Digital nomads, serial backpackers and full-time travelers are well-organized people with neatly arranged files of documents to fulfill visa requirements everywhere they go…sorry, what? Don’t you believe me? Yeah, actually, no.
I have entered Mexico without getting stamped (and had to sneak in back to the US secretly), barely saved my husband from a big red REJECTED stamp when we tried going to Macedonia, spent two months in Turkey illegally without even knowing and got searched through and through for drugs when trying to leave Greece at midnight in an illegal taxi. I almost peed myself back then.
The truth is, even people who travel often or long term mess up – and if it´s not them, it´s the border officers. In fact, the more you travel, the bigger collection of border mishaps you accumulate. Is it because we relax more on the road and get careless? (Or is that just me?)
To scare – I mean, advise you a bit before the upcoming holiday season, I asked 15 travel bloggers to contribute to this collection of border crossing fails. From getting smuggled to Croatia to being passed around by the military along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, all kinds of stories are here to entertain and perhaps warn you a little bit before you get too comfortable at your next checkpoint.
For your comfort and amusement, the stories are divided by continents.
These are your border crossing fails in North and South America. Read on!
North Dakota Border: “Don’t give me that sweet act.”
By Danielle from Like Riding A Bicycle
I rocked up to the empty North Dakota border with my blue and pink hair.
The look I got was skeptical, to say the least. “This way,” the woman monotonously stated. After looking at my passport, they told me they’d have to look through all my stuff. Great, it was going to be fun to repack my backpack (heavy sarcasm).
This wouldn’t have been a big issue had the two women at the border not been playing good cop bad cop. While one read my journal (god knows what disturbing things she read about my sex life and such) the other pulled out my universal charger. Clearly not knowing what it was or how it worked, I quietly said, “Oh, you just push the button on the side and slide up on the other side.”
She looked at me with a dead straight face, and in the rudest tone stated, “Don’t give me that sweet act. You just sit there.” I stared quietly at a North Dakota magazine in front of me. Of course, they finished checking me and I had nothing of interest to them, so they let me go on my way.
There were nearly no cars to pick up my hitchhiking self, so I sat amongst the mosquitos at the edge of border crossing hoping, until finally, I waved my hands at the only truck I’d seen, praying for a ride to the nearby town. In the end, I got it, and all worked out, but man, was that woman awful!
If you’re crossing into North Dakota at a dead quiet border, hitchhiking with blue and pink hair, expect to be heavily searched.
Canada to the USA: “We will hunt you down”
By Alaska Rue from My Dot On The Map
Note to self: Next time you fall in love with a fellow traveler and decide to cross the border into the USA, perhaps do it separately. Case in point: Alaska Rue and the state of her life in November 2015.
“A freelance writer? So, you don’t have to be in Canada to work. You could just work in the USA.” Strike one.
The immigration officer continued. “You say you don’t even have an address. So, you have nowhere to go back to in Canada.”
“Well, I have a P. O. Box,” I offered up weakly. He squinted at me. Strike two.
“And you just randomly met up with this American boyfriend while traveling through Jasper…” He glanced down at my bright red Malaysian passport. “Looks suspicious, don’t you think?” Strike three.
Well, when he had to go and spell it out like that… Yeah, it looked kind of bad.
“I’m not convinced you’re going to leave the USA,” he declared, staring me down.
Part of me wanted to say, “Dude. What makes you think I want to overstay in the USA? Just because I’m not American?” But I thought that might be too rude.
Eventually, though—maybe because his name tag read Lovehart—he grudgingly stamped my passport. As he handed my documents to me, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “I’ll let you in ‘cause you look innocent enough. But, word of advice? If you are planning on staying in the US with your boyfriend, file the right papers and get legal status.”
With dead seriousness, he added, “You might get away with it for one, two, even three years. But we will hunt you down, and that will be a real pain in the neck for you.”
What was this, the Taken movie script? Duly noted, Officer Lovehart. Shakily, I reunited with Mike and we piled into his car.
“I thought we’d have problems,” Mike admitted, calmer now that the interrogations were over. We’d been stuck at the border for almost two hours. “Honestly, I’m surprised he actually let you through. I thought for sure they were going to send you back to Canada.”
“I would have just taken the next bus down and met you in Seattle,” I said, reaching for his hand.
Crossing the US-Mexico border at McAllen/Reynosa
Our experience crossing at a little-known border stop between the USA and Mexico was a nightmare.
It all started when we were in Mexico on the way to Monterrey. We were meant to spend a few nights there before crossing into the US to McAllen where I had a friend.
The bus had to pull over at a military checkpoint where someone hopped on board and checked our passports. This was normal. They told my boyfriend they wanted to see our bags so he got off the bus. About ten minutes later, they came back on and my boyfriend told me we had to leave. It turned out that our entry stamp expired that day!
It was a bad mistake. We were meant to get 6 months but it turned out we had only been given one month and we had forgotten to check. We were on a bus which terminated in the US anyway so we said we would get off there. They said we had to go back to Guatemala where we had entered.
This went on for awhile and they finally let us go. It was quite scary and when the army guys hopped off the bus, the passengers basically hugged us and showed they had been praying for us!
We abandoned our plans to stay in Monterrey and headed to Reynosa instead. We got there late and caught a bus to the border. What we didn’t realize, until we were talking to the border official, was that we were in the US office. We had completely bypassed the Mexico one accidentally.
We told him our mistake and went to go back to the Mexican side but he wouldn’t let us. He didn’t believe us that we needed an exit stamp! He also didn’t believe us that we didn’t need a visa (we are Australians and covered by visa waiver).
We were interviewed for a long time but multiple people. We eventually made it out but we had missed the next bus on and were in the middle of nowhere. We couldn’t get my friend on the phone and eventually got a cab to a hotel.
The next morning we rang the Mexican consulate and they confirmed we needed an exit stamp so we had to go through it all again! This time we were in big trouble on the US side as we had given back the green visa waiver form you used to get and we shouldn’t have. I’m not sure what choice we had given a US border guard made us give it back but anyway. Eventually, we were through!
The whole experience was crazy and it was obvious they weren’t used to dealing with foreigners that weren’t from the region. I am never doing it again!
Los Angeles Airport Hassle
During my honeymoon, I hopped on and off a lot of planes, because we decided to go for a multi-stop trip. So I went from Naples to Rome, then from Rome to Los Angeles, from Los Angeles to Honolulu and so on.
Because I have a pretty clear skin, mosquitoes tend to bite me quite a lot. For some strange reason, we had mosquitoes on our Alitalia flight from Rome to Los Angeles. I was wearing yoga pants and a t-shirt so when we landed I had up to 20 (no kidding!) bites on my arms, neck, and legs. I complained to the cabin crew, they were sorry but what could they do?
The beginning of my honeymoon had started in the worst possible way: I spent the first days scratching myself and it was awful!
That’s why I decided to use a lot of anti-mosquito spray on me for my next flight. I had no idea that substances you spray on your body look “suspicious” when you step into a full-body scanner so I started freaking out when the TSA employee came to me with a face that meant business.
He very seriously asked me if I’d touched any forbidden substance and that I’d better tell him straight away before they tested my skin. Now, having seen a lot of Airport Security I was very, very scared, even if I hadn’t done anything bad.
I paled and felt everyone’s eyes on me as they walked me to another machine. They took a sample off my skin to test it and meanwhile, I was continuously asked “are you sure you don’t have to tell us anything?”, “did you get in touch with forbidden substances?”, “did you use any drug?”.
With my husband left behind, because they didn’t allow him to stay close to me, in a foreign country, I felt so scared and lost. I do speak English quite well but when you’re freaking out you don’t think very clearly, I kept on telling them I’d just used OFF, was it a forbidden substance? I had no idea!
Finally, the results came. Like the sun breaking through the clouds, the TSA person smiled at me and said everything was good, so I could continue to have fun on my vacation. While people still watched me as if I was some sort of dangerous terrorist, I collected my belongings and caught up with my husband, still shaken.
What I’ve learned? Keep your mosquito bites, OFF is much more of a hassle!
(Almost) Illegal in Nicaragua
By Allison from Eternal Arrival
When trying to cross the border from Nicaragua into Costa Rica, I almost ended up entering illegally. I haven’t done many on-foot border crossings before – most have been by bus or plane.
I exited Nicaragua with no problems and continued my walk towards the Costa Rican side. I didn’t see any checkpoints and no one was there to direct me. There were, however, plenty of onward buses selling tickets nearby.
So, assuming that the checkpoint would come once I boarded the bus, I bought my onward bus ticket and took a seat and waited for the bus. As I was waiting, my eyes caught on a sign in Spanish. Luckily, I can speak Spanish so I was able to translate it, which said: “be sure you have your entry stamp before buying a bus ticket.”
So I had to haul ass to the ticket counter, ask the woman where I could get the exit stamp, run to the nondescript building that looked like a money exchange place but was actually the immigration counter, fumble for my onward travel proof, and get stamped into the country.
I made it to my bus with minutes to spare, having narrowly escaped being a Costa Rican criminal.
Brasil to Uruguay
By Trisha from PS: I´m On My Way
As a Philippine passport holder, my travels have always been challenged. I need a visa in almost all the countries in the world (even the super developing countries) and one time, when I was crossing the border from Brasil to Uruguay, I didn’t really think that I needed a visa to go to Uruguay. I was already at the border when the Immigration officer stopped me and said, “Madam, you need a visa to enter Uruguay.”
I was like, wait?! What?! Uruguay?! Who goes here even? I wasn’t ready to spend the night at the border and apply for a visa but I did. It took at least 3 days to wait for my visa and my travel schedule was screwed. What’s even worse is that it was my birthday and I had to go through all these visa shenanigans!I am an awful planner as I am traveling for an indefinite time but if there’s one thing I learned from this experience, always check the visa regulations – don’t assume.
I am an awful planner as I am traveling for an indefinite time but if there’s one thing I learned from this experience, always check the visa regulations – don’t assume.
I only have one contributor with a story from African border crossings – have a story of your own? Share it in the comments!
Sudan to Ethiopia
Last year I spent six months traveling from Cairo to Cape Town overland. Each border crossing was an experience! A particularly interesting one was crossing from Sudan to Ethiopia.
We had experienced 5 days of 50 degree Celsius heat (122 degrees Fahrenheit) and were exhausted.
Leaving Sudan was the easy part. Once we arrived in Ethiopia we had to sit in a shack at the side of the road for around three hours waiting for them to manually process our visas as the power had gone out. After three hours we were finally approved and continued on to see the rest of Ethiopia which is actually one of my favorite countries. TIA – This Is Africa!
Visiting the Simien Mountains made the wait at the border worth it – especially to see the Gelada Baboon!
Border crossing in Asia can get confusing easily too…
Malaysia to Thailand
Vanessa from The Island Drum.com
With eight possible border crossings between North Malaysia and Southern Thailand, the choices are diverse. Preferring the least confusing border crossing, I have come to favor the Bukit Kayu Hitam, Malaysia to Dannok, Thailand crossing route to get from North Malaysia to Hat Yai, Thailand.
On one particular crossing, I had jumped into a taxi at Kuala Perlis, Malaysia and didn’t even notice that the words Padang Besar came out of my mouth. I may have just been absent-mindedly reading a nearby sign out loud. But regardless, when my taxi delivered me to the border, it was only after he had driven off that I realized I was at the wrong border crossing.
I saw no immigration officers and no one apparently saw me as I walked from Malaysia into Thailand. It was fifteen minutes up the road, upon seeing the Thailand immigration building that I realized what I had done.
Back I went to Malaysia in search of a taxi to get me the heck out of there. Thirty minutes later I was at the mercy of one lone taxi, who could name his price, to get me to my original border destination. And I gratefully paid.
Iran to Pakistan overland
Sebastiaan from Lost With Purpose
As far as awful border crossings go, it’s hard to beat one involving dozens of security escorts armed with Kalashnikovs, police stations surrounded by bullet-filled cars, and almost one week of driving in open pickup trucks through Taliban- and smuggler-infested desert.
Such is the process of crossing the border between Iran and Pakistan. The only usable road runs along the Afghan border through Balochistan, an arid region known for constant tribal warfare, Taliban activity, and rampant drug and arms smuggling. To keep us “safe”, we were driven in the backs of open police pickup trucks through the dusty desert, stopping every half hour or so to switch trucks. At night, we were cooped up in police stations or small hotels, not allowed to leave unless accompanied by an armed escort (none of whom had any desire to babysit foreigners outside).
But on the bright side, all was done in a pleasant 35°C, so any potential captors would probably think twice before capturing our smelly selves.
Visa run in Thailand
Dan & Teryn from Global Giraffe
We did a “visa run” from Thailand to renew our visas and set our sights to go to Malaysia and back. KBV’s website boasts a luxury mini van with 9 comfortable reclining seats and a DVD entertainment system with a free breakfast and lunch and an included stay to a luxury hotel.
Upon entering the van we immediately noticed that it was far from luxury, with a stench of cigarette smoke. The seats were torn and if I dared to recline my seat there would be another backpacker breathing down my neck.
The breakfast and lunch were never provided and at every stop, the drivers would all gather to smoke and drink a few beers before getting back on the road again. The drivers would also weave in and out of on-coming traffic all throughout the entire trip, which was mostly done in the middle of the night. A few times of this we just barely missed hitting a semi-truck and a few other vehicles. It was a nightmare of an experience.
To top things off, at the border we were instructed to put money in the back of our passports as a bribe to get back into the country!
Bribing my way out of Vietnam
I traveled around SE Asia for 3.5 months in autumn 2013 and Vietnam was my final country. Vietnam only gives a 30-day single entry visa to UK citizens, but we didn’t realize that whatever you put as your exit day is were set in stone. So we entered the country a day later than the visa and forgot all about it.
A month later, having worked our way from Ho Chi Minh through to Hanoi we turned up at the airport to fly to Hong Kong… a day later than our visa. At the airport check in, they wouldn’t let us check in until we had ‘spoken’ with an immigration official.
We were led to a room off of the main concourse, where the ‘official’ demanded money because we overstayed our visas. We complained, we tried to talk to a manager – it was all no go! We even said we didn’t have the cash – no problem, he said he would take us to the cash point in the terminal…
In the end, we relented. He would have kept us until we missed our flight otherwise and cost us even more money. So we paid $50 dollars each, which went straight into the ‘official’s’ pocket. We were allowed to check in, they even questioned what we had in our bags in another attempt to extort cash! Then we had to go through a specific immigration channel where the guy turned a blind eye to the visa end date and just stamped to let us through.
They say that Cambodia is the most corrupt SE Asian country, I dispute that and say it’s Vietnam! In no way was our ‘bribe’ an official payment – there was only one guy dealing with us (no witnesses) and no receipt…
Vietnam to Laos
Travelling South East Asia is pretty easy, long bus journeys are part of the adventure. After trekking in Sapa, Vietnam I travel by bus across the border into Laos.
The first sleeper bus leaves at 6.30pm. It takes us on bumpy, unsealed roads. I spent the journey trying not to fall out of my seat. And we have an interesting stop at what I can only describe as a brothel!
Now the challenge. Arriving into Dien Bien Phu at 5.30 am I book a ticket for the 7 am bus. Time to board but the bus is already full. So instead of a seat, I end up sitting on my bag.
An hour into the 12-hour journey, we stop, more people climb aboard; then more until our 25 seater bus now has over 50 people on. Surely there isn’t room for anyone else or is there?
Another stop, I am capturing the madness on video. I pan around, at that exact moment another passenger joins us. Except for this time he has climbed through my window and is sat on the ledge with his legs resting against me.
So 24 hours traveling from Vietnam to Laos turned into one of my most memorable border crossings ever. And the final count…… 64 people on a 25 seater bus. Surely that’s a world record!
European borders are a thing of the past on a big part of the continent, but getting the Schengen visa is still a good reason for a headache. Here are some funny stories from European borders:
Montenegro to Croatia
Laura from Savored Journeys
I was traveling from Montenegro to Croatia on a solo trip in the off season. I had to figure out how I was going to get across the border since they don’t allow taxis from one country to drive into the other and there was no other transport. I finally found a Russian-speaking shuttle driver who seemed to think he could help me. He didn’t speak English, so I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. When he drove me to a ferry crossing and left me there, I was starting to get a little worried.
On the other side, there was another man waiting for me. He took me to his unmarked, personal car, and we drove for about 5 miles, where he pulled off to the shoulder and told me to get out. At this point, all I could think about was how I’d stupidly gotten myself into a bad situation. I was truly imagining the worst.
We walked down the highway to another car parked on the side of the road. After traveling 45 minutes, we approached the border. The driver told me we would have to concoct a story about me being his cousin in from America and he was taking me to see Dubrovnik.
To my utter relief, it worked. I got across the border! As it turns out, they were running an illegal taxi operation to continue to make money from tourism, though the law says they can’t transport tourists. I was just relieved to finally be in Croatia and not stuffed in someone’s trunk somewhere.
In Croatia With One Foot
Catalina from Miss Adventures Abroad
I got my trip to Croatia started off on the wrong foot!
While working as a student travel guide in Florence, Italy, I found myself on an overnight bus headed to Croatia with around 50 college students I was tour guiding for the weekend.
At around 7 am, after a long night on the road, we arrived at the Croatian border. As students began filing off the bus, I attempted to stand up, only to realize that my foot somehow got trapped between the foot rest and the seat! I tried calling for help, but the bus quickly emptied and I was the last one on!
The other tour guide (and my boss) had already crossed the passport check, along with most of the students. Finally, the bus driver and an incredibly imposing soldier came back to make sure no one was on the bus, only to find me stranded, desperately trying to free my foot.
Needless to say, they both helped extricate my foot, and I limped over to passport control, shoeless, with an entire bus laughing at me. At least I got a bunch of sleep-deprived students giggling!
By Stephanie from Ginger On The Go
When I was a freshman in college I met a wonderful family to babysit for. I worked for them about 6 hours a week, one afternoon and one evening. Eventually, the family moved to London, and the mom asked me to accompany her and the child while she searched for an apartment, bought furniture, and took care of all of those little tasks that you must do when moving abroad.The following summer, the mom wanted me to babysit for her again when she was visiting the US, but she wanted me to spend 4 weeks with her in London so her daughter could get reacquainted with me after several months of separation. The family was fully staffed in London, and I was simply
The following summer, the mom wanted me to babysit for her again when she was visiting the US, but she wanted me to spend 4 weeks with her in London so her daughter could get reacquainted with me after several months of separation. The family was fully staffed in London, and I was simply visiting to bond with the child prior to working with her for the month of August in the states.. (That’s right, a 1 month FREE vacation to London!)
So she booked my flight, and I was on my way! After the lengthy flight, I went through customs and immigration. But there was an issue. A pretty big one. This very wealthy woman booked me a one-way ticket, which 20 years old me did NOT realize would be an issue! So I was flagged and questioned.The questioning carried on for almost 30 minutes. I was trying not to disclose any kind of work relationship with the family in London, even though I really wouldn’t be working during my stay in London.
The questioning carried on for almost 30 minutes. I was trying not to disclose any kind of work relationship with the family in London, even though I really wouldn’t be working during my stay in London
Eventually, I explained that my very good friend missed me, and wanted to see me, but he was busy with work and unsure of which dates we would fly back to the US for his summer holiday. Making the father sound more like my boyfriend seemed to be working.
The next question, why would they pay for my flights? They really like me, obviously! And then…how can he afford to pay for your flight? I said he has a good job at a bank, Goldman Sachs.
No sooner than the words slipped off my tongue did she stamp my passport with a 6-month visa and send me on my way! So two lessons learned at that very young age. Check travel requirements to see if you need an exit ticket to get into a country AND money is powerful.
Border crossing gone wrong
Crossing borders is easy when you know what to expect, but can sometimes turn into a stressful horror story. After reading this collection, you will probably know better than to overstay your visas or apply a repellent before your flight!
Do you have your own border crossing fail that left you sweating and shaking? Share it in the comments!
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We were on a hitchhiking journey from Europe to India; now I broke my backbone and have zero idea what follows – stick around to find out with me!
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Stray story seeker. Hungry hitchhiker. Wannabe polyglot. Aspiring travel writer. Currently bumming around in Georgia.
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