Tips for Crossing Borders by Land

border crossing in China

By Greg Rodgers

Even experienced travelers sometimes feel a little apprehensive as they approach land border crossings.

Machine guns, bureaucracy, long queues, and grumpy border officials don’t exact make it all that appealing.  Its easy to see why even people that have nothing to hide get nervous as they dig for their passports.

Crossing borders is just a part of budget travel; consider it just a rite-of-passage for getting to explore an exciting, new country!

Although not always fun, most border crossings go smoothly and you will be welcomed into the next country with the thump of your passport getting inked yet once again

Here are some simple tips for getting into your next country with the least amount of hassle:

  • Smile.

Although border officials are notoriously some of the grumpiest individuals to put on a uniform, be courteous and remember that you are their guest – nothing says that they have to let you in.

  • Dress nicer than usual.

Many countries scrutinize backpackers more based on their appearance.  There is no need to give the officials a reason to ask for proof of an onward ticket (which is rarely ever enforced) or proof of adequate funds.

  • Be prepared.

If a passport photo or two are required for the visa, have them ready rather than holding up the queue while you dig through your bag.  Also try to have the exact amount of cash ready if there is a fee for the visa. Many countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia will let you pay in one or more currencies; choose the currency with the most favorable exchange for yourself.

  • Turn your passport to the most relative stamp.

When you hand the official your passport, have your paperwork act as a bookmark for your last entry or exit stamp so that they do not have to violently flip through your passport looking for it.

  • Get a Job

Well, a fake one anyway. Officials want to admit tourists who are on holiday, not unemployed backpackers traveling on a budget. Young travelers can simply default to ‘student’ as their occupation. Otherwise, choose a job for yourself that won’t raise eyebrows — no one is going to check! Shy away from jobs such as teacher, bartender, musician, carpenter, divemaster, or anything that may make them think you want to find illegal work on a tourist visa.

Even though you may be proud of your blog, it’s also best to not claim ‘travel writer’ or ‘photojournalist’ in some countries because they may question why you did not go for the journalist visa rather than the tourist visa.

  • Follow instructions carefully.

Fill out your paperwork as neatly as possible and be sure not to miss any fields on the back of the form.  Use the correct color of ink and block letters, which means all caps in each square on the form.

  • Play dumb.

Sometimes border agents will ask you routine questions about your visit or the “nature of your business” in the new country.  Don’t claim to be unemployed (although most travelers are) simply state that you are a student or on holiday; be as innocuous, confident, and low profile as possible.  Don’t mention visiting any places that are controversial or have current political conflicts. (i.e., Tibet, Papua, etc)

  • Know the entry regulations.

In Singapore you can be heavily fined — and treated as a criminal — just for having an undeclared pack of cigarettes in your pocket or rucksack.

  • Don’t have a reason to be nervous.

No need to say it, but carrying any type of drugs or a weapon (even pepper spray or a fixed blade knife) could get you into a very bad situation.  Have prescription medication in the original bottles, preferably with the official prescription.  Unless your name is Howard Marks, chances are that you WILL get caught.

  • Get away from the border as quickly as possible.

Good things rarely happen at borders!  Borders tend to accumulate the largest collection of scammers, pick-pockets, low lifes, thieves, and hustlers. All are there hoping to prey on how green you are.

Wait to change your money and be very careful when negotiating transport from the border.  It is no secret at this point that you are new to this country and everyone will want a chance to take advantage.

Don’t accidentally lose the exit paperwork that you are given, keep it inside your passport until it is needed to be stamped out at departure.  If you lose the form, doing so may present an opportunity for an official to “fine” you (ask for a bribe) or may tangle you up in useless additional bureaucracy.

When crossing borders by land, simply keep your cool, smile, get stamped in, then get the heck out of there and enjoy the new country!

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