Crossing an international border can be one of the most stressful aspects of a motorcycle journey. Some can go so smoothly that you hardly noticed that you passed through but throw in a measure of language problems, corrupt or difficult officials, yards of red tape and a lack of preparedness on your part and the situation can rapidly ‘head south’. It should be remembered that all crossings will fundamentally consist of 2 parts; immigration and customs formalities and these will need to be completed for both the departure and arrival country. Immigration basically deals with getting you through the border and customs considers your possessions which includes the bike. By analysing the crossings that I have experienced and looking at what made some go well and the others not I have come up with a Border Crossing check list.
There are a number of preparatory actions that you should perform prior to reaching the border. Firstly have you checked that the border will be open. I fell foul of this entering Mongolia since I arrived on a Sunday when the border is always closed and unfortunately that Monday was a National Holiday which resulted in me spending an extra 2 days camping on the Russian Steppes. Probably one of the most important factors is to ensure that all of your paperwork is in order
- Passport – When riding normally I would keep my passport in a zip lock bag and in a waste pouch kept below the level of your riding trousers waist band.
- Any necessary Visas and possibly a Carnet.
- Motorcycle importation paperwork for the country that you are about to leave. Kept with the passport.
- Motorcycle ownership document – take a photocopy, laminate it and keep both hidden. I used the pocket of my jacket that contained the back protector. Keep the original with your passport and use the photocopy when passing through the borders of countries where corruption is rife. Most border guards will not have seen an overseas ownership document and will nearly always accept the copy. If they do not then use the original. It just means that you are handing across one less piece of critical documentation.
- Money required for entry. At some stage before reaching the border check the internet to see if there are any financial requirements at the border. A case that comes to mind is when I crossed from Peru into Bolivia. The American with me was required to pay an ‘administration fee’ that was a $100 or so and since he did not have it with him he had to leave his bike in ‘No Man’s Land’, cross back into Peru and get a taxi back to the nearest town to obtain the money. He was gone many hours. Whilst we are talking about money it is worth carrying a $1000 or so. I would split this between a location on my body, a secure location in my and somewhere on the bike. The airbox was a good option on my DRZ400 since it was quite easy to get at.
- A kilometre or so before the border pull over and put items 1-4 in an accessible location e.g in your tank bag. You do not want to be showing all of your hiding places to people at the border.
- At the same time remove and dispose of all meat, dairy, nuts and fruit. Nearly all countries have a ban on bringing them in.
- Generally less developed countries still have not fully entered the computer age. This means that all of the data about you and your bike will still be stored on paper and so quite often you will be required to provide copies of your documents. Often these are not produced on the photocopy in the border post office since that would be far too simple and has led to a raft of ‘shops that have a photocopy’ being established around crossing points. Just to save the hassle of obtaining one it is worth keeping a couple of copies of your most important documents.
- After crossing the border return all your paperwork to their original locations. It means they are safer from theft and there is less chance of mislaying them.
Be Courteous and Respectful
Ride up to the Border Officer slowly and confidently. He or she will usually be in a booth of some sort. Stop, turn off your bike, dismount, remove your helmet and smile. At the first booth you will normally only have to show your passport and you will then be directed to an office where the paperwork will be completed. Firstly immigration for you and then customs for the bike and hopefully the 2 processes will be conducted in the same building though you may have to walk to another location and the two could be some considerable distance apart. Remain friendly and if you are told that it will take more than an hour for them to complete the process then go and make a cup of tea. Quite often your lack of concern will result in significantly shortened wait times.
Keep Your Cool!
There is no point becoming impatient. Border guards might as well be God since they have the power to decide whether the journey that you spent months planning goes ahead, follows a different route or ends all together. Even if having lost your temper they may still let you through but beware of other ways that they may get their own back. On passing from Uruguay into Argentina a companion become irate with an Argentinian border guard and despite justification not to, she did eventually let him into the country. It was only when he attempted to fly his bike home from Buenos Aires that he found that the border guard had actually given him exit documents and not entry documents and so there was no record of his machine being in Argentina. It caused a 3 day delay whilst he tried to sort out the problem and I now check my paperwork before leaving all borders. Checking that they have returned all of my documents, are they stamped, particularly applicable in ex-Soviet countries where there is a love of bureaucracy and it can be guaranteed that there should be a stamp at least somewhere in your passport.
Safety of Your Bike and Kit
I find that one of the greatest advantages of travelling with someone is that at crossings you can take it in turns to complete formalities whilst the other person guards the bikes. Most of the time it is not possible to watch your bike whilst moving from one place to the other to complete paperwork. There will invariably be a teenager offering his/her ‘I will look after your bike’ services and usually for only a couple of dollars. So how do you know that you can trust them? Their income will almost exclusively come from people like you and in the travelling community word soon gets round about their reliability. They will be aware of this and so it is strongly in their interest to ensure that your possessions remain your possessions and of course you must never hand over any money until you are finished and ready to ride off. Always try to ensure that anything that is left on your bike is attached to it as securely as possible. Lockable hard panniers are ideal for this and if not try a paksafe net that can be padlocked to your bike. I have yet to have anything stolen at a border crossing.
Be prepared, remain cool and good luck. Once you have learnt the general procedure for crossings the process can become fun.