Border crossings: 5 Tips for international travel

Ian Carroll

When you’re traveling internationally, there are a lot of things to consider that you never had to think of back home. One of the most stressful and complicated aspects of international travel are border crossings. Crossing international borders takes planning, patience, and sometimes persistence. If you’re not properly prepared, or hit a snag while crossing a border, you could be in for hours, or even days of hassle.If you’ve only traveled between the US and Canada like I did as a kid, you probably have an image in your head of how border crossings are supposed to look. Crossing between developed nations often feels very structured and official.

However, there are a lot of borders out there where you will have a very different experience. Not only is every border different in their customs and controls, but they may also vary based on time of day and point of entry. Beyond that, different people may have a very different experience at the same border depending on things like skin color, dress, or country of origin. For example, when crossing the US border, white Americans have very different experiences than people of different skin tones, and especially people of different nationalities.

So there’s no way for me to give you tips on how to make specific crossings, that would beyond the scope of this article. However, there are a number of pointers that will come in handy no matter where you are. Take these five travel tips with you the next time you’re traveling internationally and hopefully the border will be a breeze.

Be early

driving, cars, night, border crossing
You might have to be up before the sun, but the extra time is worth it.

This applies to so much more than just crossing borders. Even to more than just travel. If you aren’t in the habit of being early yet, it’s one you should develop. Being early to your date or your kid’s piano recital is just good form. However, being early to a border crossing can often make the crossing faster, smoother, and less stressful. Being early doesn’t just give you more time so that you can stay on schedule, it also gives you time to deal with unexpected problems that come up. Need to transfer money from your bank or get a copy of a specific document sent to you? Showing up with an extra hour or two will make it easy to deal with whatever comes up.

Have cash and a full card

One of the most common mistakes international travelers make is taking the wrong currency. In fact, I made this mistake just last week when I crossed from the US to Mexico. I withdrew a bunch of pesos thinking that I was going to be set, that I could make all my payments in pesos, right? Wrong! They wanted the payment for car importation to be on a card. I had just drained my checking account into pesos, not thinking to refill it in case of just such a situation.

Fortunately I was able to make a quick online transfer. Had I not had that, I would have been turning around to return to Texas. Crossing international borders comes with all sorts of fees, the ones you know about as well as an occasional surprise. I was right to withdraw a bunch of local currency before arriving in Mexico, but should have also left a sizable cushion in my checking account. After all, you never know what fees you’ll have to pay and what form of payment will be accepted.

Print out directions and documents

Print everything you’ll need before the trip
Print everything you’ll need before the trip

It’s so easy in this age of smartphones to rely on your GPS everywhere you go. However, that’s a losing strategy when you travel internationally. Even if you have an international plan and have the most coverage of any carrier, you could still hit dead zones, unexplained glitches, or slow connections. Normally, no big deal, but if you lose your GPS just as you’re about to go across the border or do some critical navigation, you could be in for a tough time. It’s also important to look up what exactly you’ll need in order to cross the border. For example, if you’re crossing with a car or an animal, chances are you’re going to need to fill out extra forms and pay extra fees.

Don’t necessarily expect the border attendants to hold your hands either.Just last week a group of my friends drove through a border without realizing they had to go get visas and car import permits from an office in town. Technically they were illegal immigrants and had to deal with heaps of trouble to get it all sorted out. Before you go, be sure to print your directions, as well as any documents, tickets or paperwork you’ll need. Print them even if you’re planning on using digital copies. That way, you’ll be prepared for dead zones, dead batteries, and whatever else comes your way.

Cross on a calm weekday or at night

peace arch, usa, border crossing
Long border lines are definitely not where you want to find yourself.

There’s only one way to make border crossings worse than they already are, and that’s to line up hundreds of other people in front of you. If you’re crossing international borders on a weekend or during a busy time, you could be in for hours of delay. That’s not to mention the extra aggravation of others and possibly yourself.

I’ve endured some crowded, sweaty border offices, and believe me, I’ll take a night crossing over that any day. Even if it means spending the night in a WalMart parking lot or getting up before the crack of dawn to beat the crowds.It varies by border, but for most, the best time to cross is at night (between 10pm and 5am). Just make sure they are open. It sucks to drive fifty miles out of your way just to pull into a closed crossing.

If you can’t make your crossing at night for one reason or another. Early morning or late afternoon can be good times to cross. Shoot for Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Be sure to avoid holidays. Even small local things like a day off for high schools or a big event nearby can fill borders to the brim.

Know key vocabulary before you need it

You know what really sucks when you’re traveling? When you use your credit card or passport and get a confusing response that you don’t understand. Language barriers are just a part of life on the road. If you don’t speak the local language, then knowing a couple important phrases can really come in handy.

book, reading, border crossing
Carrying a translation dictionary or phrasebook for the countries you’re visiting is critical.

Don’t look up phrases like, ‘where’s the bathroom?’ It’s far more important to know things like ‘how do I get to ___?’ and ‘how much does that cost?’ Do you see where I’m going with that? 

If you learn as you go, you’ll usually pick up the phrases you need to know pretty quickly. So if you’ve never traveled in a foreign country, don’t worry. Just be sure to ask questions, and if you meet someone bilingual, make friends. They could save your trip, or at least teach you a few useful things.

Border crossings get easier the more you make

After you’ve seen your fair share of border crossings, you’ll start to know what to do without being told. Traveling becomes like a sixth-sense or second-nature.

So if your first international border crossing feels like a real struggle, don’t worry. Sometimes, travel is less than stellar, but once you’re on the other side of whatever border you’ve had to cross, you’ll be in for a whole new adventure.

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ian-carroll is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival