We realize that there are many folks out there reading our blog to assist them in planning their own trips- with that in mind I have prepared a series of posts with the type of nitty-gritty detail that will help others intent on their own adventures.  I have placed this series under the pre departure or preperation  tab on our website.


Border Crossings

Border crossings on the roads of Africa are rumored to be nightmares of bureaucracy and bribes. While I won’t completely contradict that notion I will say that on our recent trip we made over a dozen border crossings and while most were not fast we never had any serious hassles, never got more than a cursory look inside the vehicle and the only bribe we paid were two warm cans of Coke which I offered freely.

Disclaimer: My wife and I previously made travel films for a living and routinely crossed borders with a dozen heavy cases of camera equipment.  We also sailed around the world on a 40-foot sailboat and have visited over 100 countries.  In all we’ve been through several hundred immigration and customs interactions-so we are not new at this.  As with any endeavor experience helps.   What follows are my tried and true methods, which have worked both in Africa and throughout the world.

If possible get some of the currency of the new country you will be visiting at a bank or exchange office in a large city before you head for the border.

When you pull up to the border there will likely be a very long line of trucks- just pass this line and head for the border – you will probably be waved forward by a horde of “helpers” anxious to navigate you through the system. They will wave you past the trucks to the front of the line and indicate where you can park.

Take your time- be confident, unhurried and in control. Park where indicated. Exit your vehicle and lock everything. At this point you will have a dozen men screaming in your face about what you should do. I calmly and quietly pick the most sedate, soft-spoken, polite and nicely dressed guy. If he has any kind of laminated badge so much the better. I then tell him he is our guy and I tell the others that I am working with this guy and to go away.

This usually ends the mass chaos except for one or two moneychangers who may hang around- more about them in a minute.

Next I ask the guy I have chosen his name – if he has a laminated badge or card, which some of the legit agents do, I get the info from it.  The next step is critical – I pull out my phone and tell him I want his picture, which I then take. I even push a few buttons as if I am emailing it. He now knows that I have his name and his likeness and he could be identified.

I have never had any of these guys try to run off with my passport or paperwork, but I think knowing that I have their picture does tend to keep them on their best behavior.

I also have never had any of these helpers ask for money up-front or even had them discuss the cost of their services, though other travelers report being quoted fees of $50 or more at this point. In Africa where decent wages are $ 5-$10 a day and they spend maybe an hour with you I pay accordingly. But I never pay anything until I am through with the entire process and on my way out the final gate.

Once I have chosen my guy I trust him- but I do stay as close as possible. In dealing with the helpers I am always polite, firm, calm and completely in control. I never argue or debate with them- especially about paying them. While I follow them from building to building and office to office and take their advice I remain in control and close to everything. I do not let them go off anywhere out of my sight and I do not do or permit anything I am the least bit uncomfortable with.

When you go inside the immigration building take with you your passports and all your automobile papers, as well as a stack of passport photos and a stack of copies of your passport photo page and your driver’s license.  Copies of your vehicle registration can be handy too. To speed things up when filling out the inevitable forms have a blue or black pen for EACH person in your group.

Usually your helper will navigate you to the front of the line and get you the forms you need. Sometimes there will be a scruffily dressed guy who hands you a form and expects you to pay him- ignore them and just pick up your own form off the counter.

The procedure is first go to immigration, then customs, then any road fees, then customs inspection, then 3rd party insurance, then exit the border post.

Before you go inside, a word about who you are about to deal with. In your country customs officers may be minor functionaries- in these countries they are bigwigs with government jobs. Take off your hat and sunglasses, speak politely, give them some respect. Don’t get huffy or be in a hurry.

Most Africans are flattered you are visiting their country. I always start with a genuine and disarming smile. I tell them I have come all the way from America and am very excited to be visiting their country. This usually results in a thumbs up gesture and they say “Obama.”- to which I respond with words on how much I like him, which I do. (They assume most whites are So. African, so if you are other than from RSA mentioning it may get you a bit more co-operation).

Depending on your country’s relations with the country you are visiting you may only need a passport stamp- this is usually easier than a visa. Some places will require you to get a visa in advance at a consulate but many will issue them at the border- make sure you’ve checked before hand. The other information that is valuable to know beforehand is exactly what each country requires for vehicle importation. Lonely Planet is a good source of this info as is the country’s own website.

Immigration will often ask you how long you intend to stay- get longer than you have planned just in case you have a breakdown or love the place or whatever.

Make sure you check the date they stamp in your passport.

If you need a visa (or sometimes just for a stamp) you may need to fill out some immigration paperwork, then take the immigration form to a payment window, then take the payment receipt back to the immigration guy to get your stamp or visa.

Visas are official paper seals that they glue into your passport. Many of them take up a full page of your passport. Make sure before your trip you have lots of pages available.

Then customs paperwork on the vehicle is usually next. Make sure your paperwork shows the weight of your vehicle and even if it is a truck stress that it is a passenger vehicle not a commercial truck. At one border crossing we watched the people next to us in the same size baakie as we were pay a fee of over $150 unnecessarily. Their helper guided them to the window to pay this fee, while my wife asked a supervisor if it was required of us and was told “NO.” We got the supervisor’s name and after that we had to assure several other bureaucrats at that border post that supervisor so and so had said we did not need that extra permit which only applied to heavier trucks.

Most countries have some fees for a “TIP- or Temporary Import Permit.

At most of these windows things will go faster if you hand your paperwork and money to your helper- I do this but I always stand pretty close.

We bought a So. African registered vehicle and went as far north as Tanzania without needing a carnet. Tanzania did ask for it and we had to spend some time getting an additional piece of paper and show that we had traveled through all those other countries enroute without one, but eventually we got what we needed and were on our way. I believe you can also get into Kenya without a carnet but you will need one north of there.

Some countries will have miscellaneous road taxes and fees and in others they will want to physically see the VIN number on your vehicle. Know in advance where the VIN plate is on your vehicle and to be helpful have another piece of paper you can hand to the inspector so he can just quickly verify the numbers match without having to really read them off the plate itself.   Copies of your registration showing the VIN, Engine number, license registration, driver’s license, etc, can also be handy.

The customs inspection is usually the next hurdle after your customs paperwork and road taxes etc.   Be polite, open what they ask- keep in mind they really do not want the headache of searching your vehicle. Don’t be in a hurry, show you have nothing to hide. We never had more than a cursory look inside.   Often they will ask for a bribe, which we usually politely declined to give. Your inspection will go quicker if the things on top of your load that they can see are nothing that they are personally interested in.

In Tanzania when they were still deciding if we could enter without a carnet, the big boss came outside to look at our truck. He noticed we had a 6 pack of Coke so I gave him one quickly- I gave it as a gift while we chatted amiably, rather than as a bribe under coercion. He was then my friend, and once the big boss had decided we were OK, all the other paperwork fell into place speedily and we were on our way.

Often the last stop will be the 3rd party insurance. In many countries you can avoid the individual country’s 3rd party insurance by having a COMESA insurance policy which covers a number of countries, but we did not have this.

The insurance vendors are usually set up in shacks next to the border. Your helper will do this for you and often you will find that your helper was waiting for this moment as he gets a commission here. Our first few border crossings we went from one insurance shack to the next competitively shopping but we found they were all exactly the same and thereafter we just trusted our helper and went where he suggested. In all cases the prices were what we had read online or elsewhere. Usually the insurance results in them applying a sticker to the windshield and then you are good to go.

Your last bit is just the guard who monitors the boom gate to let you out of the border. He may check your papers or have you sign a book and note your car registration.

Do not pay your helper until you are through this last stop and onto the exit road. At this point I double check that we have our passports back, have all our original vehicle documents back and have our TIP or other papers. Do not be rushed and forget something.

Now I pay my helper, usually using my last bit of change from the country I have just departed from. We usually paid anywhere from $3 to $10. The response from the helpers was predictable.   The vast majority of them took whatever I gave them and smiled and said a sincere thank you. A very few said it was not quite enough and could I give a bit more. Depending on how much I had given them and what they had done I might give a bit more from the currency of the new country- but only a bit. A very few took the notes I put into their hand stuffed them into their pockets without even looking and immediately asked for more. These I ignored. I thanked them and drove away.

In all cases our helpers really did help us get through quicker and with less hassle and using these methods I never had any issues with the helpers themselves.