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What's your surname please?

What's your surname please?

Issued by Border Force, part of The Home Office, the promotional material, “Guide to faster travel through the UK border”, gives certain advice to families travelling with different surnames. Although the document states it was updated 29 June 2018, I have only become aware of its existence by browsing on Twitter. It has caused furore amongst commentators. The material anticipates that in certain circumstances Border Force staff may have to ask a family to prove their relationship to a child.  In an earlier blog "What's in a name?", I explained that under Scots Law a name has no legal significance but the choice of surname given to a child, may have practical implications including travel. This “promotional material” brings this into sharp focus. Should we consider it helpful, ominous or insulting?

The advice given is as follows and can be found at

Bring certain documents along with you:

  • A birth or adoption certificate showing your relationship with the child
  • Divorce or marriage certificate if you are the parent but have a different surname from the child
  • A letter from the child’s parent or social worker giving permission for the child to travel with you.

It is a worry that an individual, issued with a passport, is then expected to carry with him or her additional evidence of who they bare to be, specifically, in relation to a child. People treat extract certificates of birth or marriage for example as important, precious, valuable documents. Although replaceable if lost or stolen, it is at a cost and inconvenience. Beyond this, why is this additional hurdle for the traveller necessary? Surely having completed the initial passport application, all relevant information as to name, marital status, relationship to child is already logged and documented.  Rather than the onus be on the traveller, is it not possible for the passport staff to access this information with a click of a mouse? It begs the question, who is this advice helping really, the staff or the traveller?

Women are not obliged to take their husband’s name on marriage. This is a choice and not an uncommon one for a woman to make.  Also for unmarried couples, a child may conventionally take the father’s surname. What would a mother do travelling with a child in those circumstances? Take the child’s birth certificate and the father’s too in order to tie up the surname?  Where does it end? This may be considered insulting and invasive in this apparently enlightened age.  Whatever a person’s name, it will not necessarily guard against the possibility of child abduction which is presumably why the advice has been issued in the first place.

In terms of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, where a person has and is exercising parental rights in respect of a child then their consent must be obtained before a child who is habitually resident in Scotland, can be removed from or retained out with the UK. The 1995 Act does not specify that the consent is to be written but that would seem to be good practice. Now that we have Border Force comment on it, then to help avoid delays obtain written consent wherever possible.

So this is advice designed to make travel faster and smoother through passport control. It is guidance and not compulsory. I do not expect Border Control have the time or resources or need to question every family that passes their way. However is it a sign of things to come? If you plan to travel with a child to South Africa for example, you need an affidavit (a statement sworn on oath before a notary public) from the other parent confirming his or her consent to the travel and carrying the child’s unabridged birth certificate is also compulsory. You will not get past check in if you do not have these documents with you. Other nations may follow suit or certainly have similar advice or guidance as the UK has now produced. Will this guidance eventually become compulsory which is ominous.

In light of the publication, here are some tips for travel:

  • If you do not want to take original extract certificates with you, further extracts can be obtained from the General Register of Scotland but, yes, it is at a cost. Perhaps a fall back option would be to take a copy of the original extract that has been certified by a solicitor as a true copy of the original. This might suffice but may depend on what the Border Staff are prepared to accept on the day.
  • If you are relying on the consent of the other parent to travel abroad with a child then as far as possible obtain that consent in writing. A simple letter should suffice. It may be that there is a minute of agreement in place regulating contact and this may make provision for the other parent giving consent to travel and this may assist too.
  • Check well in advance the border control rules which apply in the country you are traveling to. This is your own responsibility. Don’t be caught out. If parental consent affidavits are required these can be easily drafted and notarised. 

So is the publication helpful, ominous or insulting? Perhaps a combination of all three depending on your point of view. There may be no point in railing against it. We all dread the wait at passport control so if this means for quicker passage then all to the good. Beyond this, most importantly, although a name does not determine if an abduction is underway, if it encourages greater vigilance on the part of Border Force staff to potential child abductions then even more to the good.  

About the author

Angela Wipat
Angela Wipat

Angela Wipat

Legal Director


For more information, contact Angela Wipat or any member of the Family team on +44 1738 472763.