Customs Nightmares: How to Cross Borders Effortlessly!

Even if you’ve done it multiple times and you’re a serious, long-term traveller likes us, sometimes crossing borders can still put the fear of god into you. Those large, scowling, uniformed officials – often armed to the teeth – have a unique way of staring right through you and making you think you’re a wanted criminal even if you’re not! They’re scary individuals for sure! Not only that – there is a whole host of other things that could potentially go wrong and cause you problems entering and exiting a country.

Poipet border
Saying goodbye to Cambodia at Poipet border.

They take things very seriously at passport control, so here’s our guide to making sure you can get in and get out with minimum fuss – and you don’t end up locked away!


First and foremost, ensure you have a valid passport and you protect it well. Now, this might seem a little obvious to some (and something of a no-brainer), but you’ll be surprised at just how many people mess this up. It can be anything from leaving your passport at home on top of the piano (which happens) to finding out at the border that your passport is several months out of date (which also happens). Check and double check everything before you set off. Your passport should always be close at hand, ideally in a zip pocket or security pouch, as stealing and counterfeiting passports is still big business.


Make sure there is also enough space in the book for entry and exit stamps – as if you’re on the road a long time – it can fill up real fast.

The border itself

It would be a real border nightmare if you turned up at a location that you thought you could cross and it was closed, right? Well – it happens! Thankfully it hasn’t happened to us (yet) but always make sure you do your research to see if you can actually cross where you intend to. Some borders are reserved for locals only, and you’re going to get into a lot of bother if you try marching through those – not to mention how much time and effort it’ll cost you. Border towns are renowned for being insalubrious places too, so keep your eyes and ears open – and try and cross in popular spots where many travelers go. There’s safety in numbers – but if you’re in any doubt – get a flight instead!

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Equally as important as the passport is the visa. Now you don’t need visas for every country you visit – it entirely depends on where you’re from. Here at etramping, and for many of our friends around the globe, we dream of a world without borders, where everyone can go wherever they wish, irrespective of their race, color, creed or background. We can dream, can’t we?! At the moment, though, you, unfortunately, need to make sure you are actually allowed into your destination country, and you have the relevant documents to back you up. This includes a valid visa, which in many countries you need to get before you even set foot out your door. For example, to enter the US, you need to make your ESTA application before you travel; otherwise you’re simply not getting in! Many countries offer visas on arrival, but the rule of thumb is to check WELL IN ADVANCE, and ensure you’re fully prepared. Simply by searching for a country’s entry requirements should provide you with all the information you need – but remember to check your citizenship!

travel visa

One more thing to note –never overstay your visa. It’s not happened to us, but we’ve had friends who needed to pay a pretty penny to get out of the country! Keep an eye on your entry and exit dates!

Handing your passport over

For pain-free border crossing, there are a couple of tricks and tips for actually handing over your passport. You need to ensure it’s in the best condition it can be, so we suggest using a cool, funky, personal passport holder. You can get some fantastic ones in souvenir shops around the world! However, when crossing the border, you need to remove the passport completely – and ensure there is NOTHING inside it other than the correct pages. No money, no receipts, no girl or boy’s phone numbers. This is because you can be charged for attempting to bribe a border official, so make sure the ONLY thing you hand over is your passport. Of course, the exception here is as and when you have to fill out an immigration form – but more of that shortly.

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Getting stamped!

As mentioned before, you need to make sure there are spaces available in your passport for stamps and plenty of free, blank pages for visas. One thing that truly annoys long-term travelers is when a customs official stamps an entirely blank page! It’s infuriating! Keep an eye on where they’re stamping if you can – and if possible, ask them to put the ink on a page that already contains stamps. You need full pages for visas – and there’s nothing worse than having several valuable passport pages taken up with only one stamp! Someone needs to tell the guards about this!


We’ve mentioned this before when it comes to passing through airports painlessly, but understanding the ins and outs of what you can and can’t cross borders with is vital to ensuring a smooth transition. Be familiar with the laws and rules and regulations of that particular country’s border, because if you’re carrying something you’re not allowed to bring in – you’re going to be held up and possibly detained. Also, get into the habit of checking your belongings before you approach customs – and never leave your items unattended. Anti theft backpack is always good to have, always.


It’s well documented that unsuspecting travelers can be used to carry illegal contraband over borders, so keep an eye on your stuff! Getting padlocks for your bags can be a good general travel investment.


It’s a good idea to already have a little of the currency of the country you’re intending to go to, as you don’t want to be left short when reaching the other side. Touts at land borders are rife, and they’ll always try and sell you local currency at a really bad exchange rate. If you don’t have the local cash, always keep a supply of US dollars or Euros hidden about your person, as this can come in real handy in sticky situations. You never know when you need to grease a guards palm with silver in more corrupt countries. Don’t go in blind – make sure you’re prepared for anything.

currency in the Philippines


Smiling goes a long way! Most of the time when you reach customs, you’re going to experience a lot of very bored people who have been checking passports and stamping things all day. The same, monotonous routine from morning until night. They’re going to be miserable for the most part, and so if you go in with an attitude it’s not going to do you any favours. Even though they will rarely smile back, be cheerful and polite, say please and thank you, and don’t be aggressive in any way.


Remember they’re on the front and the last line of actually letting you in – so treat them with respect!

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Dealing with people and queues

Just as much as you should treat customs officials with respect, so you must treat the locals and others travelers trying to cross the border. You’re going to inevitably find a lot of people trying to get through customs, especially at peak times or at popular crossings. You’re going to find yourself in a lot of queues, and this is where you’re going to need the patience of a saint! This is especially true as many places around the world don’t actually understand the concept of queuing.

Friendly locals

We’re lucky not to have experienced it too much, but traveling friends of ours have seen pushing, fighting, screaming and actual stampedes while crossing borders! People will try anything to get through faster – and we heard of one experience where a lady pretended to pass out just to get her family through! Just be aware of the lengths that some people will go to just to get across first – and stay pleasant and positive!

Bring a pen

Never underestimate the importance of having a writing instrument at a border. NEVER! You might have to fill out immigration cards describing what you’re bringing into the country, how long you’re staying, where you’re from and what your blood type is. Just kidding about that last part – but they do sometimes demand a lot of information – and if you’re caught without the ability to provide it, you’re going to struggle to get through. And don’t lose that immigration card either! You’ll need it to get out of the country when you leave!

We could probably write a book about border nightmares by collecting stories from traveling friends, but we’re pretty sure if you follow these helpful steps you should get by any crossing without any real problems. To sum up, preparation, preparation, preparation! It’s all about the preparation! With a bit of planning, you’ll sail across like a traveling pro. We hope!


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Picture of Agness Walewinder
Agness Walewinder
Travel freak, vagabond, photography passionate, blogger, life enthusiast, backpacker, adventure hunter and endless energy couchsurfer living by the rule "Pack lite, travel far and live long!"
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