Live From London Heathrow Airport Terminal 3

I am on my way back from San Francisco to Pune and have a stop over at London Heathrow. I am writing this live from the ‘Internet and Additional Seating’ area at London Heathrow Airport Terminal 3.

I have been through Heathrow a couple of times before and visited London on a business visa a couple of years back. While countries (even the US) issue visas for 10 years, UK then made me go through a lot of procedure, including submitting a dozen financial and other documents, charged me a hefty fee and gave me a measly 6 months visa. That visa expired in 2006.

I was planning to get out into London today, during my 10 hrs stopover on this trip. I had checked the Heathrow website in advance and saw that there was a provision for a 24 hours transit visa on arrival. I thought that’s good and appropriate for me. I was again supposed to pay a big fat fee for this visa. I got into the immigration queue rather confident of getting the 24 hours visa. I had an earlier visa, had a confirmed ticket for an onward journey and had even checked my baggage through to India. So I could see no reason why I would not be given the 24 hour visa.

The Heathrow website says –

Stopover information

You can apply for a 24-hour visa on arrival. This is at the discretion of the Immigration Officer, who must be satisfied that you have a confirmed booking of onward travel within 24 hours.

I was in for a surprise on getting to the immigration counter. The officer there questioned me on why I had not got a proper visa from my country. I told him that the process was tedious and considering that the Heathrow website mentioned the 24 hours transit visa I didn’t see the need. The officer stunned me by reprimanding me for my actions. He said that he won’t give me the visa. I again referred to the site, my earlier visa and even said that doesn’t UK encourage people to visit UK so why am I being denied a visa? I have a past UK visit record, a US visa and stampings from some other countries as well. I also had documents to prove my business and credentials. He won’t listen.

I told him that the website said that the 24 hours visa is at the ‘discretion’ of the officer and was supposed to be given if the onward journey was a confirmed one. He got back saying that the word wasn’t ‘at the discretion’ but was a ‘concession’ to me made in special cases. He didn’t see why he should make the concession for me.

Ridiculous! I was in no mood to argue further and decided to return to the “Flight connections” area and spend my 10 hours at the airport.

I hate putting a racial twist to things but I wonder if ‘young asian male’ was again a factor. Would he have rejected the visa if it was say a Swedish woman wanting to see London while she had the time? Would that be a special case worthy of making a concession?

As for the airport, I had not liked Heathrow airport on my previous visits and this time is no different. I am aware that my immigration desk encounter will affect my review this time, yet I am trying to make an unbiased review.

Passenger Facilities – Heathrow is like a shopping mall. The shops are the focus of the airport and the passenger facilities are incidental. So I am surrounded by about a 100 stores selling perfumes, cigars, goggles, liquor, etc. but in the entire area there are just 2 toilets and 2 water fountains. On my first visit I had not found the water fountain at all as there are no signs marking it.

Today I had to hunt around for a good 15 minutes to find a power supply point to charge my laptop. The T-Mobile HotSpot where I bought the Internet connection had a few power points but not one of them worked. The boarding and departure gates are a good 10-15 minutes walk from the main area and these gates are at the other extreme, with no shops and restaurants

Seating – The “Additional Seating” area is perhaps the only place that has good cushioned seating arrangements. The other areas all have chairs that you cannot relax or even sit on for an extended duration.

Walk – You have to walk quite a lot to get to and from any gate. There are motorized moving walkways in a few places but a lot more are required.

Crowded – All the passengers are crowded in the restaurants and stores area as that’s where all the action is.

Look & Feel – The airport has low ceilings and is dimly lit in all places except the shops, giving the entire place a closed and cramped feel.

Shopping – Shopaholics might like Heathrow as they would be too busy going through the stores to notice that there’s little else.

Food – The food options are good, with a number of restaurants catering to various cuisines.

Internet – 5 internet browsing machines at 1 GBP for 10 minute are available. WiFi rates are 5GBP for 60 minutes 10 GBP for 24 hours. Not bad, but considering passengers need for connectivity, a few free browsing terminals would be a nice feature to have.

Overall, Heathrow is struggling to stay with the year 2008. It is nowhere in the league of airports like Hong Kong. HK is clean, bright and spaced out. Passenger facilities are the focus while the shopping areas are incidental. I haven’t seen the new Terminal 5 at Heathrow and hope that the learnings from the other terminals have been used there, to provide a more passenger friendly airport terminal.

Of course there are many airports worse than Heathrow, including most in India. Will write about those if and when I get stranded at those airports.

  • Hello Harshad

    I totally agree with the comments about the shops and lack of other comforts and the VISA story sounds like a real debarcle! Can you feed back to them via their website?

    I’ve been doing a fair bit of travel lately myself to Germany. Both Frankfurt and Munich airports do seem to embod Germany design with better space and lighting, really nice cafes and plenty of toilet facilities. I’m not sure about the Hot Spots but I’m planning to get myself a 3G “Vodaphone” dongle soon which should give me the access I need. I hope it works through train tunnels as there are a fair few up on the route up northfrom London! 🙂

    Take care and speak more soon!

    Chandran.

  • Thanks Chandran. Have now posted my feedback to the Heathrow site.

  • Thanks Chandran. Have now posted my feedback to the Heathrow site.

  • Arijit

    Hi Harsh,

    Only once I had been to the Heathrow on my way to US from India. Its a real congested facility and seemed that they don’t even have enough sitting facility for such a huge number of passengers. And then you have to walk miles to get to the other terminal ! Although, my layover was for 4-5 hours, but one of the travel agents was initially bit sceptical about the sector thru Heathrow but then another person in his office confirmed from the Airlines office that the layover of 4 hours won’t be a problem. But they did mention that a long halt (close to a day’s) could be a problem !
    This time, even my family would be returning via Heathrow (the layover will be 1 hour only); pray to God that they shouldn’t face any problem 🙂
    Even at places like Bahrain airport, you have the Free Wi-Fi access. The Hong-Kong airport is also good one, though I haven’t visited any other European Airports. The Moscow airport is another lousy place wherein they won’t even understand (or try to) English and perhaps become stricter for the onward flights to USA.

    Take care and keep posting your experiences 🙂

    Regards,
    Arijit.

  • Arijit

    Hi Harsh,

    Only once I had been to the Heathrow on my way to US from India. Its a real congested facility and seemed that they don’t even have enough sitting facility for such a huge number of passengers. And then you have to walk miles to get to the other terminal ! Although, my layover was for 4-5 hours, but one of the travel agents was initially bit sceptical about the sector thru Heathrow but then another person in his office confirmed from the Airlines office that the layover of 4 hours won’t be a problem. But they did mention that a long halt (close to a day’s) could be a problem !
    This time, even my family would be returning via Heathrow (the layover will be 1 hour only); pray to God that they shouldn’t face any problem 🙂
    Even at places like Bahrain airport, you have the Free Wi-Fi access. The Hong-Kong airport is also good one, though I haven’t visited any other European Airports. The Moscow airport is another lousy place wherein they won’t even understand (or try to) English and perhaps become stricter for the onward flights to USA.

    Take care and keep posting your experiences 🙂

    Regards,
    Arijit.

  • G. Gonz

    Thanks for updating us on the goings-on at Heathrow Airport. My husband and I are U.S. citizens but of Asian descent (Filipino Americans). Do we need a U.S. visa to go out and see London during a 24-hour stopover at Heathrow on our way to and from India? Best, Gi

  • G. Gonz

    Thanks for updating us on the goings-on at Heathrow Airport. My husband and I are U.S. citizens but of Asian descent (Filipino Americans). Do we need a U.S. visa to go out and see London during a 24-hour stopover at Heathrow on our way to and from India? Best, Gi

  • Hello Harshad

    I totally agree with the comments about the shops and lack of other comforts and the VISA story sounds like a real debarcle! Can you feed back to them via their website?

    I've been doing a fair bit of travel lately myself to Germany. Both Frankfurt and Munich airports do seem to embod Germany design with better space and lighting, really nice cafes and plenty of toilet facilities. I'm not sure about the Hot Spots but I'm planning to get myself a 3G “Vodaphone” dongle soon which should give me the access I need. I hope it works through train tunnels as there are a fair few up on the route up northfrom London! 🙂

    Take care and speak more soon!

    Chandran.

    • stuckForEightHours

      Thanks for the post. I booked the ticket and realized that I have 8hr to between the flights. So I was looking at their website that says 24 hour visa on arrival. I googled it to see the procedure on their official visa website but I cant see that.
      I am glad I read your post. It seems Brits are going to be Brits… 
      Applying for 24 hour visa may be a stupid move so I will be stuck there for 8 hours.. will look for some Airlines lounges…

  • lilianhutan

    Heathrow is not too bad, it's just very European, and it does have good offers on a regular business, from tickets to parking. Speaking of which, Gatwick parking is also the same caliber, but all in all, I think both are reasonable airports.

  • Bravo, Bros! keep going like this, more good info again.

  • Bravo, Bros! keep going like this, more good info again.

  • Raj

    Hi Harshad,

    I am traveling from Toronto to Mumbai with a 14 hour stop over at Heathrow T3. Reaching T3 at 6:30pm and leaving the next morning at 8:45 am.

    The lounge closes at 10:30 and Air India says I need to take my luggage out of the first plane and probably leave it at left luggage if I plan to go out. I have a Canadian passport and do not need a visa, but am a bit worried about the immigration and emigration wait times and still trying to figure out if it would be worth while to book into a hotel or better to stay in the terminal.

    Your article reached me from a google search and I am now thinking that I should book into a hotel. It seems T3 is expensive and not at all passenger friendly especially between 6:20 pm to 8:45 am.

    Raj

  • I would expect some lounge to be open 24×7, perhaps in a different section of the airport. Considering that it would be night by the time you step out and you would have to get back early morning, doesn't seem worth the time & expense to step out.

    My post was written more than a year & half back, so it is also likely that Heathrow has changed since.

  • oh shit!
    me and my wife just bought two tickets with a 22 hour overnight stay at heathrow, based on the same passage from their website which you mentioned. I'm screwed. I'm gonna rot in the 22 hours.
    By any chance, do you remember the Visa fee!?

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  • It is a pity that people with visas can not leave the airport and they can not get a good sleep in one of the Heathrow hotels. They would have had a lot of choices as there are many hotels around.

  • Acro

    HAHA – I found all of England like this and I am not ‘Asian’ nor male (nor young!). A horrible place to visit and I cannot believe with the WHOLE country’s lack of disabled facilities that it was an instigator (or indeed is having the 2010 Paralympics) of the Paralympics. Twenty seven million tourists a year I have been told visit this country. Giving a report to fellow travellers from Australia was entrusted to me before I travelled to England. Report will be DO NOT GO – GO ANYWHERE ELSE BUT England. The people are insular and they will not say they do not know where something is, the transport (except in London itself) is extremely poor ie I spent an average of 2.5 hours waiting for next trains or buses, and I feel there is NO England anymore it is way too multicultural.

  • It seems that you had a great time there:P