What you need to know about overland border crossings

When you fly from one country to another, the process upon arrival is pretty straightforward. While it varies among destinations, in many cases, you’re funneled right into a customs and immigration line where you may answer a few questions and possibly go through a baggage check before you can head outside and be on your way.

If you’re traveling between countries overland, though — whether by car, bus or train — the border crossing may not be quite as cut and dry. Take these steps to ensure as smooth a journey as possible.

Do your research

Not all border crossings are created equal. When it comes to requirements, logistics and even the presence of a checkpoint, it can vary widely among countries. “For example, in [the European Union], most border crossings do not require your passport,” said Jordan Bishop, founder of Yore Oyster travel agency. “But in other places, like South America and Southeast Asia, you always do. You should always check the visa policy of whatever country you plan to enter before getting to the border to avoid nasty surprises.”

And it’s important to look beyond the question of whether you do or do not need a visa — the rules can be even more nuanced than that. “It is very possible that there will be different visa requirements for different countries,” said Stephanie Kempker, the travel expert behind Joy and Journey. “For example, [when] flying into Thailand as an American, you can get a visa on arrival; but if you want to cross into Myanmar you’ll need to apply for a visa in advance.”

You can find information about border crossings and entry requirements on government websites (including the U.S. State Department site) and sites like CIBT Visas. Be sure to search for rules specific to the passport you hold, as that can impact what you are and are not allowed to do. For example, “sometimes you can only enter a border via air if you are from certain countries,” said Janice S. Lintz, a consumer education and travel writer.

Prepare all of your documents and carry cash

Once you’ve confirmed you can indeed legally cross a border by land and researched the requirements for doing so, take time to make sure you have all of the necessary documentation at the ready. Even if you don’t expect to go through a checkpoint, you should always have your passport on hand; and make sure you’re not cutting it too close to the expiration date, as some countries require your passport to be valid for a certain number of months before you can enter.

And you might need more than your passport. “Some countries require you to present passport-sized photos and pay a fee for a visa on arrival,” Kempker said. “Carry a copy of your passport with you, cash in the currency of the country you are leaving and arriving to, a copy of your itinerary and passport-sized photos of yourself.”

Lintz recommended making sure you have the exact amount of cash required ready, and printing out the visa requirements in case you run into an issue.

Source: Grigvovan/Shutterstock

Plan properly for your mode of transportation

Depending on the country, the checkpoint requirements and logistics could vary depending on your mode of transportation. For example, if you plan to rent a car and drive across, “most of the time you can pass without difficulty, assuming you have the proper driver’s license, rental car insurance and passport [and] visa requirements for both countries,” Bishop said. “Occasionally, you’ll be stopped and questioned if you cross a border with a rental car, but generally things are fine. One thing to consider, though, is that some rental car agencies have terms written into the rental contract that prohibit you from crossing international borders, so this is something you should inquire about before booking your vehicle.”

If you’re crossing the border as part of a pre-arranged tour, Bishop said the tour operator should take charge, making sure you have the right documentation and handling the entry itself. That said, it’s also important to do your own research and ensure you’re properly prepared as well. “Tours will often advise [customers] to check visa requirements, but can’t and won’t take any responsibility for visas not being secured,” said Jeff Miller, one of the travelers behind Our Passion For Travel.

Trains and buses are also required to stop at checkpoints; with trains, officials typically come on board to check documentation, but if you’re on a bus, it’s possible you’ll need to get out. Keep in mind that in these cases, the process can be a bit more tedious than, say, a pre-arranged tour. “I used to take the Megabus between New York and Toronto in my university days, and we’d often spend more than two hours stuck at the border because someone on the bus didn’t have their paperwork in order,” Bishop said. “Bus companies are generally lenient in these cases, preferring to get everyone to their destination even if it means a long wait, but occasionally they’ll leave someone behind at the border if there’s space to pick them up on the next bus.”

Allow yourself plenty of time

Regardless of your mode of transportation, though, expect to spend a lot of time at the border. “[My] biggest piece of advice from land border crossings is to have patience,” Miller said. “They can sometimes be a little inconsistent, slow and seem like they don’t follow process. For example, between Croatia and Montenegro, it took us over an hour to pass through the border, which was nothing more than a scan of the passport and stamp. It seemed unnecessarily slow. The next crossing between Montenegro and Albania a few hours away was...vacant. ...Your experience in countries like these can vary.”

You could be waved through a border quickly or subjected to a long line and a thorough bag inspection; so it’s best to assume the latter, especially when scheduling something like a tour or excursion after your arrival.

Be polite and respectful

As stressful and tedious as traveling can be — particularly if you’re waiting in long lines, sitting in a cramped vehicle for hours on end or being asked to empty out your carefully packed luggage — there’s no good that can come from taking your stress out on the officials you encounter at the border. “Always be polite and answer the person’s question as succinctly as possible,” Lintz said.

With so many variables, there’s no way to predict exactly how your border crossing will play out. But, as Miller said, “patience, cooperation and ensuring you have the appropriate visas for your onward destinations will help ensure your cross border experience is smooth and — relatively — hassle free.”