Border crossing requires careful planning, follow here our international travel checklist

We were crossing the border from Peru to Bolivia by bus when we met three Asian girls, young students living in the US. They were from different countries so they had different entry requirements, but as far as we could see while talking with them, they did their homework and took care of all the paperwork needed, one of them even had a travel checklist for all documents. While waiting to cross the border, we did what we normally do when we meet more inexperienced travelers: we waited in line before them just in case they needed some help. It ended up being necessary: the official denied the entry to one of the girls based on a document she had to present, which she didn’t have, although she swore she did not need it. I tried to talk with the officer in charge, especially to see if he was looking for a bribe, which, unfortunately, is very common, but to no avail. With no plan B, the girl was desperate and we felt so heartbroken that we managed to convince her friends to stay behind with her, something they did not intend to do initially. We hope she learned the lesson and will be better prepared next time, but this really shows a daily reality on border crossings, especially overland border crossing.

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Our overland crossing from Colombia to Brazil
Our overland crossing from Colombia to Brazil. The wall says: ” Brazil starts here”

First of all, when doing international border crossing what type of VISA personality are you?

After many years traveling, (8 years already, ouch!) we have been through so many situations when doing international border crossing that we could write a book. It was in that border crossing, when doing the overland border from Peru to Bolivia, (at Desaguadero) that we realized that you always need to be prepared for the unexpected, especially the unpredictable mood of those with power – the ignominious border officials.

We have met hundreds of travelers, from all over the world  and we think we can divide everyone into three distinct mental preparation levels for border crossings:

  • Level 1 – The Reckless – this one thinks crossing a border is just showing up at the entry door with a passport and say Hi! while a red carpet is unfolded. Believe us, they do exist.
  • Level 2 – The Law Abider – has done his research, took care of all apparently necessary paperwork and stopped there because the consulate website says it is enough.
  • Level 3 – The Globetrotter Masterknows that not everything goes as planned and crossing a border maybe be as unpredictable as tossing a coin so, when the shit hits the fan, they are mentally prepared and have a plan B.
If you belong to the reckless gang, who thinks a passport is enough, then you don’t need to bother with this information for now. Just read this article on the importance of visas first and then come back here.
If you are still reading this, then you probably belong at least to level two and are fully aware of all the official requirements to cross borders. If you feel overwhelmed about where to start, then this guide is a great tool that we have used countless times. After you’ve found what you need to do, you can come back here to go through our checklist.

Why things may not go according to plan while doing an international border crossing (our Thai Non Immigration Visa example)

Now that you have everything prepared, your passport is already stamped and you think it will be piece of cake to cross the border, think again. You definitively need to be aware that a border official is almost an institution, in the way that he can decide to grant you or refuse your entry solely based on his mood.  Yes, you heard me: on his mood. They can refer to an extra rule to justify your refusal because they can do whatever they want and you have no way to complain. At that precise moment, you can’t call anyone to force your entry in any way, you have to stoically do a deep breath and think this is not the end of the road for you. There are other days and borders that can allow you to get in. Exactly, it is still possible to enter a country even if you were denied once. Some countries don’t keep so detailed registrations, you may get another passport and try again they would never know. This advice is only for situations you were wrongly denied entry if it was for some wrongdoing on your side you will always be denied entry so don’t even try again.

All sorts of transport are possible to cross borders

While living in Thailand we renewed our Single Entry Tourist Visa (a type of Non-immigration Visa) several times, and we always felt requirements could change at any moment. Despite that, we relaxed and after 3 renewals without asking for any evidence of our bank statements to prove we could support ourselves who stopped doing it.  Because it needs to be a recent bank statement for each one of us we always had to move money between our accounts to achieve that requirement. We got lazy and tried our luck. What happened? Next visa renewal the consulate asked exactly for that. There we were, in the outskirts of Penang, Malaysia, with no idea how to manage to get that paper in the 50 minutes we had before the consulate closed. If we only got it next day and because they have one processing day policy it meant we would only get the visas next Monday, making us change our flights back. Luckily for us, we had a prepaid sim card that saved us of all that trouble and we managed to print the statements out from a truck who was selling those premium services just in front of the consulate. The lesson of the day: don’t be lazy and bring all the paperwork you can carry.

Another important thing to remember is the hours you will be waiting and cueing for border crossing, you may be lucky of once in a lifetime experience with no waiting but that’s not the norm. Because of that our article of eating healthy on the road is very important to keep you well fed and mentally nurtured to stand the challenge.

Our international travel checklist to help you prepare for border crossing

First of all, you need to be mentally prepared for the unexpected to happen and always have a plan B. A plan B can be trying another day, getting extra paperwork or just not cross at all and consider your travels through other countries. Life is always a box of surprises, and not being able to cross a border is very far from the worst thing it could happen you, so just smile and move on.

With this in mind, we have some advice on how to reduce the likelihood of being stopped from entering a country and, if that happens, on how to have a plan B. Now our travel checklist for borders:

1. Bring more documentation than required

When you need to obtain a VISA, you basically have two options, depending on the type of VISA you want to get (don’t forget that there are several types of VISAs for each country):
  • Option 1 – you are outside the destination countrygo to a consulate or embassy of the destination in your country and get the VISA beforehand
  • Option 2 – you are entering the destination countryat the border crossing they will give you the VISA
For both situations, you need to bring some documents together with your passport. Even if you get your VISA before entering the country (Option 1), we recommend that you bring all the paperwork with you because it is not uncommon to be asked for it at customs.
When you are researching for the official visa requirements, bear in mind that they can change according to several factors:
  • Your country of origin
  • Your means of transportation (plane, car, boat…)
  • The point of entry (sometimes different border points may require different documents)
  • Your planned length of stay
  • Your purpose (work or leisure)
  • The embassy or consulate you contact
  • The border official (yes, it can go down to this level)
For example, for Thailand, when you check online the official requirements for Portuguese citizens like us, we need to show a bank statement of at least 5K to obtain the SETV (Single Entry Tourist Visa). What happened when I called the Thai embassy in Portugal? They told me there was no need for that. What am I going to do? Bring it anyway. Unfortunately, on the example I gave above, one of our renewals for our Thai Single Entry Tourist Visa we did not bring those statements and we were forced to improvise. Go figure.
Just in case, bring everything you find on the official websites, unless the effort to obtain it is tremendous, of course. Remember that the officials can change the rule on the spot, and being stuck in a border because you did not make the extra effort to obtain a bank statement is not worth it.
water border crossing in nicaragua
Water border crossing in Nicaragua

2.Passport golden rules

Please, always have these tips into consideration for your passport:
  • Validity a minimum of 6 months counting from the date you are planning to leave the country (some countries allow only 3 months, but they are rare so, as a rule of thumb, play it safe)
  • Empty Pages check you have at least 2 empty pages of the stamps you are going to get
  • Extra passport Pictures something may happen to your passport and you may need to do another one on the go
  • Copies take good quality copies of both front and back and have them with you at all times. It may be useful to use them instead of the original passport in situations other than border crossings.

3.Always bring your health-related documents

Yellow fever inoculation is one of the most required conditions for crossing borders. It is mandatory for most African countries and some South American and Asian ones, but you can check the full list of country requirements for yellow fever.
You should have health-related documents or their copies with you all the time, and this is not valid just for red tape but also for other situations, like accidents or doctor visits. Consider:
  • Vaccinationsbring evidence you took them especially in case of an accident, where you need to be hospitalized
  • Yellow fever international document many countries in Africa and some in Latin America and Asia require you to have it
  • Prescriptions of all the drugs you carry you may need to prove that you are not smuggling drugs
  • Special diseases and/or conditionsto justify special drugs or equipment you may carry

4.Backup all Documents

Before you travel anywhere, you should make a copy of everything, from passports to travel tickets, prescriptions, car rental receipts, etc. The copies should be both front and back. Regarding your credit cards, just keep their info in a safe place (we use 1Password).
When traveling, keep the backup documents in a safe location, exactly as you would with the originals. We have ours in a secret spot inside our backpacks. Besides that, we also recommend keeping digital copies of your documents and, for that, you have several options which we recommend:
  • CloudWe use Dropbox to backup all our documents and easily access them from all our devices
  • E-mailas an extra precaution, we send the main documents to our own emails, where they get stored (sometimes it is easier to access your inbox than Dropbox)
  • Digital Itinerarywe use TripIt to store all travel details and bookings
  • PenDrivewe have an encrypted PenDrive where we keep all our documents
  • Card Details we use 1password encrypted software to manage all our passwords and credit card details

5.If refused, have a Plan B

To prepare your plan B, start with a mental exercise before traveling. Ask yourself what would you do if you were refused to enter your destination. What would you need and, of course, consider if you are entering the country by land, air or water? Your means of transportation is important because international border crossing law has specific conditions, especially if you travel by plane:
  • By Bus/Car/Train if you are refused entry in a country, you can just wait at the border or go back to the country you came from, there are not many rules to follow in this situation
  • By Boatin this case, the boat company will most probably bring you back to your origin but may, or most probably, will charge you a fee, so be aware
  • By Planefor this situation, the Warsaw Convention, which states that in case a passenger is denied entry, it becomes the responsibility of the carrier to transport the passenger back to its origin. Some may refuse so be sure to refer to this international law. Sometimes, they allow you to change the dates of your return flight for a small fee or even for free.
We recommend you to pay attention to these items and to have them handy in case you are refused entry:
  • Moneyyou need to have cash with you in two different currencies, better, make it three. You should have currency from the country you are trying to get in, the country you are coming from, and if none of those are dollars you should also backup on dollars. Beside that also have a card like Revolut that has no fees and you can use in different currencies, or Transferwise that now does the same
  • Embassy/Consulate contacts always have them with you because they should be your first phone call after being refused

Pre-study the cheapest travel solutions, including lodging and means of transportation, especially if not traveling by plane (by plane you might get your return ticket for free like we referred before)

It is not the end of the world being refused at the border. There are many valid reasons for that and if it was something unfair or just a missing document, it will not affect your likelihood of being successful in another attempt. The most important point we want you to get is that things may not happen according to plan and you should be ready. Always think positive and, if it happens that you are refused at the border, look at it as just another good story to tell. And if you follow our international travel checklist you will be prepared for what comes next no matter what.
Iguazu Falls Border crossing
An adventurous border crossing, if only for some seconds: Iguazu Falls dividing Argentina e Brazil

What we have learned from the Thai Non-immigration Visa

Thailand has been the country where we have explored more the Visa renewal experience, resulting in multiple international border crossings to get our limited in time non-immigration visas. While living in other countries we never had to go to immigration every two months like required there. This is true with the majority of the Thai Visas, being non-immigration or not, and ours was the most common Single Entry Tourist Visa which you have to renew after 90 days (extension at 60 days) or before if you decide to leave the country. Renewing our visa in many different neighboring countries gave us great knowledge and planning skills which helped us with this checklist.

One last thing we would recommend to anyone is to use the forums and facebook groups of expats proliferating on the web. Each country has their own, in Thailand, for example, is Thai Visa, but we mostly rely on Facebook Groups. Group names like Expats + Name of country, or even Visa + Name of the country are almost in every country in the world on facebook. We normally join those groups weeks before we travel to give us time to see and discuss what people do. Sometimes the consulates and embassies say something online but then on the ground, things are very different, that’s why we use these groups so much.

Visas at border crossings, especially overland border crossings are never an exact science, but with some careful preparation, you can mitigate to almost the minimum the chance to have surprises. Still, never forget to always have a plan B.

It’s an amazing sensation when you enter a new country for the first time, it instantly makes you forget any a headache you’ve had to enter in the first place, so go for it and happy traveling!

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