Nowadays, border crossings in Africa are nowhere near as difficult, or as dangerous as the movie industry makes it out to be; while the archetypical overweight, profusely sweating, corrupt border guard might still lurk in remote border posts, the fact is that for the most part, African border crossings have become easier, friendlier, and just a little faster in recent years.
Gone are the nervous Ak-47 wielding teenage border guards wearing dark sunglasses and ill-fitting military uniforms. Also gone are the fly infested corrugated shacks: border posts these days are mostly well-constructed, air-conditioned brick buildings with offices for moneychangers, insurance sales clerks, police, and customs officials. However, although border crossings in Africa have become easier and less nerve wracking, they are still not always a walk in the proverbial park. You still need to have your ducks in a very neat row, with all of your paper work correctly filled out, and in order in all respects.
Moreover, you still need to pay all manner of fees, taxes, and tariffs, and you still need to be friendly, polite, and above all, aware of the fact that your fate rests in the hands of the officials at whatever border post you find yourself. After all, you would not dare to attempt gaining legal entry into the USA, Britain, Germany, or any other First-world country with defective or incomplete documentation- so why try doing it in Africa? All you need to do is follow the steps outlined below, and you are assured of a trouble-free journey through Africa with minimal delays at border posts.
Entry into any African country is never a given, and regardless of your nationality, or the purpose of your visit to any African country, you need to have all documentation relating to yourself, everyone else in your party, and your vehicles immediately at hand on arrival at any border post. This will save time, and keep everyone happy. Not having all your papers ready and available looks suspicious, and can lead to you being prevented from entering the country.
• Passport and visas:
Your passport must be valid for a period of at least 180 days after the date you are entering any country. It must also contain all the entry and exit visas for all of the countries you are planning to visit, or have visited.
• Valid driver’s license:
Not all African countries require drivers entering their territories to hold an international driver’s licence, provided you hold an official driver’s licence issued by the proper authorities in your home country. However, it is important to note that the driver’s licence must be valid on entry, and not expire while you are in whatever country you are entering. Obtain the relevant information for each country you are planning to visit when you are applying for visas.
• Valid international drivers license:
It is always a good idea to obtain an International Driver’s Permit even if you are visiting countries that recognise your South African driver’s licence. An International Driver’s Permit is not a licence to drive; it is merely a validation of your current driver’s licence and since some countries in Africa require a translation of your licence, an Internal Driver’s Permit issued by the Automobile Association of South Africa will satisfy this requirement should a dispute as to the accuracy or validity of the translation arise.
Moreover, a South African driver’s licence may be disputed after an accident, even if it was recognised when you entered the country, so having an International Driver’s Permit satisfies the validity question as well. However, an International Driver’s Permit does not replace your current licence, and you must have both documents available for inspection by law enforcement officers if they demand to see them.
• Valid and current international immunization record:
Almost all African countries require proof of immunization against Yellow Fever, Hepatitis A, Meningitis, and other contagious diseases. However, requirements change from time to time, and the best way to prevent being denied entry into any country because you do not have a valid immunization record is to consult a travel clinic before you leave on your trip. Some inoculations require several weeks to become effective, so check on these details with the embassy of all the countries you plan to visit at the time you apply for visas.
• Vehicle title/registration documents:
In some countries, the documents indicating ownership and registration of a vehicle are not the same, and to avoid trouble, delays, and even denial of entry into any African country, make sure you have all the documents that indicate ownership of the vehicle, as well as proof of registration with the authorities in your home country. If you are using a rental vehicle, or are still making payments on your own vehicle, make sure you have letters of authority from your financial institution, or the rental company to take the vehicle over international borders.
However, do not present the original documents- have several sets of certified colour copies made for presentation to border post personnel, but keep the originals at hand should they be required for inspection or to check the validity of the copies.
• Current Carnet de Passage:
Not all African countries require this document, which is essentially an import/export permit for your vehicles, but you could be denied entry into the countries that do require it if you do not have one. Carnets can be bought from international motoring organisations such as the Automobile Association, so check with your local organisation for which countries you need a Carnet. In countries that do not require a Carnet, you can purchase a temporary import/export permit at the border, but in all cases, it is important to remove your vehicle from the country you are visiting, since failure to do so for whatever reason could result in you having to pay import duties of up to 250% of the value of the vehicle when it was new.
• Vehicle VIN and engine number:
In efforts to stem the tide of stolen vehicles from Southern Africa into the rest of Africa, most African countries go to some lengths to verify the details of all vehicles crossing their borders. For this reason, it is crucial that the VIN and engine numbers of your vehicles correspond exactly to those reflected on all your documents. Any discrepancies, no matter how small, could result in your vehicles being impounded, and the almost certain arrest of everyone in your party.
• Some local currency of the country you are leaving/entering:
Always keep some currency of the country you are leaving in order to pay export and/or exit taxes and fees. Also, make a point of having currency of the country you are entering at hand to pay import and/or entry taxes and fees. A good idea is to have about US$200 or so available in small denominations since some countries insist on these taxes and fees being paid in US dollars.
• Travel insurance documents:
Some border guards insist on seeing for themselves that you and everyone else in your party are adequately insured against accidents, third party liability, and medical emergencies. You could be required to purchase additional insurance, and if this happens do not complain or throw a tantrum; just grin and buy what you are told to. In Africa, you can never have enough insurance and if buying some more gets you into a country just go ahead and buy it.
The exact details on how visitors are received and processed vary from border to border: some posts may consist of a shack with one or two officials that sometimes have to fetched from their homes, while other may resemble military fortifications with guarded watch towers, double electrified fences patrolled by armed soldiers and vicious dogs, searchlights, and any number of armed soldiers standing around. However, the actual processing procedure is almost the same everywhere, with one checkpoint dealing with customs, another with passport control and immigration, another that will check everything again, and yet another dealing with insurance, money changing and other equally important matters.
• Passport/Immigration Control:
Passport control is sometimes just a matter of a nod and a wave-through, but more often than not, your passport and visas are subjected to a thorough inspection before being processed. Once the Passport Control Officer is satisfied with your documents, i.e., that you exited the previous country legally, you will be directed to the Immigration Control Officers.
• Customs Control:
The next stop is Customs Control, where you need to present your Carnet if you require one, or where you will be required to purchase a temporary import/export permit. It is vitally important that you obtain an entry stamp on your Carnet or permit, since you will not be allowed to leave the country without paying a hefty fine or import tax if you do not have an entry stamp. At this point, your vehicle’s documents will be checked very carefully, so make sure you have everything ready for presentation and inspection. This process can vary from mere minutes to many hours, but be patient; in Africa, all things eventually come to those who wait long enough.
At this point, your vehicles may also be searched for contra-band: although this does not frequently happen with private vehicles, never assume that it will not happen. You may also be required at this junction to purchase additional insurance, pay specific taxes, fees, tariffs, change your money, and get stamps on all your papers- all of which can often only be done at widely separated points. This process can take several hours, but you will eventually be directed to present yourself at yet another office for inspection of all the receipts, stamps, and other documents you were instructed to obtain.
Not all border posts have inspectors, but where they are employed, the inspection process depends on how efficient the other officials had been in issuing the correct stamps and receipts. If you are lucky, you could be on your way in a matter of minutes, but the fact is that there is nearly always something wrong somewhere: you may have to return to a certain office (or several) to get a forgotten signature, stamp, or receipt. Resist the urge to lose your patience at this point since you will not be allowed to leave the country without every little detail being perfect, nor will you be allowed to enter the next country if there should be something amiss with your documents.
Nonetheless, the average time it takes to enter an African country depends as much on your attitude as it has with the processes that are specific to each country. Provided all your papers are in order to begin with and you do not get into arguments with officials, you could accomplish a border crossing in as little as two hours or so. Be patient; you will get there- eventually.
• Exiting a country:
The procedure of exiting any African country is very nearly the opposite of entering them, with the emphasis in this case being the obtaining of exit visas and an exit stamp on your Carnet, or temporary import/export permits. Without these stamps, you will be denied entry into the next country, and you run the real risk of being arrested as well, apart from losing or forfeiting your Carnet bond if you cannot show that you have removed your vehicles legally from all the countries you have been to.
Border crossings in Africa can be trying, and especially if you are a first-time tourist. However, apart from keeping your cool and co-operating with officials, no matter your opinion of them, there are several things you can (and should not do) to prevent delays, being denied entry, or even being arrested. Below are some points to bear in mind when travelling in Africa.
• Don’t take photographs of border posts and personnel:
Some countries are exceedingly sensitive about people taking pictures of their borders, and you can be arrested for taking pictures without unambiguous and preferably written permission. If you must take pictures of any border installation, get permission from a uniformed official, and do not argue if permission is withheld. In fact, it is always safer to obtain permission even before you take out a camera.
Do not under any circumstances offer bribes because contrary to popular belief, there are still honest border guards- even in Africa. If a bribe or suspicious “fee” is requested, ask to speak to a supervisor or senior officer to confirm the legality of the “fee”. However, it does happen that the entry process is sometimes purposely held up or delayed, and in these cases, you may not have another alternative than offering to pay the relevant “fine”, or “fee” to speed things up, but never use the word “bribe”.
• Grin and bear it:
Time passes at a slower rate in Africa than in the rest of the world, and the worst possible thing you can do in Africa is to lose your temper and start shouting. This behaviour is extremely offensive in most African cultures, and it could get you arrested. The best way to tackle officialdom in Africa is to wear it down by being infinitely patient, and understanding of the fact that Africa works to the beat of a slower drum than what you may be used to. Just maintain a subtle, but constant pressure to have your needs seen to, and you will invariably be OK in the end.
• Obtain all visas in advance:
African countries do not as a rule issue visas at their borders, which makes it imperative that you obtain all your visas in advance. However, wherever possible, try to get multiple entry visas for each country you plan to visit because you may be refused entry into any country for reasons that you could not have foreseen, such as political upheaval, an unexpected civil war, outbreak of disease, or other factors beyond your control.
The point here is that once you leave one country, and are refused entry into the next, you will be unable to return to the first country if you only had a single entry visa for the first country. Being stuck in no-man’s-land between two countries is no laughing matter, and nobody will go to any trouble to help you. Be prepared: get as many multiple entry visas as you can in advance, and for the longest possible periods.
• Be sure about business hours and public holidays:
Make sure (and well in advance) about the operating hours of all the border posts you will be crossing during your trip, and plan your trip around the days when border posts may be closed due to public holidays. Ignorance of this will not be accepted as an excuse when you try to leave a country with an expired visa because you did not know a post was be closed during a public holiday. Wherever possible try to arrange your visas so that you have an overlap of two days or so between when you have to leave one country, and when you can enter the next, so that if you are delayed in one country, or the border of the next country is closed because of a public holiday, you do not run the risk of having your visas expire before you can enter the next country.
• Act like a guest:
Always treat the countries and the people you are visiting in the same manner you would expect guests to treat you and your family in your own home. Never make disparaging remarks about the level of development of a country, or the state of repair of roads, railways, the border post and its facilities, or any other feature or characteristic of any country you are in or had just left or visited in the past.
Be gracious, and show respect to persons in authority; they hold your fate in their hands after all. Do not get involved in discussions about politics, religion, or the competence (or otherwise) of any public official, and never initiate such discussions or arguments- you are after all a guest in a foreign country and just as much as you would not like guests in your own home telling you how to run your affairs, remember that the people of the country you are visiting might not like you telling them how to run their country.
• Always carry extra pens:
Border posts never have enough pens, and having your own can speed things up considerably. Pens also make welcome gifts to people from filling station attendants, to hotel and campsite staff, and even schoolchildren who sometimes have to share a few pens between entire classes.
Border crossings in Africa may be somewhat nerve wracking, especially for first-time travellers, but for the most part, they are relatively straightforward and without serious challenges, provided of course that all your papers and documents are in order, complete, and without alterations, deletions, other visible signs of having been tampered with, which could land you in an African prison.
However, you would never dream of tampering with official documents, so the only thing left to do is to double check that you have every I- dotted, and every T- crossed. You are going to spend at least a year in Africa, and you are going to spend a fortune, so take another few days, and check that your papers are in order- after all, you are not likely to ever do this again, so get it right the first time.