Border Crossing Experiences article
Speaking generally about Border Crossing Experiences is very difficult. On the one hand, you have places like the Schengen Area, or the EU free travel zone. Moving from country to country within the Schengen is much like moving from state to state in the United States or province to province within Canada – no passport or documentation is needed, and the crossing is generally a breeze. There are places like the United Kingdom and Ireland, both of which are in the EU but are not part of the Schengen Area. However, getting into one of these countries is generally easy, provided you have a legitimate reason to be there (“travel” or “sightseeing” counts as legitimate). Crossing borders can take on a whole different flavor if one is traveling to a place like South America or various countries in Africa, where dishonest border guards may shake down naïve or helpless tourists to get a little money. There is no typical border crossing; it depends very much on the country one is entering, as well as the specific border guard one gets.
The most important thing about crossing a border – any border – is to not allow yourself to get fazed. There are easy border crossings, there are hard border crossings, and there can be hilarious border crossings. Remember the Golden Rule of travel – stay quiet, stay calm, stay courteous, and above all, remember that you are a guest in the border guard’s country. That border guard has the absolute power to allow you in or refuse you entry, so be sure to remember that in all your interactions with him or her.
To make your crossing as smooth as possible, educate yourself on the rules of entry for your particular country. Do you need a visa? If so, how can it be purchased? Must you buy it before leaving your point of departure, or can it be bought on the ground in your destination? Do you need any shots or immunizations? Should you be prepared with cash, just in case? (In some parts of the world, the horror stories about bribing border guards truly are real.) As an instructive point, I offer you the story of my journey to Australia.
In 2010, I was living in Ireland (I am American) and my cousin was living in Australia. I had saved up my money and was planning to visit her Down Under. I purchased my ticket, hopped my flight from Dublin to London, and sat around in Heathrow during my eight-hour layover. When the time came to board my flight from London to Perth, I stood up and began moving to the airline’s counter to check my bag.
I ran into trouble almost immediately. I showed the man my ticket and was told I was not on the flight manifest. My heart sank. I had paid basically my entire savings for this ticket. What was he saying, I wasn’t on the manifest? Did I have to fly back to Ireland in shame?
“Did you buy a visa?” the ticket clerk asked.
Feeling unbelievably foolish and like a walking stereotype of the dumb American traveler, I stammered, “Ahh… no… I… need a visa?”
He gave me a condescending look through his lowered glasses. “Yes. But the good news is, you can buy one right here, from me. I’ll need to put you through an application process, but provided you pass, you’ll be set. That’ll be twenty pounds.”
“Cheapest visa ever!” I remember thinking. In retrospect, I have no idea why I thought that; this was the first visa I’d ever had to purchase, and I had no way to compare this cost to the cost of any other visa. For all I knew, other visas were free and this one was terribly expensive.
As I handed over my twenty pounds and the clerk began the process of applying for my visa, another clerk leaned in. “You know,” she said smugly, “we recommend you familiarize yourself with the rules of entry of your destination before coming to the airport.”
I wanted the ground to open up so I could sink into it and never see any of these people again. “I know,” I said meekly. “I’m sorry.” I could feel my cheeks flush red and hot with embarrassment.
The clerk finished applying for my visa (turns out, essentially everyone can be approved for an Australian visa, except possibly felons) and took my money. He slapped a stamp onto my passport and waved me through to security. Thank goodness I had allotted plenty of time to check my bag and go through the scanner! I don’t know what would have happened had I attempted to cut that close; I probably would not have made my flight for an entirely different reason.
Looking back on that situation, I have no idea what possessed me to think I could just waltz into Australia. True, I am fairly well-traveled, and have never needed an entry visa to any other country, but that is no excuse. I think something in me thought, “Well, they speak English there, so entry will be easy.” If I had one word of advice, it would be: do not think like this. A quick Google search can save you panic and humiliation at the airport, and is completely worth your time, even if everything ends up okay at the end, as it did for me. And for goodness’s sake, always arrive at the airport at least two hours before your flight!
While there are border crossing stories such as this one in spades (and many that are much worse!), border crossing does not have to be (and usually is not) so fraught with anxiety and worry. I have a vivid memory of being on a train from Munich to Prague and having absolutely no idea when we left Germany and entered the Czech Republic, so minimal was the fanfare. No one even came around to check our passports, due to our travel happening in the afore-mentioned Schengen Area. Likewise, the U.S. to Canada or Canada to the U.S. has never proved to be a problem, nor has anywhere in Western Europe. Crossing borders is typically quite straightforward, but do remember that a little bit of research can go a very long way.
To illustrate my point (and to save face, hopefully, a little bit), I offer one final story. In my junior year of college, I spent my spring semester studying abroad in London – a perfect location, as I was an English major. I went on a weekend trip out of the United Kingdom somewhere, at some point during the semester (to tell the truth, the specifics matter hardly at all). I joined the line for re-entry upon getting off the plane, and waited patiently for my turn.
I approached the border guard with a cheerful smile (note: always a good idea to be friendly and warm). “Hello, there,” I said, pushing my passport across the desk to her.
“And what is your reason for begin in the United Kingdom?” she asked automatically.
“I am a student,” I replied promptly.
She never met my eye, simply stamped my passport with a re-entry stamp and waved me through. “Might I say, you are doing such a good job.”
It took a minute for this to sink in, and by the time I realized the full import of her words, she had already waved the next person up to her desk. I burst out laughing as I rejoined my friends. She was under the impression that I was in the United Kingdom in order to learn how to speak English, as if English was my second language. She clearly had not paid attention to my passport at all, or she would have noticed it was from the United States, nor had she really listened to my accent. She had paid the absolute minimal amount of attention to me, and I had gained access to her country under the impression not that I was studying English literature, but that I was learning to speak English.
To summarize, crossing borders is really like everything else when you travel – take the time to educate yourself, remember you’re a guest, be courteous. If you follow these three rules, you really shouldn’t ever have a problem, and you’ll never be faced with that moment of panic where you think you may not make it into your destination! Sit back and enjoy the ride.
(this article was written by a good friend of Molly Slavin, a fellow traveller)
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