My LA Ex

The Encounter Restaurant at LAX, where I would have eaten that evening had I not been interviewed by immigration officers. Photograph: J Brew

I hoped that almost missing my flight would be the worst my trip to New Zealand would have to offer, but thanks to overzealous immigration officials at LAX, that was nothing but a minor blip.

LAX is a maze of nine terminal buildings arranged around a stretch of highway. With any sort of rail link out of the question (this is Los Angeles after all) the only means of getting from one terminal to another is to walk or catch a shuttle bus.

This over-reliance on the motor vehicle, matched with an abundance of confusing and conflicting signage, meant the last time I was here in 2007, I found myself spending 2 of the 3 available hours between my connecting flights stuck on the wrong shuttle bus touring the airport’s many car parks. A short conversation with the bus driver – in which I had to explain that even though I’m from England, I didn’t know the Queen – gave little relief.

After spending the remaining hour trying find the correct terminal and gate, once the plane had left the tarmac, I was pretty sure I never wanted to set foot in this airport ever again.

A single ticked box

Forward to last August. As I was booking my flights to New Zealand fairly late, the only route available to Auckland was via LAX. I had some reservations, but I placed these aside, especially as a 6-hour layover in Los Angeles would mean a rare opportunity to meet my friend Kyle.

On reaching passport control, the immigration officer noticed that I had ticked the box next to the question:

Have you ever been denied a US visa or entry to the US or had a US visa cancelled? If yes, when? Where?

Carrying a passport that prominently displays a US visa with a line crossed through it (although only because I’m no longer employed in the US), I thought it best to answer yes. Indeed, I’ve answered yes on previous trips to America (as well as on the online ESTA pre-admittance process) yet as is often the case, admittance is down to the decision of one person and how they interpret the rules.

The officer reviewing my passport saw the ticked box, and without asking for an explanation, asked me to hold back behind the line for further review. Frankly she seemed unsure of whether her decision was right, as when I tried to plead my case, she needed to ask another officer if it was correct decision. However as this was her initial decision it was irreversible, and I would have to wait in ‘Admissibility Review’ to have my case reviewed.

After waiting an hour I was called up for interview. This, like much of the US border control experience is one of guilty until proven innocent, the officer eying me with constant suspicion. The highlight of his questioning was when he asked why I was travelling to New Zealand (if not for business), seemingly aghast at the thought of somebody travelling to another country for a holiday. I was tempted to ask if he saw the irony of that question, seeing as he was supposedly assessing my admittance into the United States.

The most annoying part of this whole enterprise was that I was unable to meet Kyle, who was waiting for me at the restaurant for several hours, and who I was looking forward to engaging with in our usual banter.

If this experience has confirmed one thing it is that I will never travel to – or via – LAX ever again. Regardless of the circumstances, I will do everything in my power to ensure I never have to be subjected to that bastard of an airport again in my lifetime.

On a more serious note, my desire to return to the US has diminished also. I had planned to travel to the States again in April, but this whole episode has made me wonder if it’s worth the hassle.

New Zealand gets it right

The complete opposite was to be found on arrival to New Zealand, where the officer noted that I had listed Wales and England as recent countries I’ve visited. Laughing a little that I had felt the need for such accuracy, he asked me whereabouts in Wales (first listing a few places that he had obviously visited himself) before giving me a run down on what weather to expect in Auckland during my stay.

Overall the experience here was one of not just professionalism, but one of welcoming visitors to the country. America should take note.