Costa RicaNorth AmericaPersonalTravelUnited States of America

That Time I Was Held Like A Prisoner In A USA Airport..

By 16 January 2021 June 22nd, 2021 No Comments

How 4 weeks in Costa Rica turned into 5, a revoked tourist visa in the US and my phone I’m trying to chase half the world away.

In the past week (and it’s only mid week), I left my phone in Costa Rica while I was on my way to the airport to LA, took a 6 hour flight to LA, arrived in LA airport only to be withheld by the Customs Border Control.

girl phone, what to do in helsinki, things to do in helsinki
Helsinki, Finland

I never go anywhere without my phone ever, much less to a different country without it. I’ve always been careful with where I put things and I never (hate) losing my things. This had to have been an omen. A sign telling me that I should stay in Costa Rica.

I panicked the moment I found out about it as I was checking in for my LAX flight. Being without my phone is like losing a limb (almost), I felt like my second-in-command was no longer there. I couldn’t contact people (I only know my family’s contact by heart), I couldn’t look at maps, I couldn’t tell the time (that’s why smart watches suck – they run out of battery), I couldn’t Google anything.

Oh, and I couldn’t update my life story on Instagram Stories.

I turned to strangers who’d been (thankfully) helpful in lending me a phone to reach my hotel where Jeff stayed, so that they can hopefully reach him before he drove too far away from me.

The waiting and not knowing is the most tormenting feeling ever. Thinking every car that passes by might be him, thoughts trailing to worst-case scenarios and drawing up Plan Bs and Cs.

As the clock approached the 45-minute mark to my flight taking off, I’d mentally prepped myself to resign to fate. I borrowed another phone to make a call to the hotel for an update.

To my dismay, Jeff hadn’t had his cellular data switched on, and it was only an hour later, when he arrived back at the hotel, that he realised my phone was in the car all along.

Thankfully for free airport WiFi, I was still able to contact people on Facebook. We made a quick plan for Jeff to FedEx my phone over to my friend’s address in LA where I was supposed to be staying when I arrived.

I kept optimistic thinking I’ll have a good, solid social media and technology detox, something I’ve always supported but never had the willpower enough to do it.

Who would have known I would have bigger problems awaiting me on my arrival in LA.

The closest thing to being a criminal

Waiting in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection room, I was restless and impatient knowing that Anthony was waiting for me outside to pick me up from the airport.

As if I don’t feel bad enough already.

I’d arrived at 12:30pm and should have been out and reunited with him by now. What would have been done in a matter of a few minutes turned to 2 hours.. 3 hours.. 4.

I was questioned, had a full body search, and was issued a statement by the US law that “lying to a federal officer is punishable by law,” a quote I’ve heard so many times only in the movies but never thought I’d hear in real life.

12 hours of being in a confined room (where hair ties and shoelaces are not allowed and we’re separated by gender) later, I was further accosted.

They went through all of my Instagram Stories and asked me about my last road trip in the US to the detail. They perused my travel blog looking for anything to use against me and prove I’ve used my tourist visa for purposes other than visiting the country.

After all, it’s unusual for a solo Asian girl to be roaming the US for months at a time (I’m allowed 90 days and I usually stay for more than 2 months each time). It’s hard to explain what I do because the lines are so blurred as a travel blogger/ digital marketer/ freelancer. We work with every possible type of brand/ company in every part of the world.

Eventually, they managed to find a gig I did that counted as “working” in the US on a tourist visa. Because of that, my tourist visa is revoked and I was denied entry to enter the US.

Needless to say, being held like a prisoner wasn’t something I was stoked about. This had to top my list of wild experiences from travel.

That, and being held in Tokyo airport for 24 hours while I was coming into the US in October 2020 and having to pay USD700+ to stay overnight in a hospital bed… Ridiculous!

At the very least, I’m sent back to a country I have come to live and love.

chilling on langosta beach tamarindo guanacaste costa rica Bel Around The World

More days of surfing? Lazy days by the beach? A Costa Rican boy I’ve so grown fond of and have become comfortable hanging out with? I’ll take that any day to mean Americans!

The only other complication was, my phone was already being sent to the address in LA where I was supposedly going to stay for the next week. Now I’ll have to reroute it back to my next destination (which is a challenge). It’s like playing chase!

I honestly don’t mind not having my phone with me; I have my laptop and it gives me access to most communication platforms. I have my pictures and videos periodically synced from my phone to the laptop so I’m not losing any data.

The only worry is coordinating where I’ll be next, since I had to make last minute travel arrangements now that I have an unplanned stay in Costa Rica. I have to ensure that the address I’ll next send to is somewhere reliable and my phone isn’t going to be stolen while in transit.

Thank goodness they managed to find me a flight back to Liberia, Costa Rica at 11pm. I wouldn’t want to stay another minute in this darn country.

Another 4 hours of flight with minimal sleep later, I was right back at the seat in the airport, where 24 hours ago, I was waiting there anxiously hoping Jeff would realise my phone was in the car and turn the car around.

What a whirlwind of a 24 hours!

Is this the price to pay for having a “public” profile?

Timber Cove Resort, California, USA

This makes me wonder, is this the price to pay for sharing about my personal life with a public audience?

I’ve always tried to be as aboveboard and honest a person as possible. I ain’t afraid to share about my tales on the road – both the good and the bad (see Mothership or AsiaOne‘s stories on my leaving Singapore in the middle of a pandemic). Heck, I share and bear my life story here with you.

That’s because I enjoy writing, sharing about how travel changes lives and I value you. I want to inspire you to discover both the realities and beauty of travel. I share it with you because you’ve been on this journey with me, supporting me always.

The least I can do is to tell you nothing but the truth, rather than sugarcoat things via Instagram. If anything in my 10+ years of blogging, I believe in the power of words, and storytelling. I never travel ANYWHERE without my journal.

With what I just experienced, it surely feels like a punch in the gut for baring it all on my blog and with you, my personal (and what was once a safe) space.

Betrayal from a country I love


I also felt a tinge of betrayal from the country, considering how much I’ve been a proponent of it. If you’ve been following my journey, you’ll know how insanely grateful I am from the bottom of my heart for the family away from home that I’ve made, who’ve been more than kind enough to support me during my travels in the US.

I would not have had the courage to step foot into the US in the middle of the pandemic, just before the election. I would not have been able to afford extended travel in California if they hadn’t opened their doors to me.

Honestly though, while it sounds iffy that these friends I’ve encountered may be of the opposite gender, I know for a fact that they’re going to be those people I’ll be lifetime friends with.

colourful house, Bo-Kaap, Cape-Town-South-Africa
Cape Town, South Africa

Heck, how often are you able to maintain regular contact with someone you made friends with in Cape Town and only hung out for a day, only to meet up a year later and do a road trip together when we were in the same city?

Well, USA, it’ll be awhile ’til you hear from me again. ‘Til then, I’ll be busy surfing (look at the drastic difference in my body from the beginning of my trip in Costa Rica and now, 5 weeks later, on my IG Stories “Costa Rica”!) exploring a whole wide world out there, working towards building my own home base (hopefully in Cape Town) and convincing my US friends to take a trip out of their darned country elsewhere together!

Au revoir, USA.

Isabel Leong

Isabel Leong

An explorer at heart, the world is Isabel's playground. She enjoys seizing every moment exploring every hideout and doing the unimaginable, like bungee jumping in Phuket and couchsurfing in Europe. If she had wings, she’d definitely be soaring right now. Also a fitness trainer, if she’s not at the gym, you can find her doing yoga or rock climbing! Read more about her on belaroundtheworld.com/about.