National welcomes

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Part of your first sense of what a country is like comes from what is said to you by the first person you meet as you cross the border and present yourself to passport control. I wonder if immigration officers realize just how large the effects of their speech acts (or lack thereof) can be. When my friend Polly and I crossed from Finland into Russia by train a few years ago, the skinny young men in military uniforms who boarded the train looked fierce and suspicious. They demanded our passports and took them away with unpleasant scowls. Returning them silently twenty minutes later, they wore expressions that seemed to say, "We found nothing, but you look undesirable, and it makes us angry that we have to admit scum like you to defile our great country." Russia seems like a truly unwelcoming place. By contrast, coming back into Finland from Russia a few days later we were met by relaxed and friendly passport officials who took a quick glance at our passports, handed them back with a warm smile, and said: "Welcome to Finland!" A small courtesy, costing nothing, but after Russia it made Finland seem a totally wonderful place. Even Finland, however, was topped by Scotland this morning, when I returned bleary-eyed to the Edinburgh airport having flown straight through from Taiwan via Bangkok and Amsterdam. I handed over my passport, open at the page with the photo and date of birth, and the woman behind the desk glanced at it very quickly and slapped it down on the glass of the scanner. And while she waited a couple of seconds for the machine to read the data, she looked at me with a twinkle in her eye and said, "Happy birthday."


  1. Sili said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

    Congratulations on another tour around the Sun, professor.

    May there be many many more. (At least enough for me to visit Edinburgh.

  2. theophylact said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

    And a very apibeursdé touillou!

  3. James C. said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

    I have the impression that Russian passport control officials are selected especially for their xenophobia and misanthropy. Some of their behavior is surely linked to the old Communist tradition of customer service, or rather complete lack thereof, but that’s insufficient to explain just how foul they are.

  4. Karen said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

    Let me tell you I certainly noticed the difference between the Canadian and American officials. The country we were visiting – Canada – had a cheerful woman who welcomed us in; the country we were citizens of had a sullen man who quizzed us relentlessly on such things as the weather patterns of our home towns and the reason we'd been in Canada to start with.

  5. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

    My charming wife and I arrived at Baltimore years ago very late one night. We came into a nearly deserted immigration station with half a dozen bored agents ready to close up shop. The wife said, "Wait a second," looked around and headed to one particular agent. She handed him her passport, he took one look and said, "Aw, sure, it's Patricia Lynch herself, and her birthday St. Paddy's day, too!" She had instantly picked out the one Irishman on duty. She does it with infra-red, I do believe.

    Entering Keflavík Iceland you see a line that says just CITIZENS. It doesn't mean citizens of Iceland. They don't care where you're from as long as you're a citizen there.

  6. James said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 3:32 pm

    Happy birthday!

  7. möngke said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 4:31 pm

    Keflavík Airport also has a sign that says Welcome to Iceland in English, and Velkomin heim (sp?) in Icelandic, which I guess means 'Welcome home'. I found this incredibly warm and sweet.

    I wish we had something like this in Slovenia, which would be entirely appropriate, as we are also a small nation with a language not spoken anywhere else. As it happens, Ljubljana Airport currently has a total of 2 booths for passport scans at the end of a long narrow corridor lined with mobile phone network advertisements. The officers in them are pretty much indifferent, but there's inevitably an enormous queue, which is sometimes good because you then only have to wait 10 minutes (as opposed to 20) for your bags to appear on the single baggage belt. For me, all this is associated with a nice, familiar feeling of homecoming, but I wonder what first impression it makes on foreign visitors. Together with the fact that our country's only international airport is probably as big as, say, St Andrew Square bus station here in Edinburgh… probably not very good.

    And happy birthday to Professor Pullum, of course.

  8. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    @ Prof. Pullum: Happy Birthday!

    Re passport control: I can certainly remember my first encounter with US passport control at JFK. The whole procedure (inspect the passport and all the other documents, take the photo and fingerprint, etc.) were done in total silence. And when he was ready, the officer returned all the papers to me and just said, 'Go!' (low falling tone, without looking at me). Simple, efficient, welcoming. ;)

  9. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

    Oh well, the procedure WAS done, of course. Damn agreement!

  10. Mary Kuhner said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

    I got off a plane from Dakar with a lot of Senegalese–the men in bright robes with shaven heads, the women in even brighter dresses with braids so tight they looked glued on–and the US Customs officials in Seattle literally herded us like cattle, pointing and shoving and yelling. I thought there was going to be a fight, and my sympathies would have been entirely with the Senegalese people, who had done nothing to deserve this. (Me, I'm a US citizen; it's partly my fault if my country's border officials are assholes.)

    I generally have no trouble traveling by myself, but the combination of me and my husband (long-haired Japanese man, different last name) sets off alarm bells at many borders, and we've been intensively questioned quite a few times. They woke my husband up on a train once to question him, and he was (as usual when suddenly awoken) a bit incoherent. "Where are you from?" "Uh, Seattle?" (Made worse by Seattlites' tendency toward uptalk!) "What do you do for a living?" "Uh…." (This is a *very* hard question: he's a long-term unpaid volunteer in a hard-science department at the University, but that makes no sense to anyone.) I was wondering if, given the different last names, I should pretend not to know him…. But they let us through anyway. Probably they'd woken people up before.

  11. Q. Pheevr said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 6:04 pm

    I'd wish you many happy returns of the day, except that one happy return is probably all you need after such a long trip.

  12. Nicholas Waller said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

    The US border isn't all bad – the first time I went, in 1976 when I was young and on a Camp America placement, the immigration chap helpfully recommended me not to go hitchhiking as "we're not very nice people".

    Another time, in 1997, I entered the US with my mother, who was staying for a week's holiday. The passport man made some gallant quip to the effect that he assumed this Mrs Waller must be my wife. Years of travelling the Middle East had accustomed me not to go trading jokes with immigration, customs or security officials so this caught me off my guard.

  13. Grumpy said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 8:48 pm

    …after Russia it made Finland seem a totally wonderful place.

    At last, Finland sees some benefit to being Russia's neighbor.

  14. Aviatrix said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 9:01 pm

    My most intimidating passport experience was entering the old Soviet Union, where the space in front of the official had guards at each end and a mirror above and behind angled so that the man at the desk could see my back. He took the passport, looked at it for a moment then stared at me for perhaps five seconds. All without a word.

    The rule I learned was not to joke with the customs official, but always to laugh at their jokes. Do all cultures have the same "I am joking" cues?

  15. marie-lucie said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 9:12 pm

    I agree with those who contrasted US and Canadian immigration officials. My daughter and son-in-law, both of whom are US citizens, were given a hard time when going back to the US not too long ago, one reason being that they had a different last name. I was almost refused entry into the US once because I was on sabbatical: "we have to treat you as unemployed", I was told. I was going from Vancouver to Seattle by train, but fortunately I had my return plane ticket to the East Coast with me. Travelling by bus or train is viewed as suspicious: US border officials seem to assume that only shiftless, homeless people would choose those means of transportation, and that their reason to go to the US is in order to get on welfare there and "rip off the US government", as I was told at one time.

  16. Bobbie said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 9:16 pm

    When I flew to the Dominican Republic a few years ago, the customs official was nonchalant about stamping my passport. Later, when I inspected it, I realized that it said we entered the country on **March 1 instead of May 1. Oh well….

  17. Fluxor said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

    Ditto on US immigration officials as being hardasses. I've been to the US countless times and I've yet to see a single smile or hear a single pleasantry out of any of them. I'm sure it's the way that they're trained, but what an awful job to have to act aggressive/unfriendly all day every day.

  18. SlideSF said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 12:08 am

    Another -1 for US immigration. Coming home from a vacation in Mexico, where everyone, including immigration officials, was most welcoming, we were first "welcomed" by a very sullen-faced and silent woman and a sniff-dog who had to smell our luggage not once, but twice. And that was even before we got to customs. "Welcome home" indeed. It's moments like that that make a person so proud to be an American.

  19. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 1:48 am

    I echo Marie-Lucie's sentiments: the only time I've had a hard time crossing an international border (as I've done many many times, being Canadian and living very close to the border) was when I was traveling by bus.

  20. Dave Rattigan said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 7:21 am

    When I returned to my native Canada to live after an absence of 18 years, the immigration officer who met me seemed rather ignorant, and kept me standing around while he tried to figure out whether someone who was clearly a Canadian citizen was allowed back into his own country.

    Still, I can't say I didn't feel goosebumps when he came to his senses and said, "Welcome home."

  21. Stephen Jones said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 9:36 am

    British immigration is generally considered amongst the most unwelcoming for aliens. Citizens like Pullum get to vote so they are better treated since MPs would feel obliged to listen to their complaints.

    The friendliest welcome I ever got was from a French policeman at the old French-Spanish border (Schwengen meant it was no longer official). I told him I was going back to England because I no longer had a job in Spain. "Oh, stay in France," he said, "we need English teachers like you."

  22. Mark Etherton said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 8:41 am

    I don't know whether it reinforces or goes against Professor Pullum's observations about Russian border guards, but I was once wished a happy birthday when leaving Russia.

  23. linda seebach said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 10:10 am

    Maybe it's trains? We were harassed more often than not crossing European borders by train (in 1972, to be sure) and really, it was only that once that the other guys in the compartment were guest workers from Crete going home for Easter with their pockets full of smuggled watches. But flying into Russia (St. Petersburg 1999) we were greeted very warmly.

    And when we came back to the US in 1972, with a six-week-old baby and a sabbatical year's worth of luggage, we were waiting at the end of a long line at immigration at JFK, and someone came over, pulled us out of line, and escorted us to the front of the line at his booth, all the time pointing at the baby by way of explanation. People smiled indulgently and let us through, I suppose because it was obviously not our doing.

  24. Cameron said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

    I once flew from Paris to NY on my birthday and every person who looked at my passport, on the French side and in the US – said "Happy Birthday". I figured they're trained to look at the birth date, to see if it matches the apparent age of the document's bearer, and to say happy birthday if it happens to match the current date.

  25. Geoff Nathan said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    I'll contest the benignity (??underlying /g/ reappears?) of Canadian customs officials. I've been treated rudely both at the Windsor border and at the Toronto airport. Once, after my wife answered that we were both US citizens I was peremptorily ordered to speak for myself.
    On the other hand, maybe Canadians are getting revenge for how they're treated in the US. One of my students, who's a good cook, regularly gets her lunch confiscated by US customs.

  26. Mark Gould said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    Dan Lufkin has explained something that has always puzzled me. When I first entered the United States (on a J-1 visa) in 1985, I arrived at Detroit Metro Wayne County airport in a state of trepidation. Having had to queue for the best part of a day to get the visa in the first place, I understood how seriously the US took its borders.

    I was therefore deeply bemused to be drawn out of the immigration (or possibly customs) line by a kindly official who took a cursory look at my passport, drew a chalk squiggle on my suitcase and sent me on my way ahead of the horde.

    Thinking back, he could have been of Irish descent. As I am a tall redhead he could also have concluded that I too was Hibernian. If so, I feel a bit of a fraud.

  27. Nicholas Waller said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

    @ Cameron "they're trained to look at the birth date"

    And so maybe miss the photo. My mother and my brother made their way separately back from Austria to the UK once 25 years ago, one of them by train and the other by car, each with the other's passport. No-one batted an eyelid across various borders (until the UK) even though my mother is 20+ years older than my brother and didn't have a full beard.

    A social philosophy lecturer of mine at Manchester in the 70s had done some teaching on a US airbase; as a test, he replaced the photo on his ID card with a photo of King Kong's face and never got queried about it.

  28. John Cowan said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 10:30 am

    When I was returning from Canada a few years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture confiscated my lunch (full of suspect Canadian beef), though I offered to eat it on the spot, and coldly informed me I could eat at the McDonald's inside the customs space (though I am both diabetic and dyspeptic, and couldn't possibly do so). Only then did he say "Welcome to the United States" in a most sarcastic tone.

    I felt like weeping.

  29. Matt said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 10:45 am

    While queuing at London Heathrow immigration in 2004, I looked ahead to see a gentleman with a large beard, apparently from a Middle Eastern background, talking earnestly with what was obviously a senior Immigration official. Then the bearded gentleman turned around and said something like "Next, please."

    I felt irrationally proud at how much progress the UK had made at treating all its citizens with equal respect.

  30. Eyebrows McGee said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    "Velkomin heim (sp?) in Icelandic, which I guess means 'Welcome home'. I found this incredibly warm and sweet."

    One of my favorite things about going through passport control at O'Hare (Chicago airport) is that the agents (after the serious and businesslike examination of passport, etc.) always hand my (US) passport back to me with a smile and say, "Welcome home."

    (My worst border control experience was actually Ireland — and I've been to Russia. But I don't think they were intentionally rude; it seemed like someone had screwed something up because the whole area was incredibly disorganized and frantic and every employee was extremely snappish as a result. I've flown through the same airport other times without a problem, so I think it was just a bad day.)

  31. chris said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

    Did anyone see the news back in February of an online survey conducted by into airport and customs experiences around the world? US customs officials were ranked the world's rudest, followed by India, with Russia in third place.

    More details here:,28318,25066171-5014090,00.html

  32. Ted said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 11:20 pm

    Two years ago I took a short cruise from Los Angeles to Ensenada, Mexico. Upon disembarking, I handed my U.S. Passport and my U.S. Customs declaration (on which I had also stated that I was a U.S. citizen) to the Immigration official. He gave a cursory look at both documents and asked me what country I was a citizen of.

    It was then that I committed the Serious Mistake: I laughed before saying "United States." He glowered at me as if I were an international terrorist and growled, "Why did you laugh?" I said, "I gave you my U.S. passport and Customs declaration that said I was a U.S. citizen, so I thought it was a strange question to ask." "Some people have false documents," he growled. Then he paused for what seemed like half an hour, most likely to consider whether a trip to the back room for an interrogation and complete dissection of my belongings would be the appropriate way to instill in me proper respect for the Awesome Majesty of the United States. Then he slapped my passport on the desk and growled, "You're free to go." Which I could only assume was his particular way of saying "Welcome home."

    Still, I don't think it's fair or appropriate to judge any country by its border officials. That profession tends to attract petty tyrants the world over.

  33. Americaman said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 2:02 am

    When coming back from Brazil to LAX, the immigration dude asked me "how long are you going to stay?" (and also, "how much money do you have?").

    Genuinely surprised, I asked "why, is there a time limit?". (BTW, I'm a US citizen, born and raised and totally stereotypically caucasian). He roughly said "don't get smart with me sir."

    I was just happy he didn't call an armed officer to shoot me.

  34. Ken Grabach said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 9:10 am

    At Cincinnati / Covington airport I have been given a friendly "Welcome home" after returning from an interational trip. It is really pleasant to hear that. It is sad that the international state of affairs has made returning from Canada an unpleasant experience, and that a passport is now needed for such an unfortified border (it seems the metaphorical fortifications have been raised up).

  35. nichim said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 11:49 am

    While traveling by train from the US to Canada, the US border officials who boarded the train before we crossed into Canada detained the train for an hour while they went through all my belongings in a public area of the train, with spectators, and threatened to cut open my beloved stuffed rabbit that my mother made for me when I was a baby. They wouldnʼt tell me what they were looking for, and whatever it was, they were sure disappointed that they didnʼt find it.

  36. alex de paris said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    When entering the Democratic Republic of Congo at Ndjili airport a few months ago, I first had to make my way across the tarmac and through the frantic crowd to the door (and i mean a tiny wobbly wooden door) of the airport building. A big guy wearing a military outfit was checking passports and medical records – like elsewhere in Africa, anyone entering the country has to be immune to yellow fever. It turned out I had my injection done just a couple of days earlier, and it would not be active until the next day. I was taken away in a tiny booth where a woman was writing down stuff on a worn-out candlelit notebook. Another guy wearing military clothes came in and said :
    – If you want to enter our country, you need to have a vaccination. Yours is not valid yet. The law says you have to pay $120".
    – Sir, I had my injection done just a few days ago. I assume this wil be enough to protect me from the yellow fever in Kinshasa.
    – Well, the law is the law : it's $120. I see you are a good man : so how much do you want to pay ?
    – How's $10 ?
    – $20.
    – All right then.
    – Welcome to the Congo, sir.

  37. Nathan Myers said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

    I have had my share of rudeness from U.S. border whatsits, but I would just like to note that packing whatever you want not rifled in a bag along with leaky jars of red-pepper sauce is probably a good way to have it ignored.

    If Reagan could fire the entire staff of air traffic controllers, why can't Obama fire the entire border patrol? Would anything valuable be lost?

  38. pavel said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 9:20 pm

    A few years ago I flew into Vancouver through Seattle, so I had to pass through both US and Canadian immigrations in short order. At the US side, I was called into a separate room, subjected to a special search of my carry-on luggage, and questioned closely for twenty minutes. On the Canadian side, the officer took less than a minute with the passport, smiled and said, "Welcome to Canada". What a world of difference!

  39. alexp said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 8:37 pm

    wasn't a fair comparison… maybe finland would have pointed out your birthday too if you had arrived there on your birthday.

  40. DN said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 12:28 am

    When returning to Nepal for the first time since my Peace Corps service there, an official, on hearing me speak Nepali, asked "कहाँ पुगेर आउनभयो ?", a very typically Nepali question which is difficult to put into grammatical English ("Where having reached are you coming back?").

    That said "Welcome home" more than anything else could.

  41. ksandness said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 7:00 pm

    When you enter Japan through Narita Airport, the sign in English says "Welcome to Japan," while the sign in Japanese says, "O-kaeri nasai," which is what people say to a member of their household who has come back home, whether it's a routine return from work or school at the end of the day, or a return from a long trip.

  42. Summer said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

    I just returned to the U.S from an overseas vacation. I am a legal resident of the United States. I was travelling with my boyfried so, since they always ask at the border "are you travelling with someone?", we were in front of a U.S. passport controller together. He asked if we were married and we said no. He looked at us like we were scum, and looked at him and pointed at the line, without a word. After some hesitation, we guessed that he wanted my boyfriend to go back in line, so he did. Then he started to go through my passport and said, "Huh! wow!" After a minute passed, he said to me "You don't look like this photo at all." It's been almost 15 years since that photo was taken and I said so. But let me assure you, I DO look like that photo. It is impossible not to realize that person and I are the same one. For the next 10 minutes, he did not ask me for another identification or anything, and he did not ask me anything else; he just talked about how miserable I look now! He kept on saying, "What happened to you? Your job must be very stressful to make you look like that. Wow!" It was so obvious that he was trying to intimidate me and get a negative reaction from me so that he would continue his bullying with even more insult and hopefully (by him) more serious consequences. I am a 39-year-old woman who has a very respectable position in society and I contribute to the wellness of American life. I certainly did not deserve this. And I have heard of or witnessed many more examples of treatment like this at the U.S. border. The image correction must start at the border and we need government officials who are smart enough to see that.

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