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Tick the boxes and beat the border-crossing blue

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ON: Feb 15, 2016

African borders are fickle mistresses: easy to seduce, but even easier to lose. One moment, it's a simple stamp in your passport, a friendly wave and off you go! But on a bad day, you may be subjected to leg-aching queues, grumpy officials and endless amounts of bureaucratic red tape.

One of the most vital aspects of preparing for your trip is to ensure you have the right documentation for getting you and your vehicle through the border without wasting too much time or running up your blood pressure. Patience is a precious commodity if you're travelling through Africa. Getting worked up isn't going to get you anywhere. Courtesy goes a long way too. Taking off your hat and sunglasses and putting on your biggest Colgate-smile will increase your chances of a warmer reception.

We've had some unfortunate experiences with paying bribes to officials at border posts. Having to pay bribes is not ayoba, and the correct documentation could be the difference between cruising through the gates and forking out blood money to authorities.

Arriving at border posts, you're often greeted by long, frustrating queues with no cooking clue as to what forms to complete or what window to visit. Often, you'll end up at the back of the queue again because you didn't fill in the right form. Save yourself some time, trouble and money and read exactly what you need to know about getting your paperwork in order before crossing the border. Here are some valuable cross-border travel tips from TUFFSTUFF:

First things first!

Reports from our seasoned African overlanders is that Zimbabwe (especially Beitbridge and Chirundu) are currently the most difficult to cross in sub-Saharan Africa, while the Namibian borders are the easiest. Be prepared by having all the necessary documents on hand 

  • Make sure your passport is valid for six months after you are due to leave the country.

  • South Africans don't need visas for neighbouring countries but if you are a foreigner you need to check whether you need a visa.

  • You need a valid driver's licence in English. If your licence is not English, you will have to get an international driver's licence. (It is, in any case, advisable to get one).

  • Get all the necessary vaccinations and inoculations you need like Malaria and Yellow Fever.

  • Check which goods are prohibited to take across the border. Prohibited goods include military weapons, fireworks, poisons, cigarettes weighting more than 2kg per 1 000 and counterfeit goods. Restricted goods include firearms, banknotes, gold coins, animals and their products or certain types of medicines.

  • It is compulsory for any vehicle, caravan or trailer registered in South Africa to have a ZA sign displayed when it crosses any border.

Legal owner of the vehicle? You need the following:

  • Original vehicle registration papers, or certified copy thereof; and

  • Police clearance certificate stating that you are the legal owner of the vehicle.

Not the legal owner of the vehicle (still financed by bank, rented, borrowed)? You need the following...

  • Copy of the vehicle's licence papers (where the renewal disk is cut out annually) or a certified copy of the vehicle registration papers.

  • A letter from the bank or owner authorising you to take the vehicle across the border. This letter must stipulate dates that you're allowed to take the vehicle out of the country and be signed by a Commissioner of Oaths. If you're renting or borrowing a vehicle, you need letters of consent from both the bank and the owner. The bank usually won't give you a letter unless you provide them proof that it is insured across the border.

  • An affidavit from the police, giving you authorisation from the owner/financial institution to take the vehicle abroad.

  • If your vehicle is registered outside SACU (Southern African Customs Union), which consists of Botswana, Lesotho, South Africa, Swaziland and Namibia, you will need to get a Carnet de Passage. This is the international customs document that covers the temporary admission of a motor vehicle.

Border protocol:

  • Each individual in your group needs to fill in an arrival/departure form;
  • Get a TIP (temporary import permit) for your vehicle;
  • Get police clearance on your vehicle;
  • Pay cross-border charges to the local Road Agency Fund;
  • Buy vehicle insurance;
  • Buy a road permit for your vehicle; and
  • Complete the vehicle register and obtain a gate pass for the vehicle. The gate pass must be signed by both the customs department and the immigration department, otherwise they will send you back to the office for the additional stamp.
Some other essentials:
  • Always check that your passport has been stamped according to the correct dates of your stay and have it amended immediately if necessary.
  • It is best to declare all your valuable equipment, like laptops and cameras, at each border crossing, otherwise you might end up having to pay import duty on your own equipment.
  • Have a list of all your cameras and electronic equipment, with serial numbers and values, ready at the border. It will then be much easier to complete the forms.
  • Check that your TIP has been stamped by the official when you entered the country, as you will have to hand this stamped official document in when you leave the country again.
  • Nowadays, you will be checked for Ebola through a simple procedure of checking your temperature.
  • You are allowed to stay for a maximum of 90 days and, therefore, you will only get vehicle insurance for three months. Make sure you don't overstay your welcome. But not all African countries allow 90 days entry though. It's important to check which do. For example, Botswana only allows a 30-day travel stamp. 
  • Make sure the registration number on your vehicle registration paper is the same as the registration number of the vehicle otherwise you are going to run into some trouble.
  • Also ensure that the VIN (vehicle identification number) and the engine number (EN) on your vehicle registration paper correspond with those on your vehicle and that you know where the engine number is printed on your vehicle in case the border official wants to check that.
  • Keep all your official documents together in a plastic envelope. Print your vehicle details (like licence number and make) in large letter type and put that, together with your registration paper, back to front in the envelope so that it is readable through the envelope. If you have a trailer, put its detail to be visible if you turn the envelope around. Whenever you are asked for your vehicle or trailer details, you just hold your handy envelope against the window for the official to read.