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Border Crossing

You and your vehicle at border crossings

Border crossings are one of the most feared aspects of international travel. Most first timers are filled with visions of fly infested shacks, with sweating, beady eyed bureaucrats shaking their heads no, empty palms outstretched, while the room echoes with the ceaseless click, click, click of a nervous teenaged guard fingering the safety on and off of his AK47 assault rifle. Although versions of that is possible at some border crossing, with wads of cash being passed along with a stack of passports that are merely waved at before being passed back, most border crossings are pretty simple and usually fairly efficient and perfunctory. The most important things at border crossings are to have all of your necessary documentation prepared, current and available; to be patient; to be friendly, but not overly so; and to keep smiling.

Before you attempt to cross a border, prepare your documentation. Make sure you have, ready and available:

  • Passport (current and valid for at least six months after the date you are attempting entry)
  • Current and valid visa for the country you are departing
  • Current and valid entry visa for the country you are entering
  • No visas that would preclude your entry into the country you are entering¬†¬†
  • Valid drivers license (from your country) 
  • Valid international drivers license - Necessary if your Drivers License is not in English
  • Valid and current international immunization record
  • Title to your vehicle ( never present the original. Use a two sided color copy. Carry 2 of these at all times.)
  • Current vehicle registration (Many places will be satisfied with this and not ask for the title)
  • Current vehicle Carnet valid for the country you are exiting and the country you are entering or purchase a TIP
  • Vehicle VIN number (write this on the inside back cover of your passport to save time)
  • Vehicle engine number (write this on the inside back cover of your passport to save time)
  • Some local currency of the country you are exiting (used to pay exit taxes, fees, etc.)
  • Some local currency of the country you are entering, if possible to obtain prior to entry (used to pay entry fees, insurance costs, taxes, fees, etc.)(almost every border will have a small currency exchange to obtain local currency)
  • $100 in U.S. Dollars (USD) in $10s or $20s (some countries require payment in USD)(used for paying entry fees, insurance costs, taxes, fees, etc.)(total cost usually ranges from $2 to $40)

Don't wait until you get to the entry gate or the first processing station to dig out the documents. Get them out and organized the morning of your entry and make sure they are in a convenient and accessible place.

You will usually need to present your passport at the first entry gate, prior to entering the exit processing area. Keep your passport in a handy pocket, as you will need to present it several times during the border crossing process. Once the guard checks your passport, which is usually perfunctory at best, you will be waved into the processing area. Watch for guards or inspectors to direct you into a specific area for inspection or parking.

Exiting: On exiting a country, you will pass through a processing area entry gate where you will need to show your passport. After passing through the entry gate, you will park in the inspection area or the parking area. Watch for directions on where to park. If no one is providing direction, park in a safe place where other private vehicles are parked. Commercial vehicles such as taxis, busses and trucks usually have special segregated areas. If you are exiting a country, you will usually only need to visit Immigration for an exit Visa stamp and Customs for Carnet/TIP processing. It is VERY IMPORTANT to get your exit stamp on your Carnet. You will forfeit your Carnet bond if you cannot prove you have removed your vehicle from every country you visit. Pictures of the vehicle in front of your house back home are not considered proof. Only the exit stamp is. You may need to visit the vendors to pay exit fees, but this is fairly rare. Once you have your Passport and Carnet/TIP processed, you are ready to present yourself to the inspector, if one exists. If you are missing any stamps or clearances, he will direct you back to Immigration or Customs. Once you clear inspection, you are ready to proceed to the exit gate and cross No Mans Land to the next country's entry processing area.

Entering: On entering a country, you will pass an entry gate where you will need to show your passport. Next, watch for directions on where to park. If no one is providing direction, park in a safe place where other private vehicles are parked. Commercial vehicles such as taxis, busses and trucks usually have special segregated areas. Usually, the first building you enter is the Immigration processing, where your Passport and Visa will be processed. Once finished with Immigration, you will proceed to the Customs building where you will need to present your Carnet(purchase a TIP), if applicable, or your vehicle title/registration. It is important to get your entry stamp on your Carnet. It can make for awkward moments on exit if you don't have a stamp proving that you brought the vehicle into the country legally through a formal border. If a Carnet is not required, you will usually always need your vehicle VIN and sometimes your engine number.

Often you will be required to purchase the local country's insurance or to pay a specific tax, etc. This is often done in a separate area or building housing money changers, insurance salesmen, etc. You may need to make several trips between Immigration, Customs and the Vendors collecting various stamps, receipts, papers, etc. Eventually, you will have all the stamps and clearances required and you will be ready to present yourself to the inspector, if one is used at this border. If you are missing anything, he will route you back to the vendors, Immigration or Customs. Once cleared, you will proceed to the exit gate, where the guards will usually want to see your passport and any applicable special vehicle paperwork such as proof of insurance. Once past the exit gate, you are in the new country and free to explore for as long as your entry visa is valid for.

The border crossing processes and facilities described above will vary for each border crossing and each country at each border. Some will be much simpler, with two officials in one shack and a gate that hasn't been lowered in years. Others will be highly secure, with manned guard towers, searchlights and multiple gate crossings. In any case, the steps remain basically the same and the required paperwork is similar everywhere.

Best practices for border crossings:

  • Don't take pictures. Countries can be very sensitive about their border crossings and facilities. Ask a uniformed officer for permission before taking any photos, and obtain clear and undisputable permission before pulling your camera out.
  • Avoid paying bribes. If one is requested, and you don't feel you need to pay a fee, then ask for a formal receipt with an official stamp. That will usually preclude an illegal bribe. If, however, you are stuck at a border, and it doesn't look like you or your vehicle are going to be admitted into the country for some real or fabricated semi-official reason, then tactfully ask if there is some way you can "pay a fee" or "pay a fine" to enable the processing of the paperwork.
  • Stay patient and keep smiling. The Western World runs on a very fast clock compared to Africa. We are used to very quick and competent service in most aspects of our lives. Other countries run on slower clocks when it comes to processing border paperwork. Public displays of frustration, anger and especially shouting are extremely rude in most other cultures, and shouting is almost grounds for arrest in some. In just about every situation, getting angry is the worst possible thing to do. Remain endlessly patient and endlessly understanding, but maintain constant, gentle pressure and you will usually come out OK.
  • Be Prepared. Have your paperwork current, organized and available. Keep the documents usually required for border crossings together in a Ziplock bag or other waterproof document case. The last person you want to frustrate or make angry is the border official who holds your fate in his hands.
  • Have your entry visa in advance. Do not expect to be able to obtain a visa at a border. If you exit country A on a single entry visa and cannot enter country B because you do not have a valid entry visa, you are stuck in No Mans Land. You cannot go back to country A, because you have used up your visa. You can't enter country B because you don't have a valid entry visa. Welcome to Hell. Be prepared and have all of your visas in advance.
  • Know the operating hours and holidays. Check in advance to ensure the border crossing will be open for business when you arrive. Arrive with plenty of time to cross through both processing centers before they close or you could end up sleeping in No Mans Land until the next border opens in the morning. Some borders will be closed for national and/or religious holidays. One country's border may be open while the other is closed. Check in advance and confirm the border will be open and available.
  • Remember that you are a guest. You are entering and exiting a country as a guest. Act like it. Be cordial, friendly and polite. Do not make comments of any kind regarding the state of repair of the border station, the level of competence of the border agents or the relative state of development of either country you are entering or exiting. Do not be drawn into political or religious discussions and do not initiate them. Respectfully observe all local social and religious customs and demonstrate respect to the civil servants and military officers at the border processing facilities.