Bad Border Behaviors: 4 Case Studies/Tips and 2 Confessions

Border Bathroom

Lots of things can go wrong at border crossings. There could be a problem with your visa. Someone might try to scam you–and succeed. Or something else totally unexpected could happen.

And so, as you approach a border–especially a chaotic one–you may feel apprehensive. You get your bags ready, fumble for your “papers” and then, perhaps, your heart skips a beat…

Will it go smoothly or or not, you wonder…
Indian-Nepali border

Often, it does, but not always. And in my experience, it’s in the developing countries that certain BBBs–“bad border behaviors”–occur. At the border itself and in the towns right before/after it.

I must confess, however, that it’s not just them. It’s me, too. I have also behaved badly.

Before I share my own BBBs–where and why they occurred–let’s talk about them— the people who work at or near borders. Later, I’ll fess up. Then, I’d also like to hear from you.


1. Overcharging Desperate Bathroom Users

How It Happens
At the border control in some countries, you may find a bathroom. But it’s not guaranteed that there will be one. And even if there is, there may not be enough time to use it. Sometimes, you have no choice but to go when the bus stops at the nearest border town.

To find it, little effort is required. Just follow your nose–and eyes. Look for the grumpy person holding a few pieces of toilet paper who’s pointing to a bowl with coins in it. The price: high.

PS: I think I was charged more than $1 to use the bathroom in the photo below.

Bathroom near Honduras/El Salvador border

Why It Happens
The overcharging occurs, quite simply, because you’re a captive audience and the rules of supply and demand prevail. The bathroom owners/managers know you’re desperate and so, they charge two to three times the normal price. I suppose I might do the same in their situation; it is a business, after all. Still…it sucks when you’re the customer. And when the bathroom is disgusting.

Tip/How to Avoid It
Use the bathroom when your bus stops at a restaurant way before you get to the border. Or drink Gatorade or another thirst-quenching drink so that you’re less likely to need the bathroom. Also, pack your own toilet paper since they barely give you any.

2. Passport/Visa Paperwork ‘Facilitation’

How It Happens
Usually, this occurs at super busy and chaotic borders. Someone, in somewhat respectable and/or official looking clothing, approaches you and says he can help get you through faster. Just give him your passport and he’ll get the paperwork processed, helping you avoid the line.

Why It Happens
They know how insane their border is and how eager people are to pass through quickly. That equals a market for them. While the bathroom overchargers are passive types, these people are a bit more predatory. They may see the fatigue on your face and the worry if it’s getting dark and then they make their move.

Tip/How to Avoid It
Although this is most often a scam and I don’t generally go for it, I did once and it worked out OK. When I crossed the border between Ecuador and Peru many years ago, someone like this helped me and a friend save time this way. It did cost us a couple dollars, but it was worth it since that was not a pleasant border at all.

My best advice is to make sure that you’re clear on the rules before you cross the border and that the steps involved with the crossing have been laid out in advance by whoever is in charge of your transportation.

Haiti through the border fence

3. Mandatory Tourist/Photography ‘Card’ Sales/Scams

How It Happens
Here, your vehicle will stop somewhere along the way–before you get to the border–and you’ll be told that you need to purchase a special tourist or photography card in order to be allowed into the country. Efforts may be coordinated by your driver and the other scam artists.

Why It Happens
The locals are looking for ways to make money and they see you, the traveler, as someone who’s got it. If you don’t speak the language, all the better. They use a variety of tactics to pull off this scam and can make your life hell if you don’t cooperate. They can delay things for an eternity and increase your anxiety level to the point where you might finally give in.

Tips/How to Avoid It
I’m not 100% sure. Perhaps study the rules re: border crossing as much as possible. Google “border scams for country X” and see what you find. Then, perhaps, ask a local to write down some key phrases for you in the country’s language (and write your own phonetic spelling to use.) Things like, “I know this is not legal.” Or “I’m not supposed to pay this and I’m not going to.”

When the moment comes, use the phrases/sentence and look tough?

4. Money-Hungry Money Changing

How It Happens
They’re there and you’re there. You need them. Their money, that is. They approach you and attempt to strike a deal. The rate tends to be crappy.

Just like the paperwork facilitators, these guys can be legitimate at times. But often, they can be trouble. They’re fast talkers who know how to work the numbers in their favor. They also make lots of “accidental errors.” They’re the kind of guys who make you want to shower after you’ve struck a deal with them.

Exchange: Money changer  at the Boudha Stupa Jarung Kashor, Kathmandu, Nepal
Why It Happens
You didn’t change your money earlier on and are now need to be rid of it–or are in desperate need of the currency on the other side of the border. They know it and you know it. Again, you’re part of their target market.

Tip/How to Avoid It
You’re better off changing your money at one of the bus stops along the way if possible and, of course, back in the city you departed from. It’s worth it, believe me.

OK, now…the big moment you’ve been waiting for. What have I done at borders that I shouldn’t have?


5. Taking Photos of the Border

Why/How I Did It
Imagine the excitement I felt when I was crossing Jordan’s border into the Syrian Arab Republic (2 years ago, when it was safe there). I almost couldn’t contain myself. I knew I had a visa and that they couldn’t turn me down, which was good. Even so, I still felt a surge of apprehension/excitement as I sat on the bus, waiting for my papers to be checked.

Sitting there, I spotted the scene below and found myself reaching for my camera. I didn’t have a blog at the time, by the way. I just wanted a photo or two. To remember what it felt and looked like. The flag combined with the image of the President and his father, the former President, was striking.

Syria border

So, when the various officials and soldiers weren’t looking, I took a couple shots. My hands shook a bit, but fortunately, I was able to keep steady as I took the photos.

6. Exceeding the Duty-Free Limit

Why/How I Did It
So, there I was on my way back from Syria a few weeks later, about to cross back into the mellow Kingdom of Jordan, with its photo of King Abdullah in a scarf and the flag waving proudly. I stopped off at the Duty Free shop and bought cigarettes for a Circassian-Jordanian I’d been staying with–friend of mine who’d made a special request due to the cheaper prices.

She’d said, “Get as many cartons as you possibly can.”

Jordan Border Crossing

They had her brand and so that’s exactly what I did. I got about 10 cartons. I think they were Winstons. (PS: I’m not a smoker.)

Right before we moved on to the official checkpoint, where the officials open bags and look for such things (I didn’t know that cigarettes were an issue, of course), I mentioned to my taxi driver what I’d bought.

“What?” he said, freaking out a bit. “That many?” He then told me there was a limit–of 2 cartons (I can’t quite remember).

Winston Cigarettes in Istanbul Duty Free

I didn’t know what to do. Although the cigs were relatively inexpensive, they certainly weren’t cheap. I’d spent quite a bit on them and didn’t want to sacrifice them. Also, my friend was eager to have them.

So the taxi driver and I came up with a plan. We hid a few cartons deep inside my large backpack bag under some dirty clothes, etc. Then, another passenger, a female, put some in her bag. The taxi driver also hid a few in his trunk, underneath other bags and a spare tire.

He told me to stand aside, keep quiet and read a book–to not watch when my bags got searched. Play it cool, in so many words.

A few minutes later, the officials said hello, checked documents, then opened my bags. I waited with baited breath, my heart beating wildly, hoping all would go well. And fortunately, it did. They barely looked inside.


OK–now that I’ve gotten my confessions out, let’s hear from you about your experiences–whichever end of it you’ve been on.

Entering Peru


What would you have done?
What would you have done in the situations I described above? Would you have taken the photo of the Syrian border? And what would you have done with those cigarettes?

What BBBs (bad border behaviors) have you witnessed/experienced/committed?
Any scams to report? If so, where and what? Feel free to share a link to a post you’ve written.

Have you broken any rules? If so, please share. And if you did something really bad, then feel free to post anonymously. As long as you don’t sound like spam, I’ll approve the comment. :)

Peru / Bolivia border crossing near Lake Titicaca

33 Responses to Bad Border Behaviors: 4 Case Studies/Tips and 2 Confessions
  1. Jeruen
    April 10, 2012 | 10:46 am

    I personally don’t have much experience with bad border behavior, partly because I am so anal in doing prior research regarding immigration and entering foreign countries, that I know what to watch out for.

    The only “interesting” border behavior I had were two minor ones: back in 2008, I flew to Peru, but since I had a 9-hour lay-over in Colombia, I figured I would get out of the airport in Bogota. My Spanish back then was non-existent, that the customs official said something to me, that I didn’t catch, she repeated it, and in the end, just shook her head and let me through. She must have thought that I was this pathetic Asian gringo. Being a linguist, that was a personal let-down. I made sure I learned a few phrases before setting off after that.

    Another one was when I was entering Mexico. I landed in Mexico City, and I was traveling alone. They explicitly asked if I was carrying books. When I said yes (I was carrying 2 novels, and a travel guide), they unpacked my whole backpack, and found the books, and flipped almost every page of it. To this day, I don’t know what they were looking for. Pornographic material maybe? But if that’s the case, then I am surprised because Mexico City’s streets are filled with vendors of tabloids and other erotic material.
    Jeruen recently posted..Gallivanting in Germany: Stuttgart SchlossplatzMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      April 11, 2012 | 9:06 pm

      Hi, Jeruen. Glad you haven’t had any of the extreme border experiences. Interesting re: Mexico. It’s possible that they were looking for porn, but it’s hard to say. Hmmm. Great that you now know some phrases in Spanish! I, too, like to learn a little of whichever language is spoken in a particular place. The one I had trouble with was Turkey, strangely. I did much better with Arabic.

  2. Kevin
    April 10, 2012 | 10:35 pm

    :) I knew you were some kinda smuggler! ha…ha… But Winstons? At least go for Marlboro. :)

    I’ve experienced all of these and you’re tips are great. I would add a couple of simple ones.

    For the nasty toilet scene, I find it also usefull to carry a small travel pack of wet wipes. Better than TP & can be used to help sanitize the “Stink House” as well as nice to freshen up the rest of the body with.

    Course us guys always have the option of finding a spot behind a tree or other object to relieve ourselves. But I wouldn’t know anything about that…bad sanitary practice. Right? :)

    Border Crossing Issues:
    Love these scams. It also helps to keep your game face on and walk with confidence, don’t wander around looking at a map or phrase book. You’re less likely to stick out & even if approached, less hassel will be encountered.

    I still try to sneak photo’s of restricted sights or areas….but be carefull, these days you might not get harrassed to much by the the local police, the new tactic is that they just throw away your camera or if you’re lucky, only the SD Card if they can figure out how to get it out.

    Look for my post on the latest Tuk Tuk Scam when I post my Bangkok trip. I was actually laughing at the driver. :)

    • CB Driver
      April 11, 2012 | 8:59 pm

      Kevin–Hi and thanks for your tips! Wet wipes–very smart.

      I could see you walking around with your game face on… It’s important, though. Re: getting caught taking photos–that does sound like a nightmare.

      Look forward to the tuk tuk scam story!

  3. wftristan
    April 11, 2012 | 2:51 am

    I love sneaking shots in – I do quite a lot of street photography so you get used to it after a while – but sometimes the nerves still get to you.

    great article

    wftristan recently posted..Team makes malaria breakthroughMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      April 11, 2012 | 8:57 pm

      Hi, Tristan. Thanks for the feedback–happy you liked the article! Glad you know you’re sneaking those shots, too. :)

  4. Naomi
    April 11, 2012 | 5:08 am

    Back in the day when Europe had borders and I was cycling my way around, I crossed from Austria into Germany. The border crossing was at the top of a mountain and as I slowly made my way up and over the border guy stopped me and before I could say anything told me I must be Australian (he was right!). He was such a nice chap, and I still had some Austrian postcards and stamps so I sat in his little office, wrote my postcards and posted them in the border postbox and made my merry way over the border.
    Little did he know I had a nub of hashish in amongst the onions and garlic in my bike panniers!!

    • CB Driver
      April 11, 2012 | 8:49 pm

      Wow…Naomi…wild story! I like the way you told it, too–with the surprise ending. Clever indeed!

  5. Stephanie - The Travel Chica
    April 11, 2012 | 11:23 am

    I was nervous about getting scammed at every border crossing in Central America. Luckily, the bus/ van drivers were always very clear about what we were supposed to pay. And I never changed money at the border :-)
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..My Luxury Vacation at Viñas de Cafayate Wine ResortMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      April 11, 2012 | 8:48 pm

      Hola, Stephanie! Glad to hear you didn’t get scammed at those borders. Cool that everything was worked out with the drivers in advance! Smart not to change money there, too.

  6. miguel
    April 11, 2012 | 1:42 pm

    freaking hilarious! good case studies and great advice! Iv’e only had problems @ the Moroccan- Spanish boarder, where we were randomly strip searched (No plastic gloves were necessary I swear). but going through algeciras and almeria port boarders, anythng of this sort can happen. Just dont’ have ANYTHING that is illegal. and look as “clean” as possible. one way or another, i repeat, ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN. GREAT POST
    miguel recently posted..THE DAY WE WERE WALDO – EL DÍA QUE VIAJÉ SIENDO WALLYMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      April 11, 2012 | 8:10 pm

      Hi, Miguel. Nice to meet you and welcome to the “bus”! Strip searched at Spain’s border with Morocco? Holy crap. True–anything can happen and one must be careful.

      Glad you enjoyed the post so much–gracias!

  7. Aaron @ Aaron's Worldwide Adventures
    April 11, 2012 | 5:59 pm

    Call me crazy but I LOVE land border crossings. Maybe it’s because I’m a glutton for punishment or something…

    But I do always take photos and land crossings to. And I tweeted my way through Israel’s fairly harsh airport security/immigration section, which may or may not have been a good idea…

    A long time ago when my family was living in Ecuador, we crossed the land border into Peru. And when we left Ecuador initially, we crossed the bridge before the border was officially open so we didn’t get stamped into Peru, which later proved to be a problem!

    But once we’d gotten that stamp thing figured out, we went to catch a plane in some city to Lima (don’t ask me where) and we had to pay a departure tax. The guy quoted my mom 20 US Dollars and we paid that. Only later did we find that the real fee was 20 Peruvian Soles, which, at the time, was CONSIDERABLY less than $20!
    Aaron @ Aaron’s Worldwide Adventures recently posted..The Travesty That Was Christmas Eve in Bethlehem: Part II (A Very Wet Night)My Profile

    • CB Driver
      April 11, 2012 | 8:09 pm

      Hi, Aaron. I don’t think it’s crazy. I get it. Sort of exciting, right? Re: Israel…you tweeted that, huh? I hear you re: it being harsh. I think I was rated a “6,” which is super high. They were concerned about me as a woman traveling solo.

      As for Peru, 20 dollars vs soles, huh? Interesting. Well, they do get us sometimes, huh.

      Thanks for sharing!

  8. Talon
    April 11, 2012 | 6:40 pm

    Some good points, especially about bringing your own toilet paper. That’s really wise anywhere outside of North America and Europe.

    Sometimes there’s just no way around these scams. In Guatemala I occasionally would get a $3 charge for crossing the border. It isn’t legal. But I heard others arguing, calling over the supervisor, etc., and the bottom line they got was: Do you want to enter Guatemala or not? Sometimes it really just comes down to that. Most of the time asserting you know what’s right and what isn’t will probably work, but occasionally you just have to suck it up and play.
    Talon recently posted..Well Hello Colombia!My Profile

    • CB Driver
      April 11, 2012 | 8:07 pm

      Hey, Talon. I totally know what you mean. And if it’s $3, then why not. I think that when it starts to get super expensive that it’s worse. When I paid the passport/visa “facilitator” to help me get into Peru, it was OK. Also, it was optional. That felt OK.

  9. Prime
    April 12, 2012 | 2:22 am

    Ah yes, one of my pet peeves is when I’m crossing from Johor Bahru in Malaysia to Singapore or vice versa. Since, I’m a Filipino citizen, I always get hassled (i.e. immigrant officials suspect I’m on a visa run because I’m looking for a job because I’m poor and can’t find a job in my poor country. yeah, whatever). I find it racist and it really pisses me how they look down on us. I had to really really prove to this people that I can afford to travel (I dress well, show my press card and act very snobbish).
    Prime recently posted..How to Travel Alone as a Woman: 9 Cheap & Chic Travel TipsMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      April 12, 2012 | 8:31 am

      Hi, Prime. So sorry to hear that they discriminate against and hassle you that way. Not right. Definitely a “bad border behavior”–one for which there’s no excuse.

      I totally get why you dress well and act snobbish. I would do the same.

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

  10. Charu
    April 15, 2012 | 8:59 am

    There are all sorts of scams, especially when you venture into poorer areas, but the important thing is to not fall for them. One person in India when he saw unsuspecting Matt was to insist on charging him extra to visit (like, double the entry fee) and he would have paid it too but luckily we told the guy to get lost!
    Charu recently posted..Travel and the Naysayers: Why Sticking to Your Goals and Dreams Is ImportantMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      April 16, 2012 | 9:04 am

      Hi, Charu. That’s so true; it’s really mostly in the more economically challenged areas that this happens. Glad you caught that person trying to scam Matt!

  11. Gray
    April 19, 2012 | 12:55 pm

    As I have been reminded by my employer over the past year, I’m too much of a conformist/rule follower to try any of the illegal behaviors mentioned in this post. Thanks for the tips for avoiding the scams, though!
    Gray recently posted..The Polynesian Cultural CenterMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      April 24, 2012 | 7:40 am

      Hi, Gray. Well, it’s often best to follow the rules–especially at borders between countries. I’ll admit that I was a bit of a “bad girl” when crossing into Syria. But it’s sort of known as a “bad boy” country, so I figured–why not. :) PS: No scams there–just a $130 visa.

  12. Kate
    April 24, 2012 | 3:01 pm

    I’m obsessed with borders and just finished a project examining and photographing the Israeli ‘separation wall,’ the UN Buffer Zone in Cyprus, and the ‘Peace Lines’ in Northern Ireland, and no, I didn’t escape without a bit of trouble!

    My worst border experience was in Palestine, crossing the Qalandia checkpoint on foot (terrible idea, don’t do it). Qalandia was thick with smog and sand in the air and smelled awful. Making matters worse, it was about 5pm, rush hour. Cars were backed up at least half a mile toward Ramallah. And I didn’t know where the pedestrian crossing point was.

    So, I was walking in what I thought was the right direction when a man started yelling aggressively at me. He was pointing and I thought he might be able to put me in the right direction. Until he grabbed my arm. My first thought was that he was much, much stronger than me and I was about to be in deep shit. He led me a few feet away and pointed again and I took it to mean this was the way to the checkpoint.

    He let go of my arm but kept yelling in my face, now demanding I pay him for his ‘help.’ Reluctantly but still terrified, I found 10 NIS in my pocket for his open hand and another five for a teenage boy by his side, and walked toward the watchtower, shaken. I had not yet broken the plane of the separation barrier when another group of boys saw me coming and demanded money to cross, like an all-too real version of a troll bridge. Fed up, I turned around, determined to catch a bus or a taxi across the checkpoint, but this was not to be. The first man saw me backtracking and started yelling again. Caught between a rock and a hard place, I turned back toward the checkpoint.

    The boy I confronted there spoke a little english and I managed to negotiate a reasonable deal with him. I told him I would give him 5 NIS if he took me to the crossing, which he did. The actual checkpoint was no problem compared to the gauntlet I had just been through, and I caught a bus on the other side.

    As a disclaimer, I’d just like to note that the vast majority of Palestinians I met were extremely open, welcoming, and friendly. The desperation and aggression I encountered at the Qalandia checkpoint is an exception, but definitely an example of bad border behavior that is symptomatic of this border itself. The long waits and uncertainty of admission create a perfect environment for fruit vendors, scam artists, and plain old crooks, not unlike borders elsewhere that are internationally recognized…

    • CB Driver
      April 26, 2012 | 9:34 am

      Kate–Hi and thanks so much for sharing your story! Wow. Intense. And a bit scary, too. I spent just a few days in Israel and went to Bethlehem, Nazareth, etc. and saw the separation wall and also had to cross the ‘border’ in order to re-enter Jerusalem. It was the middle of the day, fortunately, and pretty uneventful. I, too, found the vast majority of Palestinians to be warm and friendly folks. I’m glad I was able to visit a few Arab countries (Jordan, Syria, etc.) on that trip, too.

      Anyway, I think I know what you mean about “bad border behavior being symptomatic of the border itself.” That’s an excellent way to put it. Definitely.

      PS: If you’d like to write an article about the borders you mentioned–or even just one of them (Ireland could be interesting), let me know. I’d love to take a look at it. Perhaps, depending on the angle, I could run it as a guest post here on my site. Thanks!

  13. Jeremy Branham
    May 2, 2012 | 1:25 pm

    I had no idea you couldn’t take photos of the borders in some countries. I don’t really understand why. Really like the tips on avoiding the scams. Very practical although a couple of them you just need to hope for the best.
    Jeremy Branham recently posted..In a land of giants, we put on our kilts one leg at a timeMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      May 2, 2012 | 9:07 pm

      Hi, Jeremy. Yes, it’s true re: borders. I also wonder why. Hmmm. Maybe they feel it’s not just official property, but that sort of no man’s land they enjoy controlling? Re: the scams…yes, I agree–just hope it all works out if caught in one that’s hard to break out of!

  14. Waegook Tom
    June 16, 2012 | 3:21 am

    I took excessive alcohol back into South Korea – I was only allowed one bottle, but brought in three big ones…luckily nobody noticed at customs in Seoul and the lady selling them to me didn’t check the limit. I didn’t know the limit myself until I checked online after purchasing. Oops.

    Not hardly a hardcore rule breaking story but hey, I try not to upset the law too much.But I would totally have taken a photo of the Syrian border!
    Waegook Tom recently posted..More Batter, More!: A Guide to Korean Street FoodMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 17, 2012 | 12:38 am

      Hi, Tom. Thanks for sharing your story. Funny! Not hardcore, but I like it anyway! :)

      And thanks for validating me on the Syria photo! :)

  15. Robert
    June 20, 2012 | 10:24 am

    Interesting article, great pictures. Some good tips, not sure if I would be trying to bring that many cartons of cigarettes across foreign borders.
    Thanks for the info!
    Robert recently posted..Samui Honey CottagesMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 24, 2012 | 10:47 am

      Hi, Robert. Thanks! Yeah, I got a little nervous when I realized what I was actually doing…

  16. the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell
    June 27, 2012 | 11:05 am

    You were lucky at the Syrian border – was crossing there in 1989, when it was quiet (near Aleppo), and a US-Vietnamese chick pic made the guys go ape over her camera.

    Me, personally, had lot of madness at borders over the years including strip-searches on Venezuela-Colombia land border in 2003, refused entry into Chad in 1991, held briefly as a terrorist in Cairo airport … borders, so often drama 😉
    the candy trail … | Michael Robert Powell recently posted..Kaluts – the desert sandcastles of Dasht-e Lut – IranMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 28, 2012 | 10:11 pm

      Hi, Michael. No kidding about that girl’s pic…wow. Sends a tiny chill up my spine. I was nervous when I shot the photos–believe me–but I also had this slight adrenaline rush/high that made it possible. Will be even more careful if I return–if things improve there.

      Your border crossings sound a bit intense…holy crap re: being held as a terrorist. Have you written about these on your blog? If so, feel free to come back and post links. I’ll definitely read them. Cheers! :)

  17. […] for crossing borders between countries, I’ve been pretty lucky (except for Ecuador-Peru, which was chaotic and unpleasant.) I have […]

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