Air travel can be made quite frustrating, for many right reasons and many additional ones. The good news is that in 2024, you can generally navigate around an airport quite easily if you bring your common sense and a fair amount of research.
Unfortunately there’s one rule that low-cost airline Ryanair uniquely makes for non-UK/EU/EEA passport holders which can be a substantial headache – you need to get your visa checked when flying any flight into the UK or EU, even if you hold a passport that involves visa-exempt access. This includes if you’re holding a Canadian, U.S. passport, etc., which would typically give you access into all EU countries.
The act of checking passenger visas is well-intentioned – as an airline, you shouldn’t be flying a passenger into a country they aren’t legally accessing. The issue is that Ryanair will typically only let you do this check landside, unlike virtually any other airline. I’ve heard countless reports of people showing up at the gate with a mobile boarding pass (!) after checking in online, only to be denied boarding because their visa wasn’t checked. I have an issue with Ryanair’s lack of transparency on this front, especially when the website otherwise tries to sell you every add-on under the face of the earth.
Additionally, Ryanair has insufficient training for visa check staff as to what’s allowed and what isn’t, and has far too many cases of denying people boarding when they would’ve been allowed into the country. I was allowed to board my flight from Cork to London, though would agree with this sentiment firsthand. Lastly, Ryanair practices this visa check inconsistently, as numerous non-UK/EU-EEA passport holders I know have been allowed to board Ryanair flights without having their visa checked.
I’d also be careful to take some of the below principles if flying Wizz Air, though at least it is the exception rather than the norm. I’d say Wizz Air takes more than appropriate contention for an ultra-low cost carrier to ensure that people aren’t illegally entering the country, though Ryanair takes it to the next level, and treats this visa check as policy.
A Ryanair plane filled with 189 either UK/EU/EEA or visa-checked passengers
What is Ryanair’s visa check?
If you’re a non-UK/EU/EEA passenger travelling within Europe, Ryanair will want to check your passport landside to ensure that you’re allowed to enter the country you’re travelling to. This holds true regardless of what passport you have, or why you’re travelling – for example, I believe U.S. passports grant you entry everywhere within the UK/EU/EEA visa-free, though you’ll still have to have your passport checked.
What do I need to bring to Ryanair’s visa check?
Ryanair is really ambiguous with what you need to bring to a visa check, though I’d bring all of the following:
- Your passport (even if flying within the Schengen area, or if you’d otherwise only need to fly with ID)
- A printed version of your boarding pass (print it at your hotel, or at the gate – save yourself £55. It doesn’t need to be proper high quality, and black and white is okay)
- A printed version of your visa if you need one (a stamp on your passport will suffice – I printed my e-visa to be safe, though didn’t need to pull it out)
- Any supporting documentation you’d need to prove that you can access the country you’re flying to (an onward travel ticket if you’re travelling for tourism, and as much “official” proof of permission to enter if you live there)
- I’d certainly load up my e-visa – I’d even load up on my phone an official website stating you can enter visa-free if you’re travelling to/from a visa free country
- Continue reading if you’re transiting through the UK visa-free, and would typically need a visa if staying for over 24 hours
In addition, bring your calm, cool and collected self – you’re more convincing if you appear calm and knowledgeable, compared to if you’re in a rage. If a supervisor convinces themselves they know the rules more than you do, you certainly can’t change that by kicking and/or screaming.
My experience undergoing Ryanair’s visa check
Ryanair allows all those who select a seat to check-in up to 30 days before departure, so I did so – the check-in process was easy, and I was given a mobile boarding pass. Most would think that this would be enough to get you onboard (or at least subject to a visa check at the gate area), though unfortunately that isn’t the case. Ryanair did nothing to heads-up me on this visa check in any of the emails they sent – and boy they sent quite a few (all regarding upsells).
On my flight from Cork to London Luton today, I walked into the (deserted) check-in area, where I saw a couple of desks set apart for a “visa check”. Don’t expect the visa check desk to look this empty, especially if departing from Stansted or Luton during peak season – fortunately I believe you can grab anybody for a signature, and don’t need to specifically queue in most cases.
Ryanair’s visa check at Cork Airport
I hold a British National Overseas visa, which doesn’t come in the form of a passport stamp, or even a Biometric Residence Permit – instead, it comes in the form of an e-visa, which the UK is switching to.
I handed over a boarding pass that I’d printed out, and showed my e-visa on my phone (I’d printed out the email that the UK Home Office sent me, in case they required more proof). As I’d foreseen, the lady at the visa check desk was unfamiliar with UK e-visas, and asked whether I had a stamp in my passport. I didn’t, though fortunately after checking with a supervisor, she stamped me through.
As someone who can enter the UK for up to 90 days as a visitor visa-free, I probably also would’ve gotten away with proof of onward travel. In this case, the correct entry document for me to enter the UK was an e-visa, as the UK Border Force automatically registers my visa whenever I rock up with my passport (the fact that they have to manually check this is one of the reasons I’m frustratingly unable to use the Registered Traveller Service). The fact that Ryanair staff aren’t aware of this is a red flag in my opinion – if the supervisor was unaware of what an e-visa was, I would’ve been unable to board, despite doing everything in my power to prove that I had right of legal access to the UK. Let’s not forget that since this was a flight within the Common Travel Area, I would’t even have technically needed my passport to access the UK – this is entirely a step that Ryanair has made up.
On the plus side, the lady who stamped my passport handed me a proper printed boarding pass with a smile. Given that Ryanair typically charges £55 to print a boarding pass, I should probably frame it or sell it on eBay.
My £55 boarding pass, which cost me £0 thanks to my Hong Kong passport (a win is a win)
I didn’t stress-test this by trying to board the plane with my mobile boarding pass (the same lady who checked my visa at the check-in desk was the gate agent for our flight, so that would’ve been a bit silly), though did ask her whether they’d let me board with a mobile boarding pass – they said “no, you need the Visa Check stamp”.
Does Ryanair DEFINITELY deny boarding if you don’t have your visa checked?
No – I know quite a few friends with non-UK/EU/EEA passports that have never had an issue with this before, particularly when departing from major airports. The issue is that the 5-20 minutes (depending on airport) to get this visa check completed is well worth avoiding a missed flight if they do decide to implement this rule. I’ve also seen multiple cases of Ryanair pulling aside people, reprimanding them, but then letting them onto the plane anyway.
There’s also a separate instance where Ryanair’s app will flat-out not issue you a mobile boarding pass, and ask you to head to the check-in counter (it will still check you in, waiving you of the £55 fee). Even if this isn’t the case, you still technically need to print your boarding pass and get your visa checked (though there isn’t a 100% hit rate).
This is actually borderline ridiculous, as there’s zero clarity behind when you need to do a visa check and when you don’t. However, generally I’d recommend printing your boarding pass, and asking someone at check-in to check your visa either way.
What kind of documents does Ryanair accept?
I feel Ryanair may be purposefully ambiguous on this:
- The small print on my boarding pass said that it must be printed for use – you can’t use a mobile boarding pass as a non-UK/EU/EEA passenger (even though you’re issued one)
- For this reason, I’d also print out everything I could, including any official documents you’re sent proving that you have right of access to the UK/EU (definitely print out any PDFs of visas)
- If you have visa-free entry to the UK because you’re a permanent resident of another country (e.g. Australia), Ryanair will only accept print-outs of your right of abode, and not e-visas
What issues might I run into?
If your passport requires visa access to enter or transit the UK, you’ll definitely need to have your visa checked. Almost all cases of wrongfully denied boarding I’ve seen online are related to the UK visa waiver programme. Here are some instances I’ve found of this happening. Ryanair is especially stringent for passport holders of these countries travelling to the UK.
In this case, I’d either recommend avoiding Ryanair flat-out, or avoiding transiting the UK. Ryanair seems not to budge on some of these cases, despite the fact that the UK is quite clear about visa-free transit for these passport holders. There’s clearly a disconnect between Ryanair training and actual government policy there.
Why does Ryanair do this?
There’s a very valid reason Ryanair needs to do this – they shouldn’t be flying you to a destination that you don’t have right of entry to. Ryanair would have to bear the cost of flying you back, as well as a possible fine, if you were permitted to board.
The issue isn’t that Ryanair does a visa check, but rather the way in which it’s conducted. There are quite a few “dead-ends” where Ryanair clearly wants to “trap” you into paying for a new flight (I’ve even seen a case of an Irish passport holder being denied boarding to Dublin because they didn’t go through this visa check, and had booked the flight using their New Zealander passport). Additionally, the fact that Ryanair doesn’t properly train their staff to understand all types of visas is worrisome – Ryanair should be at least as liable for making sure those eligible to board can board, as they are for making sure that those who aren’t eligible don’t board.
Conclusion: Ryanair’s Frustrating Visa Check
If you hold a non-UK/EU/EEA passport, make sure you drop by Ryanair’s visa check before any Ryanair flight (even a domestic one), showing all necessary documentation to prove that you’re allowed to fly to your destination. Typically this should be a painless process for most if you do make the visit to the counter, but there are a couple of more complicated instances where this is a genuine worry, due to the lack of accurate information on the behalf of Ryanair’s staff (mainly regarding access policies for some passport holders, as well as e-visas).
While I didn’t get caught out by this, I can imagine that this can be a trip breaker and/or a huge waste of money for some travellers because of a stupid rule Ryanair has made up. I’ve got a bit of time for weekend travel this year, so could use it to stress-test this policy until I get (wrongfully) denied boarding, which could be very likely with my British National Overseas e-visa.
I’ve got a couple more Ryanair flights booked down the line, though in principle I’d actually start avoiding Ryanair off the back of this alone. It’s such a shame, since they otherwise offer a perfectly acceptable passenger experience.
I’d love to hear your experience with Ryanair’s visa check. How consistent are they with enforcing the “visa check” policy? Has anyone been caught out?