Advice on crossing International Borders
Crossing borders isn’t usually a big deal, especially if you’re lucky enough to have the right passport. However, borders are sensitive and represent the only legal encounter a country has with its tourists; as such, things can go wrong, and it’s well worth taking the time to prepare for some border crossings.
Preparation for crossing borders is especially relevant if you meet any of the following criteria:
a) You’ve stayed in the country you are exiting longer than a regular tourist. Although it is legal to stretch your stay to the allowed limit, staying for a long time might create some suspicion with border control on both sides of the border.
b) The country you enter is stricter (like the UK or the US, for example).
c) The country you are entering has a reputation of being corrupt. In some cases, this will create a border crossing with surprises and corruption as well.
d) Your country’s passport isn’t one of the most advantageous (Scandinavian, USA, UK, EU).
e) Your passport stamp tell a story of someone who constantly jumps between places, aka, a digital nomad typical passport.
f) You’ll be crossing borders by land in locations that don’t have much tourist volume.
If you meet any of the above criteria, it would be wise to consider sorting out the following to ensure you avoid problems when crossing borders:
- Additional proof. Bring printed proof of an onward flight (or at least a reservation that looks legit). One way tickets are an indication that you you might stay illegally or try to get a job. A lack of return ticket can not only cause you problem with the destination’s country border control, but can also cause a prevention of boarding your plane since airlines are subject to fines if they let passengers board without a return ticket or visa. Also, have the name and address of your intended accommodation if you can, as it is frequently asked for. The additional proof is basically showing that you are not a potential hobo with plans to settle down/work/go homeless in the country you are entering.
- Additional Documentation. Some countries will ask for an immunization card, so if needed make sure you have one to document the required vaccines. An additional ID document is often requested in order to validate your identity (a driving license is a good backup). Rarely, border police would ask you to show them your travel insurance, especially if they suspect you plan to stay longer. It is also a good idea to have some passport photos for visas on arrival. Prior to each border crossing, I prepare screenshots of all those documents on OneNote so I can easily show them if needed. I also recommend to be able to have internet connection (any mobile data package should do, and will usually work in both sides of the border) while crossing a border since it allows you to search for more documents if needed or make a quick call in case problems arise.
- Get your story right. In case questions arise, it will help to have proof of what you plan to do in the country, for example a confirmation from a local school that you have regitered for a language course. Border officials are trying to prevent people with no money to enter (and either take up jobs illegally or become homeless), so any links, screenshots, and anything else you can think of to demonstrate this is not your case is good to have. Working in your destination country as a tourist is illegal and should be avoided. It is also probably better not to mention freelance work with a laptop for clients outside of the country during your stay- you’re simply coming for vacation (that’s what a tourist visa is about). At the same time, also try to tell the truth and keep a balance between answering well and not giving too much info, as it opens a door for additional questions. Border officials can’t all be expected to fully understand the concept of the digital nomad lifestyle. Be prepared to answer what your ties are to your country of citizenship, as proof that you have all the reasons in the world to get back there soon.
- Length of stay. Make sure you’re not overstaying. Some countries allow you to stay for 30 days, others allow for 90 – make sure you know which is which in advance. Even if you don’t outstay your welcome but have stayed for a considerable length of time, be prepared, as it may trigger some questions. I try to leave at least 10 days before the allowed length of stay to make sure I have a buffer to come back to the country I am leaving in case something happens at the border, or even if I find a super cheap flight that just appeared in the place where I just left.
- Passport. As we’ve mentioned several times before, keep your passport in good shape. Don’t give anyone any excuses to suspect you by showing them a worn out passport. If your passport is a bit worn down, and is packed as a stamp collection consider replacing it even before it expires. In any case, make sure your passport is always valid for more than 6 months before the expiration date, and that you have enough space in it for additional stamps. Some countries give you an entry card upon arrival that you should keep safe with you until you leave.
- Visas and Registration. Ensure that you don’t need a visa in advance for your destination. If you do, check to see whether you can obtain one at the border, or if you have to get it in your home country. Some countries (e.g. Belarus and Kazakhstan) expect you to get a registration card if you are staying more than a few days, and not showing your registration card when leaving will result in a huge fine.
- Money and other preparations. Some border crossing will spring hidden costs, especially in developing countries where you can encounter creative fees. Perhaps there’s an additional health check, a surprise transportation cost, or a small bribe. First of all, research the expected fee and come prepared with the exact sum, since people at the border tend not to have change. As a general note, having cash on you (USD or Euros in small notes) is always recommended, for the border itself and after crossing since you never know when the next ATM or good money exchange will be. It’s also advisable to have some of the destination country’s money at hand, especially if you’re going by land. Some buses and trains end up in places without ATMs, and you might need a little bit of the local currency for a bus or taxi. It is also recommended to download an offline map on google maps of your destination before you arrive.
- Research. Especially in developing countries and if you are trying to cross independently. Check the border opening hours (some are not open 24/7!), make a quick research about how the border crossing is, and what can you expect. Coming clueless leaves you vulnerable. This is especially true in countries which are prone to corruption and scams.
- For land crossings, get a stamp and establish contact with the carriers. Some countries have treaties that allow locals to travel with ID unchecked, which makes the drivers speed through border crossings. However, if you don’t receive an entry stamp, you’ll have serious problems upon exiting. Basically it means that you stayed there illegally. Make sure you talk to your driver, and let them know that you need a stamp (especially if it looks like you are the only tourist on the bus). In general, if the border seems tricky, it is best to find a way to make friends with the driver so they will take after your interests if something goes wrong, or even for them to know they have tourists on the bus. Start a small talk, offer food, it goes a long way. In some cases of an open border (e.g. The border between Russia and Belarus), you will have to get your entry stamp only upon arrival to your destination’s city. In other cases, you will not need an entry stamp (e.g when traveling from one EU Schengen country to another). Get informed in advance. One more quick recommendation is to take a photo of your entry stamp that will be helpful in case you lose your passport, and also good since some stamps are faded out after some time- when leaving a country, the border control will always check for an entry stamp to make sure you didn’t overstay.
- Belongings. I make an habit to go over my bags before I crossing borders to avoid bad surprises, since you never know what you have in your bags without checking. I also try locking suitcases and bags that are out of my sight to decrease chances someone putting things that are not mine while crossing (weird and unfortunate things can happen). It goes without saying that you’re an idiot if you’re crossing with anything illegal, but you’ll also need to be careful with stuff that seems harmless like vegetables and organic substances that might be totally illegal to enter with. Take extra care of your belongings when crossing in unorganized crossings where touts might be operating. Be aware of customs as well: Most countries have limitations on the amount of cash and goods you can bring in, so investigate in advance. Bringing a lot of cash into a developing country is not a good idea anyway, since if searched, it will probably be taken from you in some creative way. In airports, never board with what can be perceived as a cold weapon such as pocket knife. Send those away with your luggage and get rid of other stuff such as fireworks and gas cans all together. While speaking about belongings it is also worthwhile to recommend to charge your phone battery before the trip and try to have a data plan which you can use while crossing the border to make sure that you can contact the outside world if something goes wrong.
- Good attitude. Border police are people too! They trust on intuition, and if they see a positive, smiley, and polite person, they probably won’t hold you up. If they encounter someone who is smug, disrespectful, or nervous, they might delay you. As a side note, for me it’s better to cross borders over weekends, as I am more relaxed, and lost time doesn’t count so much as in weekdays.
- Appearance and prior preparation. Looking respectable and dressing nice will get you far. On the day you are crossing a border pick a nice set of clothes (not too fancy), shave and look presentable. With that said, don’t flaunt your valuables since you don’t want to make yourself a target.
- Pick a major border crossing if you can – the busier the border crossing is, the better. Small posts aren’t as used to tourists, and might ask more questions. They’re also less accountable which increases the risks of wrongdoing and corruption. As a tourist, you will receive more questions, and if you are from a smaller countries, the border police will have to check your visa situation since they don’t frequently see people from your country.
- Fly in- As much as I prefer traveling by land, airports are better and less risky for tourists to cross for various reasons. Firstly, the volume of tourists are huge which makes the process efficient, and secondly, the more “fancy” is the way you choose to arrive, the more you show you have the resources to stay, so arriving in a plane sends a better signal than crossing the border on a chicken bus with locals only.
- Together is better than alone. Social validation is important, and the border control is no different. Those guys work with profiling, and lone travelers (especially Men) are profiled as potential troublemakers. Crossing borders with someone else does not only make you much less vulnerable which is important especially for Women, but also gets you social validation. If you can join a friend while crossing a border, or even chat with someone making the same trip to make it appear that you are not traveling alone when arriving to the border, it might make things easier.
- Cars and children. Crossing borders with a car can get tricky. Make sure you have all your documentation ready and valid, and check in advance if there are any limitations which apply to using your car. Traveling with children who are not yours requires a written parent’s consent.
Since border crossings usually involve long rides in various settings, we recommend also reading our article about tips to long distance rides while traveling to make sure you are covered on aspects such as local currency and having an updated offline map of your new destination. To conclude, it pays to be prepared, and with just a little forward thinking, you’ll avoid problems when crossing borders, no matter where you are.