Inspiration: Interview

Motorcycle border crossing: what you need to know

Julia and Kevin Sanders share motorcycle touring tips

Kevin and Julia Sanders are double Guinness World Record holders for the Fastest Circumnavigation of the World by Motorcycle and riding the Trans Americas by Motorcycle. The pair share their experience and expertise in tackling border crossings across the world.

As we’re from Europe we take the freedom to cross borders for granted. France to Spain to Portugal; the Netherlands to Belgium; Luxembourg to Germany. Other than the exception of the Swiss, we’re free to pass through unhindered.

Outside the Euro comfort zone traversing a frontier with your bike becomes a game of chess. It is a long process and, to the ill-informed, unfathomable. If you don’t prepare yourself for it – physically and mentally – it can quickly turn your trip sour or halt it altogether.

Kevin and Julia

In essence, passing between two countries comprises four basic steps. Firstly, you enter yourself into the country at immigration. Secondly, you enter your bike with customs. Thirdly, on leaving you get yourself stamped out and finally you exit your motorcycle.

In theory it’s simple, but in practice every border you come across will be different and faced with masses of locals, being jostled for money and having a random collection of anonymous sheds/buildings to trawl through.

Get this straight, if you’re English, or very polite, push the concept of queuing out of your head and ride straight to the front. Before you get off the bike, chances are enterprising youths will be chatting ten to the dozen and offering their services as a guide. Using fixers at borders can be a more efficient way of getting yourself through. They will charge, but if you gain a few hours and avoid tearing your hair out, then it can be money well spent.

Take it easy

Once you’ve got to the front it’s tempting to rush in, but take your time to suss out your surroundings and make sure your bike is as secure as possible: borders attract a strange array of characters, and foreign travellers on big bikes attract them all.

Accept that part of the system will be under-the-table payments to the man with the stamp. Taking a stand on principle and refusing to pay will mean a prolonged and tedious experience. Stay calm, smile, try to communicate in their language and offer a cigarette or a drink, and things will go much smoother.

Immigration is usually the easy bit. The only time we had an issue was entering the USA. The officer flicked through my passport and found an Iranian visa. Why had I gone to Iran? When did I go? How long was I there for? What was my business there? Know your international disputes and get a new passport before any big trip.

There’ll always be variation on a theme to get your passport stamped: fill out a tourist visa or go to a different office to buy a stamp. In any event, border officials are significantly better at processing people’s documents than they are private vehicles.


Paperwork is paramount

Experience has taught us that to avoid problems, you need to get your paperwork spot on. Have your original documents to hand (see list below) and carry sufficient copies for every entry and exit. We’ve never been to a border that didn’t require an original passport and V5 to get through, but that’s not to say that we haven’t blagged without the originals. Certain countries also require a carnet de passage: an import/export guarantee that the bike will leave the country. In the UK, you can get one from the FIA.

Before leaving home, check all your documents. Make sure the chassis number on the V5 (or similar vehicle document from your country) matches your bike, as they will look at this. The other check they normally do is that the name on the V5 is the same as on the passport. Taking your mate’s motorcycle or a company vehicle will land you in all sorts of trouble.


Permit power

To let your bike in, customs issue you with a local temporary bike permit. Double-check this; the chances are there will be an error. On our first Central America trip, our Costa-Rican permit had the number plate incorrectly typed. We were two hours and three checkpoints in before the police spotted it and sent us back.

If a customs officer really wants to be seen doing his job, he’ll want to go through your luggage. Some borders will also check for food and you’ll find yourself dumping dairy products, fresh meats and fruit in the bin. A good way to ward off a search is to have smelly laundry at the top of panniers, or toss them a few dollars.

Before completing formalities of the permit, there can always be another amusing procedure; bike fumigation. This is supposed to prevent nasty bugs and insects getting into the next country and will consist of a man spraying insecticide over the wheels of your bike: ‘That’s $5, please.’


Final hurdle

Just when you think it is all completed, there can be a final police check of all your documentation and then another by the security man in charge of raising the barrier.

Now, your instant reaction is to get the hell away as soon as possible and before they change their minds but that’s when documents can get mislaid and items lost. So, ride far enough away for people not to bother you and sort out all your paperwork ready for the next crossing.

Take a breather, crack a smile of relief at getting through unscathed and then grin at having another country to ride through.

6 things you’ll need to cross a border

  1. Passport – mandatory for all borders. It needs to be valid for at least six months after your date of departure from the country you are entering.
  1. Vehicle Registration Document (V5 in the UK) – mandatory for all borders, although blagging your way across with good copies is not unheard of.
  1. Driving licence – often requested. The photocard will normally do, but it’s worth taking the part two just in case.
  1. International driving permit – occasionally requested, but normally the UK driving licence suffices. You can get one from the RAC.
  1. Third party insurance for your bike – sometimes requested by police. Some countries require obligatory purchase of country-specific insurance at the border (it’s normally cheap and covers you for very little).
  1. Carnet de passage for your bike (depending on country) – required by many African and Middle Eastern countries. Also available from the FIA.

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Kevin and Julia operate world motorcycle travel tours at GlobeBusters. Plan the adventure of a lifetime.