Crossing a border by land is hands-down a tedious moment for everyone. Backpackers do it solely for the love of the game, and as a means to cut expenses of a tight budget. When it comes down to the more money I get to save, the more traveling I get to do, we just gotta suck it up and do it.
But after several unfortunate occurrences (like this one, and this one), border crossing also became synonymous of anxiety and sweaty palms. In all conscience, being on the other side of the world dealing with corrupt armed men planning to steal your money, would make you feel quite apprehensive as well.
On the other hand, you can see land border crossing as the rite-of-passage that turns a common tourist into the intrepid backpacker all of us strive to be.
All jokes aside, corruption from police and border officials underlines a real social problem that we’ll explain in a minute. But first, here are the top tips (in no particular order) for crossing a border by land:
I’m all up for comfortable clothes, but entering a new country is an occasion that asks for something with sleeves, so dress appropriately. Let’s just say that the goal is: to not give the officials a reason to ask for a proof of adequate funds.
2 Lie on your resume
On the subject of “adequate funds”, it may be convenient to have a job – so lie if you have to. Naturally, most countries prefer welcoming tourists on vacation than unemployed backpackers who’ll try to find illegal work on a tourist visa.
At the borders, some occupations are more taboo than others, so diving instructor, musician or bartender should be replaced by engineer, dentist or accountant. Young looking travelers can dodge the question altogether by saying they’re students.
If an officer asks why you’re visiting, allegate that you’re on holiday and avoid any excuse to be tangled up in further bureaucracy.
3 Exact cash and crisp bills
Even though Lonely Planet includes scams as a common border crossing expense, don’t give in just yet! Check up on the visa costs beforehand and carry the exact amount in the appropriate currency (usually US dollars or the country’s currency).
As a preventative measure, hide some emergency cash in case you bump into a more “assertive” guard. Also, don’t expect them to accept your crinkly-old-faded bills!
Tip: You’ll find plenty of money exchange services in the periphery—some more legitimate than others—avoid them, the rates are always unfavorable.
4 Research the border crossing checkpoint
Do a fast Google search on the land border you’re about to cross and become acquainted with what you might expect, such as location and visa procedures (not all checkpoints provide visas on arrival to foreigners). Maps.me and travel blogs can help you with that.
Some border checkpoints are more isolated or sketchy than others, that’s why being prepared, walking in confidently and understanding the country’s processes can make the experience run smoother.
5 Transportation to and from the border
Bus companies in Southeast Asia will arrange and assist you in the whole border crossing process front point A to point B. However, this is not the norm around the globe.
Border forms and officials will ask for your destination inside the country, so have an answer ready.
Tip: There will be plenty of transport options at customs (tuk-tuk, taxi, shuttle buses), but negotiating transportation from the border will always be more expensive.
6 Updated Visa information
Double-check in advance the exact visa requirements to your nationality—you might need to apply for the visa and it takes time.
Have in mind that foreigner policies keep changing, and is up to us to keep informed. As an example: in Thai land borders, as from 2017, tourist visa renewals are limited to twice per calendar year— despite airport borders not being affected by this measure.
Tips: Your passport should be valid for at least six months.
If you’re going to be traveling through several countries, you need to be informed about where the embassies are.
Carry up-to-date vaccination booklets.
7 How long are you staying for?
Trust us, always ask for the maximum limit of time in the country—you might regret if you don’t. If a country exceeds your expectations, or in case of an emergency (like ignoring point 6) you’ll be able to stay for a while longer.
8 Staying Safe
If you’re on a bus ride to the border, make some acquaintances so you won’t have to cross it alone. Try to join other fellow travelers during the crossing.
Keep an eye on your belongings, be cooperative and civil to the officers as many of them have useful safety advice to share.
9 Beat it
Get away from the border as quickly as possible. Get back your stamped passport, thank the officials, and leave quietly before they regret letting you in. Bye Felicia!
Tip: Take a picture of your visa and save it on your phone. In case of something happening to your passport, you’ll have somewhat of a proof of your legal entrance in the country.
The cause of border corruption
Most of us are unaware of the personal and professional circumstances surrounding police officers and border guards in many Southeast Asian countries. Did you know that they have to buy their position for sums of money that can reach up to $25.000?
And every time they apply for a new position, they’ll have to pay the fee associated with it.
To put that insane amount of money together, officials have to borrow it from their families and friends, to which they’ll have to pay back. And it gets worst when you consider the economic reality of countries like Cambodia, where a big part of the population lives with merely $2 a day.
Although nothing justifies the scamming and the stealing, it may help us understand the context in which they operate and their conduct as a way to comply with a rotten system.
If you have extra tips or similar experiences share them in the comments below. Thanks!
Cover image by Rikker Dockum.