Updated: Aug 1
I am South African and therefore because of some usual political nonsense, I can't travel to the UK anymore without a visa. Back when I lived in England for a few years you could arrive at the border as a South African with no visa and get entry for 6 months. At the time I was on a working holiday visa so I only used this visa-free option once but it was such a treat just to get a ticket and fly. Those days are long gone and probably won't come back.
In January 2020 I travelled to the States and because I was still on my green card I could connect in Heathrow without a priorly obtained transit visa. A few years back I had read in some forum of someone being let through on a 24-hour visa while they were connecting in Heathrow although they only had a transit visa. A transit visit allows you to connect with another flight but you have to stay in the security area of the airport and you are not allowed to exit the airport. I wanted to also try this, years back during a long layover at Heathrow but did not have the guts to go ask border security. For me, border security always represents a nervous moment although I always have the right visas and paperwork. Nonetheless, my personality gets me nervous when having to face border security personnel.
Back to the flight in 2020. I had been thinking about asking border security to let me through for weeks before the flight because I wanted to see my brother and I was on a long layover. In a serendipitous moment, a friend told me the day before my flight about another South African who tried this with success. Armed with this knowledge my determination and courage grew and I got on the plane, but still undecided.
Forward 11 hours and I was standing in front of a split corridor, right went to the transit area and left to border security. My fear was fueled by ignorance of what they may stamp in my passport if not allowed through. Or would they just direct me back to the transit area? A few moments later I was standing in a line at border security, pretending to be calm. After a few minutes, those in the queue got scolded and chased to another line because we were in the wrong place. Not a good start. Eventually, I found myself near the front and was assessing my options. The older grumpy-looking gent, the young woman with a more pleasant demeanour or the other young guy to her right whom I couldn't judge with his poker face. When I got to the front of the line and just as I thought the older guy was going to call me the woman did.
Now, this wasn't necessarily good news. She could be worse than the other. So I get to her cubicle and explained that I did not have a visa but really would love to see my brother. What followed were two easy questions and an exhortation to rather get the correct visa next time because they could not always do these exceptions. And I got a 24-hour visa.
To say I was happy was an understatement. I was literally on a high. In the end, I got to see my brother for the first time in 3 years and had a few hours in the city which still feels like home although I hadn't been there for more than a decade. I am not sure if I would try it again but it taught me that sometimes you just need to take the courage because some systems aren't as ridged as they seem.