Over four years of living and traveling in Africa, I only had one border agent threaten to throw me in jail. Thankfully, when she realized she wasn’t getting a bribe, she let me go. Border crossings are one of the most intimidating parts of traveling through Africa.
I’ve been through my fair share, and still I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach every time we have to get our passports stamped at an African border. Regardless of how much research you’ve done and how prepared you think you are, things constantly change, so it’s best to expect the unexpected. The good news is there are simple things you can do to make the process go more smoothly.
After a couple dozen crossings, I’ve come up with this guide to hassle-free African border crossings.
1. Be Prepared
Although things constantly change, it’s a good idea to be as prepared as you can be. Do research, talk to fellow travelers, and even call the embassy before you leave your home country to find out what you’ll need. If they advise getting a visa before you get to the border, do it. While you may still be able to get your visa at the border, I think it’s best to try to get in and out as quickly as possible; having a visa ahead of time just expedites the process.
Being prepared also means having exact change for visa or border crossing fees — in the correct currency. If you have an American visa, some countries, like Zimbabwe, may only allow you to pay in US dollars.
2. Use Current Information
Many travel books have country-specific guides to border crossings. While these can be helpful for general guidelines, they are often outdated before they even go to print. Use information that is as current as possible when doing research and planning your trip. Travelers you meet on the road are often the best resource since they have crossed recently.
These days, many travelers have blogs with valuable, up-to-date information for border crossings. The African Overland Network is a great place to find blogs of travelers from all over the world and an excellent resource for finding current information from fellow travelers.
3. Keep Valuables Out of Sight
Whether you’re driving or backpacking through Africa, be sure to keep your valuables out of sight, especially whenever there are a lot of people around. African borders are notorious for being hectic, so it’s best to keep anything of value hidden.
4. Avoid Fixers
Although they’ll tell you otherwise, fixers are typically unnecessary at border crossings. A fixer is typically a local who claims to be able to get you through a border quicker than you could on your own, in exchange for payment. We went through borders throughout Southern and Eastern Africa without hiring anyone for help. Undoubtably, in some areas, like Eastern Africa, you’ll have a half dozen men hounding you and telling you how much you need their expert assistance. Chances are you don’t. Buildings are typically labeled and if you’ve done your research, you already know what paperwork you need and how much it will cost.
However, we did hire someone to help us get into the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was recommended from other travelers and helped us get visas as part of a package that included a guided hike up a volcano. If you do find that you need to use a fixer for countries like the DRC or some Northern African countries, make sure that they come recommended and don’t give money up front.
5. Do Not Pay Bribes
I’ve heard countless dramatic, captivating stories that involve travelers bribing their way into African countries. Just like bribing police officers for traffic citations encourages the practice, bribing at borders just sets the same expectation for fellow travelers. If you’re not allowed to visit certain areas because of your passport country, it’s best to abide by the the guidelines rather than paying bribes.
6. Stay Calm and Confident
There’s not a lot of about travel that gets me flustered, but hectic border crossings definitely make me nervous. Regardless of how prepared I feel, one crooked border agent can make life very difficult. By staying calm and acting confident — even when you don’t feel it — you’ll hava an easier time navigating the sometimes crazy process. If you look lost, you will be a obvious target for opportunistic fixers and border agents.
Border crossings may be one of the most difficult, and sometimes dangerous, aspects of traveling through Africa, but if you follow these general guidelines you get can get through them without a hitch!
What are your tips for crossing borders? Do you have a crazy border crossing story to share?
photo credit: aleutia