17 Tips for a Smooth Overland Border Crossing

We are intercontinental overlanders. Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it? Well it certainly is not. Adventurous is a better adjective. Throw challenging, expensive, dangerous, addictive, and liberating into the pot and you have a taste of our daily soup. If you had to ask me what is the greatest obstacle facing our tribe I would have to say bureaucracy. Cash deficiency comes in at a close second, but money can be earned. There is precious little any of us can do to change the demands of the planet’s omnipotent paper pushers.


Those who know us personally, or have read our first book, will know that we, in a previous life, ran our own immigration firm in South Africa-despite not being lawyers. We kept the business small, specialized, and highly competitive. This business taught us many things. Perhaps the most valuable skill we learned was how to effectively deal with bureaucracy. The keys are patience, humility, and preparation. You cannot fail if you have all the correct pieces of paper stamped with the correct dates and busts of national heroes. The following 17 tips will help you negotiate even the Colombia/Venezuela border.

1. Research the visa requirements and establish what the requirements specific to your nationality are, months in advance. You may need to apply for a visa.

2. Ask travelers heading the other way about the procedures and fees and spend some time researching the crossing on the internet.

3. Make sure your passport is valid for at least the next six months. Keep it, and those of your companions, in a spill-proof folder. Store duplicate or second passports separately. It helps to prepare all of your paperwork the evening before an intended border crossing so you’re not rummaging through your car at immigration.

4. Also included in the folder should be two black ink ballpoint pens and any paperwork needed to enter the country, such as a tourist information card. When entering a country overland, you may have to complete a form which includes information such as name, date of birth, profession, country of birth and residence, destination within the country entering, desired period of stay, purpose of visit, declaration of compliance with foreign exchange limitations and declaration of compliance with agricultural regulations. Each individual will need to complete and sign a corresponding form, including children. Before leaving the immigration office, try to secure a few of the corresponding forms you will need when departing that country. This will prepare you for the next border, or your return.

Border crossings can be confusing. For example, this sign is in South America.
Border crossings can be confusing. For example, this sign is in South America.

5. Unless you are intending to take up employment in the country you are traveling to, keep your listed profession simple. So, if you’re a civil engineer, you now become an engineer, if you’re neuroscientist, you now become a scientist. If you’re a traveler by profession, you now become a language professor. Keep it simple but not too simple. They want professionals visiting, not long-term travelers who might try to find work or overstay their visa.

6. The folder should also contain certified original copies of birth certificates, marriage certificates, and identification with the originals of those documents available for reference.

7. Be sure to carry up to date vaccination booklets for each individual.

8. Have valid credit cards available as proof of funds. Toward the end of your journey those credit cards may all be deeply in the red but there is no way for the common border official to know that without lengthy investigation, which they have no interest in doing unless you are flagged for some reason.

9. Have your original vehicle documentation ready for inspection. You will need this for the Temporary Import Permit or TIP, which will be issued separately by customs once you have completed the immigration process.

10. Photo copies. It is advisable to carry copies of the bio page of each passport and perhaps a copy of each entry stamp when departing the country. You may also need to provide copies of the vehicle documentation. In many cases the border officials will have a copy machine but that is usually for office use only, you may need to run to the little copy shop down the road which also sells vehicle insurance and Coca-Cola.

11. Once face to face with the official, smile and be friendly.


12. DO NOT show anger or frustration, DO NOT complain to the official about the terrible process, DO NOT become impatient with the official when they ask questions. Smile, be calm, explain what needs to be explained.

13. If the official explains that your passport is green, not red, and that your picture looks like an old woman, not you, and that you need to return to the country you just came from to obtain a BI10006 form, DO NOT leave the counter, DO NOT argue loudly.

Commiserate: they feel that they are suffering more than you are. They are just doing their job, and they are doing it well. Thank them for their attention to detail. Explain that your companion nags a lot and has made you age before your time and yes, that was a terrible hair cut; explain that you made a phone call to the immigration office in his capital city to confirm that the green passport is permissible. You spoke to Janet and Janet said it was not a problem and that you would automatically be given 90 days upon entry. Of course, Janet does not exist but the official does not know that. Of course you are bluffing, but you have done your research and know that you have every right to enter the country with your travel document. You may have to do all of this communication in a combination of languages and using hand gestures. Leaving the counter will not resolve your issue and will put you at the back of the line. Stay where you are, remain calm and be polite. The official will now either give in and stamp your passport or they might feel the need to save face, in which case they will take your passport with them to another room where they will have a cup of coffee and kill some time flirting with a colleague before stamping your passport and allowing you on your way.


14. Always ask for the maximum period permitted. You might have an emergency or a breakdown and need to stay longer than anticipated. You might even fall in love with the country and decide to explore for a while longer.

15. Pay any fees, which should be clearly listed, and insist on a receipt. You might need to pay in local currency which can be obtained from a money changer or an ATM, if you are lucky.

16. Retrieve the stamped passports, thank the official and leave quietly.

17. Never encourage corruption.

Writer and photographer Graeme Bell is a full time overlander and author of We Will Be Free, a declaration of independence and Travel the Planet Overland, a guide currently on Kickstarter. He was born in Johannesburg, South Africa but considers Cape Town home. He is currently traveling the planet with his wife Luisa and two children, Keelan and Jessica, in a Land Rover Defender 130 affectionately known as Mafuta. www.a2aexpedition.com


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