A little-known UK Border Force rule could ruin your mid-term break

Owning a British passport had lulled me into a possibly misguided sense of security: Getty

Owning a British passport had lulled me into a possibly misguided sense of security: Getty

As with so many things in life, being stopped at passport control was something I thought happened to other people. One way or another, holding a British passport had lulled me into a possibly misguided sense of security and I figured the worst I could expect might be an infuriating post-Brexit queue on arrival or departure.

All of that changed a few weeks ago when my nine year old daughter Georgie and I were returning from what had been a dream trip to Disneyland Paris.

In the space of a few hours Georgie went from staring at the sight of Mickey to sobbing quietly at the Gare du Nord station, and all thanks to a little-known rule that’s all too easy to get wrong. I share my experience so that other parents can be warned and, therefore, saved.

On handing over our passports to the UK Border Force control booths before boarding the Eurostar, the officer looked down on us before asking ‘And what is your relationship to each other ?”

“I’m his mother,” I replied, slightly offended.

“And what proof do you have?” she snapped.

“None,” I replied. “Nobody ever asked me that.”

At this point I should explain that although my daughter’s father and I have been together for 19 years, we are not married and have chosen to give our daughter her father’s surname.

Eddie and his daughter Georgie had a bad shock after returning from a trip to Disneyland Paris

Eddie and his daughter Georgie had a bad shock after returning from a trip to Disneyland Paris

“Do you have your daughter’s birth certificate?” came the next question.

I shake my head. “Not with me.”

“You need documentation,” the Border Force officer continued. “Have you heard of child trafficking?”

“Yes,” I replied, anxious and starting to get annoyed at his tone.

“Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 is intended to prevent child trafficking. And I need you to show me proof of your relationship.”

I repeated that I had no proof and the conversation just kept going in circles. Meanwhile Georgie, sensing the growing stress of the situation, began to cry. It was then that the Border Force officer explained that I should see how “my behavior” had caused all of this.

By this point I was almost shaking with rage, not only at not being able to protect my daughter, but also at the prospect of being prevented from coming home.

Eventually, it transpired that a passport photo of my partner would be enough to prove his relationship to our daughter – which he duly texted me – and the Border Force officer finally let us through.

We boarded the train less than two minutes before it left the station, both of us still a little sick.

What you need to know

So what is Section 55?

According to Gov.uk, “section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 … requires UK Visas and Immigration to make arrangements to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in the performance of its immigration duties, nationality and general customs”. Well, that’s clear and specific then.

After inquiring from the Home Office press office for more information, they directed me to a leaflet entitled ‘Children traveling to the UK’ which Border Force officers ‘can’ apparently hand out to passengers. The leaflet explains that the Border Force “also works to protect vulnerable children and those who could potentially be trafficked”. This is, of course, a necessary protection that serves an important function, but that doesn’t mean innocent travelers can’t find themselves ensnared by it as well.

Who needs to know about Section 55?

Anyone traveling with a minor under 18, but having a different surname to the minor, can potentially be stopped at the UK border and asked to provide proof of their relationship.

This includes more people than you might think.

According to a 2022 House of Commons document (“Common Law Marriage and Cohabitation”), the number of couples choosing to cohabit rather than marry has increased by 144% in recent years, from around 1.5 million in 1996 to around 3 6 million in 2021.

There are of course also a whole host of other reasons why a parent or relative may have a different first name from their children, from divorce and blended families to women who marry but choose not to change their last name. Not to mention people in civil unions.

What documentation to bring with you to avoid detention?

The government website states that you may be asked to provide copies of: “A birth or adoption certificate proving your relationship to the child, divorce or marriage certificates if you are the parent but have a different last name than the child or a letter from the child’s parent(s) authorizing you to travel with the child”.

Where can I find the Home Office Guide on Section 55?

A publication on The Home Office Press Office website entitled ‘Guide to Faster Travel Through the UK Border’ contains a single paragraph on ‘Advice for families traveling with children’, stating that if you are traveling with a child who has a different you can you will be asked to provide proof of your relationship. “Section 55” does not appear under any searches within the site, so unless you know exactly where to look, this information is nearly impossible to find.

So why isn’t it more widely advertised?

I telephoned the Home Office press office to try to find out, but the press officer I spoke to told me Section 55 was unfamiliar to him. I explained that this was precisely my point.

When I asked the Press Office for comment, they repeated that information on Section 55 was available on the government website.

It is, but unless you’re traveling to a country with specific visa or vaccination requirements, how many of us feel the need – or have the time – to casually check any unfamiliar rules or regulations? Certainly not. Also, according to the press office, there are currently no plans to publicize Section 55 more broadly. My advice? Arm yourself with all relevant documentation and save yourself an unpleasant experience.

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