see Mario, as the airport is technically no-man’s land and Mario and his father were firmly on the Spain side of that equation. That was gut-wrenching in and of itself, but the best was yet to come …

The Bunker

Next up was the bunker, where I was patted down and told to hand over my cell phone. I handed over my American phone, but hid my Spanish one, because I’m a rebel like that. Then I was set up with—get this—a social worker. For the life of me, I can’t really remember anything she asked me, but she seemed nice enough. But don’t you worry: there were plenty of not-so-nice people to make up for that.

There was a pay phone too, which brought me back to my middle-school days, and especially to that one day when Mom forgot to pick me up from practice and I had to use a pay phone. (Oh, 2001, how I won’t miss you.) I called everyone I could think of. So did my dad, who was calling the US embassy on New Year’s Day. “And a happy new year to you, too!” was exactly what I’m sure he was telling them.

I eventually stopped crying long enough to serve as an unofficial translator for a burly Egyptian man, who spoke (minimal) English and the Spanish guards who spoke no English. Although it’s extremely odd that airport employees in charge of guarding delinquent foreigners such as myself couldn’t speak English, I considered asking for a job at that moment. Afterwards I was served a lovely airline-style meal and told my flight would be departing the next day. Hip, hip hooray! I would get to spend the night in the bunker! Fittingly, the bunker was outfitted with multiple bunk beds.

After a fitful two-hour nap, I got up again, too annoyed and sad to continue the charade. I was met with curious stares from two women I would find out were Hondurans. These women had actually been deported, picked up on the streets of Spain, and they were being sent back to their home country. They found me very odd, asking me if I was from the US and why the Spaniards would do that to someone like me. I thought it endearing of them to say such things, because, due to my birthplace, I am blessed with not having these sorts of problems very often, and they, due to theirs, are.

Soon enough (okay, it seemed like days), I was ready for my flight back to Chicago. They personally escorted me in an unmarked van directly to the plane. Yes! No waiting around in the concourse and buying crappy $9 salads and $3 bottles of Coke! Right to the plane itself! The Iberia staff also treated me like an object of amusement, asking me what sort of crimes I had committed and laughing good-naturedly at the absurdity of the situation. One of them assured me that I’d be back; he knew it. Good thing too, because I wasn’t sure I’d ever be making the transatlantic flight again.

I spent the whole flight back listening to angst-filled music and scribbling incoherent thoughts in a notebook that Mario and I had been writing in. If I were to read those aloud, there’s no doubt that many of the words would have to be bleeped out for US television audiences. I arrived home to much fanfare (not), and found myself back where I had started, two days earlier, my home in Indiana.

I eventually was able to come back, but not after a scare: my visa was denied once, but the Chicago consulate sent it back, and it was approved! Whew! Now I’m legal and all that jazz, with a 5-year NIE thanks to my being married to a Spaniard.

Have you ever had any problems at passport control?

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    1. I had a round-trip ticket, so they used that to send me home. My dad was beyond pissed, so the organization I was with (I was originally supposed to stay a year) paid that half back to me.

  1. I just went back and looked at your archives and your first post ever was about this. It seems like you kept it together despite the situation. I would have felt so humiliated!

    I’ve never had any problems being admited to a country. I did, however, had problems leaving France a few years ago. A French border agent thought my passport was fake and told me so. He kept asking me if I was taking a plane that day. I kept telling him that I was all the while thinking, “Duh, of course I am, I’m at an airport!”

    He let me go, but he sent somebody to follow me through the airport (I discovered this just before boarding my flight.) Of course I was pulled aside at the security checks to have my bags specially checked. I remember thinking it was strange that just at the moment the security guard pulled me aside, that another man, dressed differently from the other security officers, entered through a door and came over to perform the search. It was only when I saw the same man at my flight gate that I realized that I had been followed.

    Hats off to you for not shunning Spain despite what happened. You could have taken a “blame Spain” attitude but you didn’t.

    1. Wow! Are you especially shady looking or something? ;) Just kidding, but that’s creepy/crazy!

      I think that, if I hadn’t known Mario, I definitely would not have returned; it wouldn’t have been worth the risk. For a long while, I got very nervous when the time came to go through passport control, even though I had the proper papers and everything.

      1. I have never had that happen to me, and I have never been illegal, but I am ALWAYS nervous at passport control. Especially on the US side, our guys can be so scary.

        1. Just to add to what I wrote above: I have a passport from an EU member country and was travelling with it when I had this problem leaving France.

          So yeah, I must look pretty shady!

  2. This is exactly what I’ve been afraid of for the past year. I went home for three months last November after having been several months in Spain on an expired student visa. I originally wanted to stay in Indiana just one month but I didn’t want to risk being barred from entering Spain again. So I stayed a little over three and came back as a tourist. When I left in November, the American Airlines people quizzed me about whether I was working in Spain and why I had a return flight for December (hadn’t changed it at that point). That shook me a little as I’ve never had any problems before. I came back to Spain early March and got married a couple days before my tourist visa was to expire. Now I’m waiting on my own 5 year resident card. It’s driving me crazy too! I applied in early July and still haven’t gotten anything resolved. Online it just says it’s all “en trámite”. My husband hasn’t met my family yet and we want to go for Thanksgiving but I can’t leave until I get this sorted out. I’m a little worried it’ll be rejected because they screwed up my middle name on the marriage certificate (and then vaguely told me it’d take “a while” to fix). I turned it in anyway, hoping they wouldn’t notice. It’s such a frustrating process.

    1. Don’t worry; I’m sure it’ll work out! I was worried too, but now it’s fine and, with the NIE I have now, all I have to do is show it, and I’m home free.

  3. wow! I’m so happy that I am a Schengen (probably mispelled) citizen since I mostly travel within Europe.
    When I was in Hong Kong I should have asked for a resident card because my visa was valid for over 180 days BUT knowing that I had to queue for over 5 hours at least twice… I decided I could live without it and with only my passport. I stupidly waited in the VISITORS queue when re-entering HK a few times until I was brave enough to LIE to the custom guard and queue at the RESIDENTS line saying “I left my card at home”. Muahahaha! It worked twice and then I left the country to never come back :)

  4. This is the very reason why I applied for French citizenship when I turned 20. I was always eligible for it, yet my parents really never made it around to making it official. Before 9/11, just having an American passport was no biggie. But when I decided to study abroad my junior year in Span and France, I refused to partake in the visa song and dance and marched off to the French consulate in Manhattan with my dad to apply for French citizenship. It was relatively stress/bureaucracy free which was surprising because French bureaucracy is no more fun than Spanish bureaucracy, I can assure you. Two months later, I had my passport and I didn’t have to suffer any NIE/visa related issues. Passport control in Spain barely glanced at me since I always gave them my French passport. I’m sorry you had to go through this, it sounds really scary and I would have been having a panic attack the entire time. I always recommend people who are eligible for dual citizenship to get it because it saves so much hassle in the future.

  5. Ug that sounds like a nightmare — glad things worked out for the best, but at the time that must have been so tough to swallow.

    No problems at passport control for me yet (knock on wood…)

  6. Wow, how you kept your composure is amazing. I guess this is more proof of the saying, “things eventually work out and if it is meant to be, it is meant to be”. :o)
    I overstayed by 2 months on an expired NIE ( real smart to have our card expired the same day our contract with the auxiliares program ended). I remembered being at the airport trying not to look guilty ha ha!
    Do you ever sit back and laugh at it all now?

  7. Europeans who stay in the USA longer than 90 days, say, 91 or 92, are banned up to 10 years, so anyone whether american or not who is able to re-enter Europe after being staying longer must thank God or the Virgin Mary for being admitted again.

    many Americans are being deported or denied entry because border policies are a matter of the EU or European Commission and laws are really severe or strong, so any country, Spain or Italy must follow the EU law, and any advantage of old is disappearing, so true, and may i add, fair.

    it is true that South Americans may be treated worse than North Americans, but this is something that is changing, and now an American can be treated the same way an Ecuadorian or Moroccan is treated, just like the US border policemen treat Spaniards like any other person, sometimes even worse.

  8. I have had problems at passport control! (that I had forgotten about until this post! :-))
    When I studied in Mexico, I had a student visa. Apparently I was supposed to get it stamped when I left the country to go home for Christmas break. (I knew this but assumed it would be an obvious part of the process, not something I had to seek out.) I didn’t get my visa stamped, so when I came back to Mexico, they pulled me to another room. Fortunately, after making me wait a bit, they let me go on to my destination, but I had to go and pay a fine at a later date in the city where I was living. (I remember panicking when they told me the fine would be the equivalent of 20 days of minimum wage or something like that, but then it was only like 50 dollars…)

  9. And now we understand why you so strongly advocate the autorización de regreso! Better safe than sorry, always. At least now you’re truly “free to roam the country.” ;)

    1. Yeah, I mean, if people want to risk it, go for it. But you should know that it CAN be more than some “silly paperwork.” :) Yes, it’s nice to be legal!

  10. I remember you mentioning this before, I’m glad you decided to tell us what happened. You kept your composure better than I would have.

    When I left Seville in March 2012, I had overstayed my 6-month student visa by about 3 weeks (the visa also started about 10ish days before I was planning to be in Spain, but yeah). When I applied for a visa for the Auxiliares program last month I was a little nervous that it would was going to be held against me. My passport hadn’t been “marked” by border control when I left Spain, but as you well know that didn’t mean that something wouldn’t go amiss. As I’m typing this from Madrid, obviously everything turned out okay in that regard, but it is definitely a real concern.

  11. I am an Auxiliar right now in Málaga and overstayed my original TIE for a few days (and it was hard to get in the first place because I only had my passport stamped in Amsterdam, not in Madrid) but I was waiting for confirmation that I’d been accepted for a second year. I went to the Oficina de Extranjería in June and turned in all my paperwork and was told to wait one month for a letter to take to the police station. So I was afraid to leave the country in case something got messed up and they didn’t let me back in. Of course, I moved during the summer and kept going back to check the mail at my old place with no luck. Finally, I received a text message saying to contact the Officina de Extranjería. Phone calls were unsuccessful and gave me wrong information. I went yesterday and waited 2 hours for my letter, which, I was told, they had sent out Sepember 12th. One month….or three…the same thing. But now I’m legal, back to work and happy! (and so is my boyfriend!)

    I HATE customs, border control, foreigners’ offices, police stations, etc – I always feel like I’ve done something wrong!

  12. I am brazilian/italian and had a problem in France.
    It was my second trip to Paris (2006), but they didn’t stamp my passport when I left (the first time, in 2004). So, they brought me to a room and asked if I was living in France or something for the last 2 years. But i had the new ticket and everything was fine.

    PS: I found you in “Rachelsrantings’ today and really liked your blog.

  13. I’ve never had a visa problem, but just had to add that as of last week Iberia is still giving out Kit-Kats for breakfast…totally ridiculous (and yet I wolf it down every time). Three years later Spanish ideas of breakfast still make me laugh out loud!

  14. Hi! Loved reading your story. The first time I went to spain was three years ago and stayed the entire summer with my family.. I met the love of my life;) and have been back ever since.. this year I decided I wanted to spend Christmas with my guy and his family.. that being said (I stayed 5 weeks Dec-Jan) I’m trying to plan my summer vacation and was thinking about leaving sometime Mid-May since I have a wedding in spain end of may etc etc… now I am honestly terrified of Denied entry, always am for some reason.. and I’ve never had any problems… I go on a tourist visa, have round trip tickets, and proof that I am a full time student and have a job waiting for me once I return, I also have addresses/phone numbers of family, and can prove that I can financially sustain myself the 2.5 months I’ll be visiting…. This entire 90 days of 180 confuses me… My 180 mark day would be June 4th? (from my december trip) But I’ll be leaving first days of aug… anyways I’m extremely confused and would appreciate any advice!!


  15. I have a question for you. I am an American currently in Spain sin papeles. Do you think it’s too risky to travel within Spain? For example a flight from Madrid to Barcalona? Is a train less risky? Thanks!

    1. I think by-land travel is probably safer, but it’s not guaranteed either. Officials can ask to see your papers. However, if you stay in Spain you’ll probably be okay. Sorry, it seems that everyone is different here so it’s difficult for me to give advice.

  16. Hi! Im currently living in Mallorca and was planning on being here 6 months. I am a US citizen and I’m curious about when I leave could there be a problem? I have no plans of coming back into the country within the next year so I’m not worried about a re-entry. I’m only concerned about leaving the country. Also, I have a 28hr lay over in Zurich in which I planned to see the city. Will I be denied entry into the city? Could this be a problem for me? Any thoughts are welcome. Thanks!!!

    1. Hi there! I doubt there will be a problem upon leaving. It honestly will not be a problem 99.9% of the time. I say, if you’re not planning on returning, don’t sweat it.

      I highly doubt you’ll have problems in Zurich, but I can’t say with 100% confidence either.

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