How To – Manage Border Crossings

Depending on the area of the world you reside and are used to travelling in, crossing borders can be a simple task or a massive pain in the arse. We take a look at the major pitfalls, offer some guiding lines, as well as garnering some top tips from experienced travellers and throwing in a few stories of where it went wrong…

Brake Magazine is based in Europe and for the most part riding a bike through a border in Europe is an easy process. At worst a flash of a passport is all that’s needed. Queuing up at a busy channel crossing is generally as bad as it gets.
But we’ve also experienced what many will know can be a much harder time of it in parts of the world that sit outside our land of free-roaming. Long, drawn-out processes, paperwork you weren’t expecting, back-handers, visas rejection, documents for your bike you didn’t realise you needed, not enough expiry left on your passport or even flat-out “No!” from a humourless border guard. It can be a nightmare.

The basic requirement for crossing any border, no matter how difficult is to be a decent human – even in the face of someone being precisely the opposite to you. No matter how bureaucratic and officious, how long it’s taking, how pointless it seems, how expensive, tedious or any other stumbling block. If you remain calm and polite it will take less time than if you get irate and start demanding to see a non-existent lawyer/ambassador.

You don’t need to map out a plan for wherever you’re travelling either but it will certainly help. The whole process can be much, much slower if you haven’t got one or more particular documents. Even in this modern, electronic world things can take days to ‘get through’.

Enjoy it too. It may be stressful at the time, you may be getting hassled by money changers and fixers, by guards and policemen; you may be emptying your panniers to prove you have no fruit/veg/drugs/machine guns, but a border is unlikely to move any time soon and the process of getting across it will only ever go at the pace of the officials manning it. Based on that, relaxing and taking in your surroundings is a great way to deal with the more difficult situations.

Checking the requirements and getting your paperwork in order helps. Some border crossings require form filling and some can be downloaded and filled in advance, though not all. Remember that even with the best preparation, courtesy, patience and a little flexibility are the key, unless of course you want to get stripped in a shed by four hairy men in uniform? You don’t hold the rule book, the border guards do, so no matter how bonkers it seems to you, them’s the rules.

Crossing borders – a basic guide

An obvious one for sure but also remember many countries require you to have a certain number of days remaining on your passport at the point of entry, commonly six months. This is because in many places you can stay up to six months and they don’t want your passport to expire while you are there.

These come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Many can be obtained at the border upon entry and are effectively a hangover from days of old. Still, they are often necessary because some borders and countries still operate with antiquated bureaucratic ways. That’s not written as a criticism – it just is what it is.

Some are required in advance and can be harder work. Your starting point is your local Foreign Office (names for which vary across the world) website to see if one is required in the country you’re travelling in. They can also help with the process. Requirements and processes can also change with new additions ready to catch you out. So don’t just trust the bloke down the pub/your mate who travelled there in 1984.

Visas can be for a period of time, for a single entry or for a multiple entry. They may also dictate the place at which you can enter and leave a country, so they can restrict your travel plans. Some may require you to have an invitation, which is a document from someone or more likely an organisation in the country you’re going to visit – effectively inviting you in. Their purpose is to vouch for you and take some degree of responsibility for you being in said country.

The final noteworthy point is that some countries only allow aplications for visas a certain number of days, weeks or months ahead of your proposed entry date. Sometimes that has to be from your own country, for others it doesn’t matter but if you’re overlanding and away for a long periods of time, you may find that you can’t apply before you go but also can’t apply while you are away…

I once arrived at the Guatemala / Honduras border on a Sunday lunch time. All the customs team had gone for a traditional family lunch and would be back in a couple hours, or so. Probably. Richard Millington, Motorrad Tours.

Vehicle Documents
Always carry the original registration document for your bike, ideally in your name, not a company. If it’s in another name then have a document showing that you are authorised to use it.

Driving Licence
A necessity in most countries, though you may go for years without ever having to produce it. Also check to see if you need an International Driving Permit. If you have one always take the IDP with you as it can be useful as a sacrificial piece of ID.

Bike Insurance
A requirement of most countries is to have valid insurance for your bike. Some countries will accept a policy purchased in advance and some will insist on a locally purchased policy (usually at the border). If bought at the border then in most instances you should understand this policy is not for claiming on and is probably not worth the paper it is printed on, but will get you in and past a police check. All these things you need to sort in advance and ensure that you don’t lose any in a wet pocket, loosely strapped bag etc.

Fast tracking the process with hard cash
There can be opportunities to speed the process up which may, or may not, be labelled as a donation to the local widows and orphans fund. Be careful not to be the one to suggest this. The border will take as long as it takes whether that’s for genuine official reasons or because locally they do things a slightly different way. Certainly the longer it is the more likely you are to need a donation. Having a flexible attitude to border “fees” helps unless time is less important to you than money.

Run for it!
“Lets run the border” is not the best plan of attack, even if it looks dead, it’s the middle of the night and all the lights are off.
Firstly you likely won’t get out of the country without the right stamps in your passport from getting in. It’s not unheard of for a rider who is trying to leave the country being sent back to the point of entry to get the correct stamps no matter how many day’s travel each way that is. Secondly you may want to come back at a later date, so don’t burn your bridges. And thirdly as Motorrad Tours boss Richard Millington puts it: “If you duck around the barrier, 50 yards away the four soldiers in a machine gun nest with M60s on their shoulders are young, bored and spend their days smoking cigarettes waiting for just this moment to try a bit of target practice on a GS tyre.”

“In Central Asia they have a very Russian mentality. I had some military dealings and document issues where I had to wait in ‘no-man’s land’ for six hours just to get into the border compound. In Turkmenistan the border crossing took overnight. I arrived in the evening and didn’t get out till eight in the morning after a lot of bureaucracy, form filling and sleeping on chairs.” Rhys Lawrey – Youngest person around the world by bike.

Safety in numbers
It can often be good practice to get chatting with other travellers to garner local knowledge to help yourself along and generally have a bit of like-minded conversation. But it can also help to travel across borders together because it can present you as more organised. Not everyone wants the group travel thing, which is fair enough – each to their own just don’t write it off if it you can help each other. Particularly don’t get all snobbish about two wheels being better than four, as Rhys Lawrey explains helping each other out makes life easier: “I was part of a group of people to get into Thailand because it was easier to get in that way. They had contacts to get in with a foreign vehicle. Some bikers don’t connect so well with other travellers but you know there’s a much bigger world out there.”

Richard Millington’s top ten tips for crossing borders.

1 – Preparation:

Nothing else matters if you don’t have a carnet, the permission, the visa, etc that you need. The FCO website is very helpful for preparation if you are a UK resident.

2 – Courtesy

Costs nothing and will always smooth the way. In many places you appear as a wealthy, crazy spaceman. Take your helmet and shades off and shake hands with everyone. Treat everyone with respect. The kid offering to shine your boots for a dollar maybe a stranger to you but he won’t be to the people who work at the border.

3 – Timing

Arrive at a border early and don’t expect to get 250 miles done in the same day unless you know the border and the process. Getting there early is not about being at the front of the queue – some borders are 24hr queues. Bad guys don’t get up early! Ever heard of a shoot out at 08:45 in the morning?

4 – Patience

If they want it to take 5 hours, it will. Relax….

5 – “Fees”

Never offer them as it may land you in more problems than you are already in. If it is suggested you need to take a view. Simply, corruption is bad. If you are lining some crooks pockets this should be avoided too. If, however, you are at a border where the guards/customs/police haven’t been paid their measly stipend for a month or two then it will definitely help if you donate to the local Police fund and you don’t need to feel too bad about it.

6 – Security

Borders are a great place for pickpockets and opportunists. Getting different documents out and putting them away, paying for visas and leaving your bike unattended – it is easy to lose track, put something down or leave something on the bike that you shouldn’t and you may lose it. Be aware.

7 – Check

Check you have understood the process and that you have every stamp you need before leaving home. Also check that you have all your documents back before you carry on your journey and they are safe and secure.

8 – Photos

Don’t take them without asking. It is a security concern in many parts of world and border officials can be sensitive to having their identity recorded.

9 – Water

Make sure you arrive with plenty of water to drink. There can be lots of waiting and queuing and so you need to be able to rehydrate wherever you are. There is no leaving the queue for a wee and a bottle of water!

10 – Enjoy it

The crossing of lines on a map is a fantastic part of travel. So often they may seem arbitrary but when you are there the landscape, the peoples and the culture change. Every country is a new beginning, a fresh start so take your first steps into that country smiling.

This feature was put together with experience (yes, we’ve lost our passport/left them at home too) but it was also gratefully enhanced by the travelling wisdom of Mr Richard Millington. A man of considerable bike travelling experience but also the extremely organised fella behind

Richard’s been riding over 30 years, travelling for over 25, has ridden in five Continents and led tours in North and South America, Europe and Africa. Motorrad Tours run 30+ tours a year including adventure tours to Peru, Patagonia, Colombia, Thailand, Namibia and South Africa with new destinations being added each year.

Crafted By

Jonathan Pearson
Former Features Editor

JP is a master of many tricks. Working as a bike journalist, he's been testing, analysing and writing about on and off-road motorcycles for various UK magazines, both as a staffer and a freelance journalist, since the nineties. Testing everything from Valentino Rossi’s MotoGP bike through sportsbikes, commuter bikes and, of course many, many miles on adventure bikes. JP has also spent much of his life competing at up to International level in trials, enduro, extreme enduro, circuit racing and hillclimbing. He also instructs at the Off Road Skills motorcycle training school, coaching and encouraging people in the ways of riding adventure bikes. Also a fan of vegetables and sea products.


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