Trin and Bonnie in Finland

Stuck at HEL’s Gates

Leaving Australia, we planned to isolate in Helsinki and hope that the roll-out of vaccines would soon open up travel again. We made it to Helsinki, but what followed was hours in immigration holding rooms and a sleepless night in the terminal. We didn’t end up where we expected when we left Australia, what now seems like ages ago.

Last Full day in Australia

Dmitri & Elena, our Airbnb hosts, were so gracious. We spent only a short time with them yet I was sorry to say goodbye already. On our last full day in Australia, they took us for a tour of the Cronulla area. We visited the spot where Captain Cook first landed in Australia. Fitting for our last night.

Read Part One of this saga about Why we left Australia

Whale bone monument at Captain Cook landing in Sydney Australia
Monument at the site of the first landing by Captain Cook in Australia in 1770

Trouble in Sydney Airport

The terminal in Sydney was almost empty. The few people who were at the airport wandered around calmly. The line to the check-in counter was short but well-spaced.

“I can’t let you board the plane,” the check-in attendant said as she looked at our passports and flight details. “The website said that only residents of Australia are allowed to enter Finland right now.”

Our understanding was that Finland was open to travelers from Australia, resident or not. We had been in Australia for 17 months, well before the outbreak.

She called her supervisor to confirm authorization. It seemed that it would take some time so we stepped aside to let others check-in while they investigated.

Over the next hour, one of the attendants came over to us to ask questions. Then she would return to the phone only to come back a bit later with more questions. She told us they had to be sure because the airlines were responsible for only letting people on flights if they knew that they would be allowed entry at the final destination. We didn’t mind the extra checks as we didn’t want to fly 20 hours just to be denied entry. But we started discussing our other options.

Finally, based on Trin’s Tasmanian driver’s license and our marriage certificate they gave us the authorization to board.

The empty flight board in Sydney
The flight board in Sydney. Normally all five screens would be full and scrolling.

Japan Airlines flight

It is bizarre flying during a pandemic. When terminal attendants started to call groups to board the plane passengers calmly got up and walked towards the boarding gate. Everyone else stayed seated until their group was called. There were no groups crowded around the edge of the line waiting to quickly jump in line as soon as they were called.

The plane was less than half-filled. We had room to stretch out, even to lie down and sleep.

Layover in Japan

When we landed at the Haneda airport in Japan, all passengers were escorted to our next terminal. Very few people wandered around and almost everyone had a full aisle of seating to themselves. Nobody walked back and forth in the boarding area loudly talking on a business call posturing importance. No one rushed by in a panic to get to another flight. Everyone was subdued and quiet.

The complicated restroom in the Tokyo Airport
The most difficult part of the trip was figuring out how to use the restroom in the Tokyo airport.

Flying over Siberia

I stayed awake the entire flight from Tokyo to Helsinki to watch the changing landscape of Russia below. The flight attendant told us we were free to move around or lie down in the empty seats in the aisle next to us. No one was seated in front or behind us so we reclined our seatbacks guilt-free.

The sun remained on the horizon almost our entire flight as we flew backwards in time.

Siberia from the plane
Siberia from my window seat

Landing in Helsinki

Upon arrival we had a swab stuck up our nose into our brain, at least that’s what it felt like. It was our first COVID test ever. We would receive the test results by text a few hours later.

We walked up to the immigration counter and handed our passports.

I can’t let you in because your point of origin is Japan and we are closed to Japan,” he informed us.

“Are there direct flights from Australia?” I asked.


“How are Australians being let in?” I was genuinely curious.

He shrugged and then picked up the phone to call his supervisor.

After waiting for some time he instructed us to come through the gate where two border control agents escorted us to a waiting room for further investigation.

Trin and Bonnie in front of a beveled mirror
Round and round we go, changing life plans by the hour.

Change of plans: going to sweden

We were led into a small concrete room and instructed to sit on one of the benches and wait. Of all the reasons not to be allowed entry we never even thought that our layover would be the reason. We should have considered it, but didn’t.

An hour later three officers walked into the room. One of them sat down and began asking us questions while the other two stood by the door.

We told them that we planned to wait out the virus in our rented flat and then proceed to Sweden to see Trin’s sister, a Swedish citizen.

“Why didn’t you go directly to Sweden?” the officer asked.

“Their website states that they are closed to Australia otherwise we would like to have gone there first.”

“Well, you are in the EU now. You should be able to go now from an EU country. We suggest that you go there.”

“Can you confirm that we would be allowed to enter?”

We didn’t think it would be possible but we started checking transportation options while the officer left the room to call Sweden and ask if we could enter.

Trin also contacted his sister to let her know we were right next door, just across the border from her.

Why we chose to come to Finland

In the list of death rates per capita in every country, Finland is ranked 102. Australia is 138. We didn’t want to leave a country that is almost COVID-free and jump into a hot spot, but we also did not want to put any other county at risk either.

The entire negotiation was calm. I could see compassion in their eyes and in their tone but they could not make an exception. If we had arrived just seven days earlier we would have been allowed entry because their borders were open to Japan then.

Sign on the wall of the Helsinki airport
HEL is the Helsinki airport code. This was the wallboard across one of the shops under construction as we entered.  ๐Ÿ˜‚

Entry Denied & a cold night

Five and a half hours after our landing they gave us their official decision: Since we flew in from Japan, and we had no family or business ties in Finland, we were denied entry into Finland.

Crossing into Sweden would have been an option because we had family there, but we would need to be permanent residents of Australia.

The officer informed us that Japan Airlines would book and purchase tickets for us to the USA for the next day. He asked if we preferred JFK (New York) or LAX (California). Trin and I looked at each other almost in a silent discussion since we didn’t know where we would stay yet or even what state we wanted to go to. We requested PHX (Arizona) but as alternative preferences chose RDU (North Carolina), LAX, and then JFK, in that order.

Two officers then instructed us to follow them through the maze of hallways and back up to the immigration counter in the terminal.

“The terminal is empty overnight, you can stay there.” One of the officers said pointing to the long empty hallway. We were to meet them at the immigration counter 10 AM the next morning. They informed us that they would be holding our passports till we were ready to board our flight.

A restaurant called the Nordic Kitchen had a long comfortable looking bench where we decided to spend the night. The spot seemed to be a slightly warmer area and the cushy leather would keep cold air from coming up underneath and to one side at least.

We watched the beautiful snow fall outside and tried to get some rest. We were disappointed and exhausted.

The bench we spent the night on in the Helsinki Airport
Our “home” for the night

I went through all the stages of grief (+1) that night.

Denial & Bargaining

While waiting for the immigration officers to do their investigation I kept thinking there had to be a way. We tested negative at the gate and we came from a country with whom they have advertised open borders. How can a border be open to a country in which there is no allowable route in which to enter? Surely they won’t deny us.

I had tried to bargain, letting them know that we had a flat to isolate in. I told them we came here because we thought it was safer. We also have personal health insurance that covers us anywhere in the world except the USA. We are citizens of the USA but have not lived there since 2016.

Anger & Depression

As we lay on the bench in the terminal trying to sleep I felt anger. Whether I had the right to be angry or not, I didn’t know but I couldn’t help it. I felt anger towards Australia for making it difficult to stay and do what’s best during a pandemic. I felt anger towards Finland for not having clear information about entry requirements. Neither country deserved my anger. As I cycled through the emotions I became angry with myself for not doing better research, for not knowing this ahead of time.

This was ultimately a mistake on our part and I began to feel depressed. I am grateful Australia let us in and let us stay as long as we did. None of the Finnish border agents have been rude or mean. They have all acted in a calm and professional manner.

I felt angry and depressed with myself for this huge blunder. Our last meal had been on the flight sometime around noon the day before. It was 3 AM. Everything had been closed by the time we were deposited in the terminal for the night. We would need to wait for the first kiosk to open the next morning.

I lay down on that bench as the announcements in Finnish played over the loud speakers about COVID safety requirements for social distancing and hand washing. I was hungry and cold going through all the should-haves and very disappointed to have all our Helsinki plans dashed.

Bonnie trying to sleep in HEL
Trying to catch a few winks in HEL

Acceptance to Excitement

Finally, I accepted that we could not go back and undo any decision. Our only choice was to move forward. I packed up all our mistakes and put them into the little box of experience and learning. It was time to think forward.

My stomach was in knots so at 6 AM I could not eat much. We each had a small meat pastry that we bought from an R-Kioski, their 7-Eleven equivalent. It helped to warm us up and made me start to feel slightly better. Trin and I then began discussing where we would go and what we would do in the USA.

Since it could be a year or more until we travel again I might look for a volunteer opportunity, or double down on making my blog a business, maybe even creating a product I could sell online. Ideas started swirling and I began to feel excited. It will be so good to spend time with family and friends.

Of course, the excitement was fleeting and would come and go over the crazy hours that were to follow. My feelings vacillated between a bit of anxiety and hope.

No resolution

At 10 AM the next morning we walked over to the immigration counter to pick up our tickets only to find that there were none. What followed felt like a good-news bad-news rollercoaster, and days without a resolution. But I will need to leave that for part three. We are a bit exhausted and are going to get some sleep now.

There is always a solution we just don't know what it is yet. - 43BlueDoors

Click here for Part 3 – The Helsinki roller coaster ride home

12 thoughts on “Stuck at HEL’s Gates”

  1. Wow what a journey. I would have had a hard time not knowing when I would eat next. It all sounds exhausting. Seems like a crazy way to set up travelers going from Australia. Way to leave us hanging in suspense!

  2. What a journey. Stay safe and hopeful. You have come this far. I have loved following your travels. This pandemic has created fear and chaos and hopefully lessons learned for all of us. It is hard to have no control. Glad you have each other.

    1. Wow! My stomach is in knots just reading this. Anxious to see where you are going to end up. Crazy world we are living in right now.

  3. I only stumbled across your blog recently and have been enjoying it very much. It must have been so frustrating to have your plans so comprehensively upturned. Bureaucracy is a nightmare isn’t it, especially when it prevents reasonable responses in extraordinary circumstances! Your stoicism does you great credit.

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