Over the past few months I’ve crossed a fair few borders, many of which were outside the EU zone. For the most part they have gone pretty smoothly, but there have been a few things I have learnt or heard from others to keep in mind.
1. Cross borders during office opening hours
This means you can get your hands on a lovely, valid greencard, which is a requirement for travel in most countries outside the EU. It is the basic insurance and absolutely necessary. Unfortunately the offices aren’t necessarily well signposted or on the right side of the border, but it’s worth parking up before the queue to hunt the office out, otherwise you get to the front of the queue and they hold your passport hostage while you go and sort it out. The insurance companies often only take cash, so its always worth having €100 on you,, the price varies depending on country and different countries have different minimum cover periods. If they don’t accept Euros there is often a cash point nearby.
Crossing borders at these times also means there will be lots of other people there too which from a personal safety point of view etc, means the border officials won’t feel like they can get up to any shenanigans, like asking for bribes….
2. Don’t have tobacco or alcohol
These are the main things they’re looking for, assuming that you’ve bought in bulk in cheaper places to then sell to your mates when you get home. It’s not worth having any with you because that begs more questions and when not everyone is speaking their native tongue it can become a difficult conversation. Also if you have tobacco they then need to check its not weed. I have heard of people’s van linings being pulled out by overzealous border guards before, so if your interior is home made, make sure it’s so secure they can’t assume its an intentional hidey-hole.
3. Have something quirky and fun as an ice breaker
My van is a very effective ice breaker. Often the border guards spend their whole day looking at boring grey cars, so my paint job makes them smile and gives them a little thing to ask about that isn’t too difficult to translate. This makes them seem much less threatening which helps with…
Imagine how boring and monotonous their job must be! Give them a reason to be nice to you and you’d be surprised at how quickly you can get through despite driving a van.
As a women travelling alone I had comments from “wow, aren’t you scared?” to “you don’t have a boyfriend with you? I will come with you to protect you”. They’re all a bit sexist but this not the time for getting on my high horse and are easily laughed off. They seemed to project parental-type feelings more than anything, which works for me. Note this does not work so well in the dark, either at borders (refer to point 1) or at police checkpoints where they are carrying assault rifles (Turkey).
I am conscious that as a youngish white/straight/cis female others may not get the same outcome or treatment, but it can’t make a situation worse can it?
5. Bike Rack
My bike rack sits on the tow bar and blocks the back doors. I can move it to open the back doors if requested, but I always hope (mostly successfully) that they assume it can’t open, which saves a lot of time.
6. Roof box
Realistically, they don’t have ladders, so whatever is in the roofbox on top of a van will not get checked. The Macedonian border guard did ask me to open it though.
7. Make sure you shut everything that is opened for inspection
When the guard is wandering round with his torch and rootling through your knicker bag its easy to get flustered and drive off in glee that you passed the inspection despite having nothing to hide, however, make sure that you did shut all the doors and the roof box and that the bike rack isn’t hanging off the back ready to hit the floor the second you hit a pothole (yes I did that).
8. Stop at the services before you get there
It takes on average 1 hour to cross a border as you will go through passport control and customs for both the country you’re leaving and the one your entering. Not all of the stages are always manned but either way it tends to be a lot of queuing and moving not very fast. If you stop at the services before you can make use of the facilities (which might be slightly cleaner), buy a vignette for the next country if required, as well as stocking up on snacks and drinks to keep you sustained. This also gives you an opportunity to get your passport and vehicle registration document out of wherever you packed them so they’re to hand when you need them.