How to get Back into a Country (an instruction manual)

It’s hard to remember the last time I approached the passport desk without an underlying sense of dread. Adding to my detriment, Ukrainian immigration officials are like rabid dogs, sensing my uneasiness and eager to draw blood (in the form of a back-room bribe). As a result the woman behind the desk spends an eternity inspecting my passport when the 300-pound, brick-faced, would be mafioso in front of me got a mere once over before being waved through.

I’m never quite certain what to do in those initial moments after crossing the yellow line. Should I smile as I hand my passport over, mouth hello before looking down at my shoes as the official’s typing thumps my exposed nerves or, like the aforementioned mafioso, all but throw it at her, muttering under my breath the entire time while staring at her straight on and daring her to have a problem.

It worked for him but… me? I shudder at the thought of being even half as daring so a brief smile and a nod it is, though rather than staring at my feet I try faking interest in the contours of the square box inside of which is imprisoned my inspector. No wonder I never come across a happy passport officer. Except in Italy that is, where they say hello with a “ciao!” that doubles as a “goodbye” because any longer than five seconds and Marcello will be late for his coffee break.

Of course I have other reasons for being nervous here. It was only 18 months ago that I was going through a passport desk on the “departure” side and my refusal to pay a fine for overstaying resulted in my being banned from entering the country for 3 years.

Note to reader: In case you don’t know how that happened:

I’ve ignored the math, so I’m expecting any moment to get pulled into a dimly lit office and be told I have to pay a “fine”, off the record of course.

Before I got on the plane I didn’t feel this way. No no, I had allowed myself to be convinced that a country like Ukraine would have better things to do than enforce a travel ban… especially after recent events. Then I boarded and at some point between hearing the three drunk Ukrainian women in front of me bemoan the state of their country and how they loathed going back, and the flight attendants screaming at other passengers to stay seated as the plane taxied down the runway, I started getting a bit anxious.

Note to Pegasus Airlines: You really ought to consider employing at least one Russian or Ukrainian speaking employee, as screaming at a plane full of Ukrainians in Turkish and English appears to yield few results.

My thoughts again turn to the passport woman. What is she doing?

A troubled look has taken over her face… or I should say, a more troubled look has taken over her already troubled face. The source of her immediate suffering appears to be my passport photo, as if the person pictured is so clearly not me seven years ago. I feign another smile, but it appears to have backfired as she is now calling for her colleague to come over.

The colleague stares at the computer screen, as if next to the grainy image of my face is a giant flashing red light next to the words: refuse entry at all costs – detain until State Security arrives!

I turn my head, ever so slightly, and notice that I am now alone on this side of the yellow line, everyone else having made it through without incident.

A roach darts past my feet and into Ukrainian territory. I wonder at what age it decided to leave home and explore the world. The Marco Polo of polyneopterous insects, surely.

Note to reader: Yes, I looked that up. I’m not naturally so well-versed in roach terminology. I also looked up synonyms for “serious” because I can’t very well keep using “brick-faced” to describe the people here.

The solemn colleague is shrugging now, and after a brief exchange, returns to her desk. The other passport officers, curious as to the hold up, eye me warily through their little glass boxes. It’s only a matter of time before they mark me for the easy target I am, and ask me to empty my wallet for violating some immigration statute or another.

The woman says something in Russian and turning to an empty page stamps my passport. I walk through to the baggage claim and look back. She is explaining something to a quite large male colleague who stares straight at me. I’m certain that had I gone up to his desk I’d be in a dark, mildewed office right now, trying to explain to this grave son of potato farmers that I have no money with which to lubricate the lining of his government issued pockets.

Finally through customs with two heavy bags, freedom comes! Though admittedly, as the black market taxi drivers urgently press their services, it feels different than I thought it would.

The roach scurries by a bench holding a row of old Ukrainian ladies. Unmoved, they lift their skirts, letting the roach shuttle past towards a kiosk selling cinnamon buns.

Despite having not eaten since the previous afternoon, I find that I have no appetite.



  1. am about to leave Ukraine Tuesday and am same situation. I paid the fine once before (officially in Feb) and keep the paper in my passport. I want to get a residence visa but am nervous to get on their radar more and be banned from the country (have a serious gf here and her daughter). oh.. the joys of travel 🙂 I will make sure to arrive EXTRA early and have another 850 UAH ready to go… Leaving by train is so much easier but sometimes, you just gotta fly out of kiev.


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