6 Tips on how to cross an international border

international travel
In line at the border crossing from Kenya to Uganda.
In line at the border crossing from Kenya to Uganda.

On a recent trip to East Africa, we crossed into Uganda from Kenya. It’s not a big border and is used mostly by gas trucks on a very difficult and worn dirt road. We were able to successfully cross with our small group of white and black Americans whose white and medium brown-colored skin stood in stark contrast to the very dark-skinned East Africans. 

Although we brought attention to ourselves by looking different from others, we didn’t encounter any problems. Research, respect, cultural awareness, and preparedness goes a long way.

Kisumu-Busia Road
The Kisumu-Busia Road runs from Busia at the Nairobi border to Kisumu, which connects down to the capital of Nairobi down to the coast of Mombasa. We had traveled this distance to make it to the Busia, Kenya/Uganda border.

Border crossings are intimidating. You are likely to have a large amount of gear, often-times that is quite valuable, and you are entering a country with people who have the authority to not let you enter. They can go through and confiscate valuables and gear you need for your journey and even have the authority to detain or arrest you.

It’s serious and should be taken that way. What can you do to make your border crossing much easier? Here are six lessons we’ve learned when crossing a border, specifically in developing countries.

1. Have the right attitude

There isn’t much you can control, but what you can control is your attitude. Be positive. Your attitude comes across in your demeanor, your body language, and the tone of your voice. 

We expect politeness from other people and therefore should want to give the same to others. 

local general store in kenya
A local general store proved to be a good place to get advice about crossing the Uganda border, specifically how pedestrians cross differently and times they are open.

Here are some practical ways to set your attitude up for success:

  • Be prepared: If you have the right paperwork (VISA, proof of vaccinations, passport, vehicle documents, list of gear you have, etc.) you will be much less stressed and nervous about the crossing. Here at Option Gray we often talk about preparedness and how this preparation gives you options if/when something does go wrong. One of the worst things you can do at a border is to not have the paperwork you need. Online research and talking to embassies and other travelers ahead of time to get an idea of different scenarios that can happen, can help you identify and think through the “what ifs”
  • Know the rules: When is the border open? Is it open on both sides? This is usually information you can find prior to arriving. However, sometimes you will not be able to find this information. There will always be surprises, but getting as much information as you can ahead of time adds to your feeling of preparedness. Can you skip the lines of fuel trucks, like we were able to do here in Uganda? We found out by asking a shop owner in Busia after we purchased some basics from him. Asking around can sometimes save you a lot of hassle, although rules for foreigners are always different than locals (which you should always assume because that’s how it probably is in your native country as well
  • Be well rested: Coming into a border tired can make you more irritable and much less patient. Plan ahead of time and allow for rest so you can put your best foot forward
  • Be well-fed: Just like having a full night of sleep, being on a full stomach can give you much more patience than if you are really hungry and find out you’re facing another delay
  • Use the restroom: Having to use the restroom can interrupt the process and therefore be an irritant to the people getting you through. Even worse, if you can’t get to one, you can be in a world of hurt
  • Be smart: There will be people hustling and trying to get you to pay them money to “help” you get through the border. Know this and stay focused on what you’re trying to do 
  • Travel for the right reasons: Don’t plan your trip thinking you can get through a border crossing AND make it over 500 miles in time to catch a flight. You’ll find yourself stressed out, ticked off, all which will delay you even further. Travel for the experience of traveling and remember that border crossings and checkpoints are part of the experience. Come in with an open mind 

The people at a border crossing have a job to do and they may have their own particular way of doing it. A negative attitude doesn’t help anyone and a positive attitude can leave you with a much faster experience and positive interactions with people you can learn from.

2. See the people working there as people

Humans have a tendency to see themselves first, and then the world around them. When you’re in a situation where another person’s decision can make or break your experience, it’s a good idea to step back and ensure you see them as who they are, which is a human being doing their job.

Here are some ways to be intentional about humanizing the people you interact with. 

  • Look approachable: Take off your hat and sunglasses so they can see your face and eyes
  • Shake their hand: In most countries (not all), shaking someone’s hand is a good way to show respect and to initiate a positive encounter. By touching, you acknowledge the humanness between the two of you
  • Greet them in their own language: Simply learning “Hello” “Good Morning” “Good Afternoon” “Good Evening” can go a long way. The effort sometimes is what counts when it comes to language barriers
  • Make conversation: Talk about them more than you during the conversation. Do your homework about the country before you go, at least knowing the geography of the area and any major bodies of water and cities/towns. Ask them where they are from and know enough to mention landmarks, lakes, cities, oceans or anything else to form a connection. We are from Texas so it never fails that when someone hears “Texas” they bring up cowboys, horses or the television show “Dallas” (which runs a lot on East African television stations!). We can then say, “Yes, we live close to Dallas!” and all of a sudden there is a connection. The humanness of two strangers is connected in a small way. Talking about a previous visit to their country, or how you’re looking forward to trying a specific local food item or visit a specific area are all opportunities to form connections
  • Empathize: Most people have a job they do every day and they do this job to provide for themselves and their family. Most folks are just trying to carve out a life and make ends meet. Mental acknowledgment of this can help your mindset as you talk to them. Think about anyone you come across when you are at work and you’ve had a long day, maybe having to work extra hours, just to get up tomorrow and do the same thing again. Some days are hard, so empathize with someone who’s having a bad day, as we all have them

By looking approachable, shaking their hand, greeting them in their own language and making conversation that connects you to them, you break down cultural and role barriers and create an environment based on mutual respect. 

3. Respect their authority

Along with a positive attitude and greeting border crossing/check-point guards as fellow humans, remember that these folks have authority and you are to be conscious of that authority.

Here are some practical ways you can show respect to their position:

  • Be clean: Wear a clean shirt that isn’t torn, and preferably one with a collar. Make sure you don’t have dirt or mud on you or your clothes. It’s hard to shake someone’s hand and look them in the eye when you look dirty and unkept
  • Follow the rules: If you’re not allowed to take certain things into another country (restricted food, for example), don’t do it. If you’re required to have certain paperwork, have it. Ask where they want you to park your vehicle. Ask them if it’s okay if you get out of your car
  • Apologize: If they do find something you’re not supposed to have or you get out of your car and they tell you to stay inside, apologize. Let them know you did not intend to do it and make it a point to show them you respect their country and their rules throughout the rest of your encounter
  • Don’t bribe them: We’ll cover this in a subsequent post about how to provide bribes without insulting the individual and their authority, so it’s never a good idea to flat out say, “I’ll give you money if you don’t inspect my vehicle”. However, keep in mind, you should know how to avoid bribes as well!

Be respectful, as you’re a guest in their country. Don’t wear a dirty torn shirt. It is their country, not yours, and going in with respect for their authority and position sets a good tone for the checkpoint. 

4. Respect the culture

Every region of every country has their own culture or sub-culture. Here in the United States, traveling to a large city yields different ways of doing things than a small town just a few hours away. We even have very different cultural “rules” within different neighborhoods in certain cities. International travel is no different, and taking the time to understand cultural rules and making an effort to follow them can go a long way.

Busy Kenyan Street

Some practical tips to respect the culture you’re in:

  • Have the right person talking: Depending on where you are going, it may be better for a man to speak. Age can also play a factor, as an older person can gain respect must faster in certain cultures. Ethnicity can also help, where the person that “looks” more local can be an advantage. Be honest with yourself, and if you aren’t good at reading people, if you have a short fuse, or aren’t good at having patience, pick another person in your group to do the talking. Work your strengths!
  • Wear culturally-appropriate clothing: Do your research ahead of time and wear clothing inline with their culture. If men don’t typically show their legs, don’t wear shorts. Button up your collared shirt to match local standards
  • Don’t bribe them: Yeah, we said this for #3 too, but a bribe can go directly against cultural values, so be careful
  • Understand that your life experience is skewed: The more you travel the better you will understand this, but it’s important not to take your attitudes from where you live and put it on another culture. A certain level of self-awareness is important, as your rules are different than theirs. Your goal of getting through the border is to not make a point but to get through the border. Leave your ego and focus on what you’re trying to do

Self-awareness and awareness of others is such an important skill to learn. It can be the difference between getting through to your destination, being detained, or even putting yourself in a very bad situation. 

5. Take control

When you are prepared, confident, friendly, and respectful, it’s easier to take control and help lead through the border. What does this look like? Here are a few examples:

  • Lead the vehicle search: Talk to them about your trip, why you’re here, who you are, who they are, etc. as you let them search. Ask, “Would you like to look in this drawer?” or “Would you like to look at this bag?” so you are the one leading them through the search
  • Slow it down: Don’t rush. By being calm and going slow, you are showing you are confident you are not breaking any laws and not a problem
  • Agree to the search: If they say, “I’d like to search your vehicle.” respond with “Absolutely, you’re doing your job and I respect that.” And lead into the vehicle search
  • Build rapport: Have a local map and use it to talk about your trip. Have cards made-up with a picture of the car and people. It gives you something to talk about as you’re leading them through your vehicle

6. See the journey, not the destination

motorcycle on kenyan road

This is a simple rule of thumb, but if you travel, your journey begins when you leave home, not when you get to your destination. The entire thing is part of your trip and experience. A small shift in your thinking here can give you more patience and appreciation for the unexpected delays that WILL come with travel.

Some practical ways you can apply this to your border crossing:

  • Compliment them: You are traveling to their country for a reason, so why not share it? You are excited to go to a specific destination, try the wonderful food, everyone is so nice and helpful, etc. Compliment and share why you are there
  • Make time: If you’re not in a huge rush you’ll be kinder and more patient. Border crossings take time. If you go in with that assumption, you will see how the checkpoint itself is part of the journey–it’s another opportunity to get to know people from the country, understand their rules and customs, and it can be enjoyable 

Border crossings and check-points are a necessary evil of travel. In fact, they are a part of the traveling process. See it as a way to meet more people you wouldn’t otherwise interact with. Be friendly and represent your country and humanity well. You might be surprised how a 4-hour process is condensed to a much smaller timeframe.

Cody Martin

With over 18 years of federal law enforcement, training, and physical security experience, Cody focuses his time nowadays on both consulting and training. He regularly advises individuals, groups, multinational corporations, schools, houses of worship, and NGOs on security threats while conducting customized training as needed.

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