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Crossing Foreign Borders Can Be a Lesson In Patience

Crossing borders is dangerous and illegal without proper paperwork, but journeying through border crossings or immigration checkpoints legally while on vacation can be no cakewalk either. 

In the developing world, to travel from one country to the next --by car, bus, train, or, foot-- requires a chunk of time, patience and bit of faith that it all will work out in the end. 

As Americans, it is ingrained in us the value and privilege of a owning a U.S. passport, but it doesn't protect us from  long bureaucratic delays, confusion or even corruption. 

“Once I saw that the guy behind the glass window decided he was the all-mighty, and that [there] was an effort to extort money from people crossing, I had to go with it , or, turn back for another 14-hour drive with my two little boys,” says Marina Villatoro, a travel expert who was traveling with her husband and children from Honduras to Nicaragua

And while paying off corrupt officials isn't something Americans are used to, the reality is, is that if you're not prepared for a little internal, border-specific corruption it could stop you from reveling in a beautiful country, with a rich, dynamic culture and warm, friendly people. 

Rather, make note of these tips to arm yourself in advance before traversing official lines. 

Be prepared: Bookmark the State Department website.  There you will find information like visa costs and any additional entry and exit fees. The key is to avoid appearing like you are an uninformed traveler and therefore the perfect target, says Ben Reed of Adventures With Ben. If you carry the exact amount of accepted cash in the correct currency you can avoid mystery costs, officials who conveniently can’t make change, and currency exchange spots with obscene rates and fees. Specify your research to avoid learning hard lessons the hard way. Some smaller border crossing points are only open during certain hours of the day. 

Accept that anyone can take your travel documents: At a checkpoint or at the approach of the border, you will at some point be surrendering your passport to the bus driver, your tour guide, or, someone who steps aboard or stops your car in the vicinity of the border. That person will request your paperwork, take it out of your sight, and potentially indulge in a bureaucratic journey. It’s unnerving to hand over your passport, but use your best judgment to play along with the institutional process. Here’s a time when you should do exactly as others are doing. “You have to take a chance,” says Reed. “Otherwise you won't get anywhere. Fear is paralyzing, but the reality of our world is less dangerous, corrupt and difficult [than] it may seem.” 

Watch and learn. In the developing world there are long lines for everything: borders, banks, buses, bathrooms -- you name it. While in the immigration line pay careful attention to others ahead of you. Some countries have a separate line for residents and non residents -- some don’t. “If you want to enter the other country, you follow its rules,” says Doris Gallan, author of The Boomers' Guide to Going Abroad to Travel, Live, Give, Learn. “Ground crossings--especially when you're on foot--are always the worse because nations invest so little in the people and the process there.” The reality of the long waiting spells however, is mainly because customs is more interested in the money opportunities that come from big cargo trucks. Travelers are made to wait with little direction or helpful signage. Be mindful of the process while watching those ahead of you in line. What paperwork needs to be completed? How many officers do you need to speak with? How long are other travelers without their passport? “Knowing what to expect ahead of time can help you prepare for when it's your turn and sound that internal alarm when you think things aren't going the way they are supposed to,” says Reed. 

Corruption isn’t personal: It’s all part of the global experience. Don’t worry if you find some of the paperwork confusing, there is always someone there to help you --for a price. “Crossing from Nicaragua to Costa Rica, we paid about $4 per person to have a guy [who was] not an official help us with the immigration forms and get them processed "express," says Galan. “The border officials were working together,” says Villatoro. “They called it 'helping out their families.’ At the end we parted with over $100 that we didn't have to, and we feel we got off easy.” 

Be patient, confident and polite: Charm and kindness can go along way in most any country. “If you appear to know what you are doing, speak with confidence, and use common sense you will less likely be a target,” says Reed. Gallan witnessed how much her husband’s newly grown beard became a problem for Chinese immigration officials who didn’t recognize him from his passport photo. It took a lot of careful coaxing to get them to accept his hirsute transformation. Language barriers make things a challenge too. Unless you learn key border crossing phrases, and anything related to the topic, be prepared to become fluent in universal gesticulations. 

Keep excellent files: That means a photocopy of your passport and contact information for the U.S. embassy in the country you are visiting.  In some countries your passport is taken, tossed into a pile of other passports and transported across the border for you to receive on the other side. While this seems like a chaotic process, it is the way many borders operate and have long operated. “At the Brazilian Embassy in Argentina, we had to leave our passports for three days before we could pick them up with a visa for Brazil,” says Gallan. “That meant we were walking around Buenos Aires without our passports to show if anyone asked. The same was true in Katmandu when we went to the Indian embassy for a permit for that country. It’s a complete surrender to how it's done regardless of how loud your gut is screaming,  Don't do it!'” 

And, in the event that your passport is not returned and efforts to speak to superior officers are futile, at least, with these tips, you'll have all the information handy to help expedite the issuance of a new passport.