Borders and Visas

Day 26 of the bid to write a blog post a day in May and time to tackle two things which will get in the way of any long-distance travel plans.

Not the standard border – arriving in Whittier, Alaska

TWO things in life are certain, according to Benjamin Franklin, death and taxes.

And however you choose to do it, two things are certain for travellers – borders and visas.

They are (mainly) more of an inconvenience or necessary evil than any great hurdle, but they can delay you long enough to disrupt plans or force a quick rethink when somebody has changed the rules.

But no amount of complaining or arguing is going to change all that – chances are, it is merely going to extend your wait. That guy with the right to say yea or nay is going to be behind that desk all day, it makes no difference to him if you wait there with him or not.

The majority of borders you travel through will be fairly straightforward, your passport acting as the one piece of official documentation you need and it all comes down to whichever security

Some countries will require a little more while others will always come up with that extra piece of paper you never knew existed and which somebody crossing the same border days before had crossed without.

That’s borders (and chunks of travel in general), just accept it, sit back and wait for someone to let you through – sometimes they will eventually become as keen to send you on your way as you are to get moving again.

But to help you along, here is some totally not comprehensive advice on easing your way through the process of securing visas and crossing borders.

The world’s second biggest country, just in case you missed it

Visas

Visas come in three main types – online registration, physical pieces of paper in your passport (both of which you need in advance) and those you can pick up at the border. Most will cost you something so budget ahead.

Online registration such as an ESTA for the USA can be pretty quick and you will get an answer in hours or a couple of days (had an ESTA granted in minutes after filing it in a checkout queue at the airport after forgetting the old passport with my US visa in).

But if you need an actual visa or stamp in advance, chances are the form will be a bit more complicated and require either an appointment at the embassy, sending your passport off or both.

Some (Russia and China, for example) require a letter of invitation while the different picture requirements add extra variety – India and the USA require very definite sizes, other countries need specific background colours (which made for some interesting trips to photo shops in Ghana).

Visiting an embassy differs hugely.

For an American visa in the UK, it means a trip to London for an appointment and an interview. If granted, you should get your passport back in about a week and make sure you take note of what you can and can’t take in with you for security reasons (pretty much nothing goes in).

In the case of Mongolia, the bloke told us we could have it back the next day until we told him we were only in London for the day. For a small fee, we had it back in half an hour.

All this sending your passport off means you can only have one application going at a time, so plan ahead, starting with finding out how long the visa lasts – no point getting the visa before you go if it runs out before you are in (and, more importantly, out) of the country.

Which means for long trips, chances are you will be chasing visas on the road.

If going with a company, they will know the best places to pick up visas (often grabbing two or three while staying in major cities) but for solo travellers it means a fair amount of research before the off.

The process of securing the visas varies, ranging from a few hours to several days and it can be hard to predict.

Our Mauritanian visa in Rabat was pretty much the quickest in a few hours – having all queued up to basically pay and apply through a hole in the embassy wall – while others took much longer.

General rule of thumb is at least a few hours waiting around the embassy, filling in a form and a quick meeting with whoever is making the decision. It may take a while and a fair amount of paperwork so get comfortable.

Always a good idea to have something reasonably clean and smart (embassy shirts) stashed away rather than rolling up in shorts and flip flops. A good book is not a bad idea either.

Don’t get me started on single or double entry visas or officials who take a rather different view to what an expiry date might actually mean.

Eventually, you get those precious pieces of paper or stamps in your passport and it is time to head to the border…

Feeling at home on the Nigeria-Cameroon border

Border

Any self-respecting traveller will have tales to tell of bizarre or nightmare border crossings – 56 hours camping at a remote Nigerian-Cameroon crossing, the whole train carriage being lifted onto new wheels between Mongolia and China, the unexpected air conditioned cafe at the shiny new Sudan-Egypt border or the US border official at Niagara not believing my night would be spent on the floor of a bus en route to New York.

Modern technology is transforming many borders – that ESTA you applied for will pop up on the border guard’s screen when your passport is scanned and, increasingly, you can do all that yourself at self-service passport desks.

But it is not all time saving, as border crossings away from the tourist trail will quickly prove.

One of the joys of Africa is its ability to make things unnecessarily complicated, so every new piece of technology to deal with border arrivals merely adds a new level of bureaucracy.

Yes, they use computers to deal with the details, logging all the information. As well as entering them into the old-fashioned ledgers by hand which they have always done.

Remember, each crossing involves going through this process twice – into one country and out of another, sometimes yards apart, sometimes miles. They all like to be a bit different.

And there could well be the odd health check or extra paperwork to worry about – we headed through West Africa on the heels of the 2014 ebola outbreak so getting our temperature taken (via the ear) was pretty standard, as well as producing your yellow fever vaccination certificate.

The record for all this, for a group of up to 20-odd people, was inside two hours (they wanted to go home as much as we wanted a beer) but chances are you can box out much of the day for getting through the whole border process.

Simple rule of thumb, more tourists and travellers they get coming through, quicker it will be. They are just more tooled up to deal with it.

Again, it is best to accept it, settle back and await your fate – getting frustrated is not going to help anyone or make the guy who always seems to be waiting for that final clearance to do anything to get it sorted quicker.

Sit back, read a book, change some money (if anyone asks, didn’t tell you that), play cards, relax before you head off on the next leg of your journey. Best to leave the camera alone.

And that piece of paper in your passport is a pretty good memento of the trip.

The border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. The one that’s not a big waterfall
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The To-Do List

This article first appeared in a travel company’s newsletter in July 2011. It was the first of a planned series of pieces plotting my route from starting preparations for a three-month adventure all the way to journey’s end in Sydney. Sadly, only two were written before the plug was pulled on that trip… of which more to come.

EVERYONE has their own methods. Some need guidance, some stick to a schedule, some do everything as early as possible, some squeeze it all in at the last minute. Some of us make lists.

What happens to those lists is not as straightforward as it should be.

In moments of clarity and efficiency, they get worked through, amended and crossed off obsessively. In other times, the lists enter my brain, swim around (usually just as in time to prevent sleep), reorder themselves and grow until they are out of control and the original list needs to be radically redrawn to incorporate all the bright ideas flapping around between the ears.

What invariably happens is that when the two lists are compared, the unnecessary items – those frivolous luxuries which the trip provides the perfect excuse to buy – have been sorted. The things which really must get sorted to prevent a last-minute rush remain steadfastly uncrossed out.

Two weeks into the countdown to departure to Sydney and what has been done?

Well, this article is being tapped out on a shiny new laptop (the last one has not recovered from its last trip around the world slung over my shoulder) and there’s a sleek new phone sat next to it which evidently will map my trip, keep me online, store my to-do list and, oh yeah, even makes phonecalls (the only thing worked out so far).*

The playlists are already being put together for the iPod and a shiny new camera (to replace the two which ground to a halt on the road to New York) is sat in a shop somewhere, just waiting for us to forge a lasting relationship (or brief encounter, as recent history suggests).

Of course, all these gizmos come complete with their own power cables, USB cables and headphones, so the must-have section on the clothes list will have to be severely shortened or the advice to pack light just won’t be an option (again).

So while the power outlets of mainland Europe, Asia and Australia brace themselves for an onslaught of my travelling hardware – and the travel adaptors needed to make them work – a lot of the pre-trip admin sits patiently on the list, just waiting to catch my attention.

None more important than visas. Tucked away inside your passport, they take up a mere fraction of the space of the electrical goodies and the items you realise are filling unwarranted space in you backpack somewhere around Prague, these little pieces of paper are the key items on the to-do list.

Along with vaccinations, insurance and the passport they sit inside, visas are the must haves, the must dos.

Everything else, that new pair of shoes or trousers, even (though it pains me to say it) the laptop, iPod, phone et al are extras (evidently, you can go travelling without knowing where the next wi-fi connection is. Who knew?). If you don’t have any of them when you climb on the bus, the trip will still go ahead and you can live without them – or get them on the road.

Not so most of the visas.

Anyone who has ever travelled has tales to tell about visas, the last-minute fretting, the long hours waiting at embassies and returned applications.

China provided a minor panic last year when they were not exactly enamoured by a less than wise admission of being a journalist (similar to the reaction you got admitting the same in the UK in recent months) while a desire for a longer stay in the USA meant a long day hanging around in their waiting room with just a book for company.

But as they require your passport, you can only have one application pending at a time. So approach them logically and with a clear schedule and they are reasonably straightforward, be it the wait for official authorisation to apply for an Iranian visa, the bureaucracy of India (complete with their strict new rule of a 2″x2″ photo rather than passport size) or the single page application for Nepal, more akin to a permission slip for a school trip compared to the lengthy Indian form.

Wade through it all, embrace the experience and write your own visa tales… it’s the first step on the road to Sydney and for that alone, well worth it.

* The laptop remains (although an iPad has replaced it for travels and a new, lighter one is calling), but the phone has long been consigned to history and replaced with an iPhone. Never did work out how to do much more than make phonecalls.

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The Mosquito Manifesto

First appearing in a July 2011 travel company newsletter, this is the second and, sadly, to date last in a series building up to a now cancelled trip from London to Sydney…

A FEW weeks into serious preparations for the off and, without wishing to jinx anything, it has all been going pretty smoothly.

There was a brief stomach-dropping moment when my Indian visa application was returned unprocessed – courtesy of their need for a 2in x 2in photo, not the standard passport shot optimistically attempted to sneak past them – but the second attempt was successfully returned inside a week.

Nepal, who require much less information, was just as quick and the online Australian application was granted in just a few hours.

That just leaves the Iranian visa, which means playing the waiting game. Details and copy of my passport have been sent off, now it is just a case of waiting for the Foreign Ministry to provide authorisation to apply. Then it is a trip to the Iranian Embassy in London to file the actual application – thankfully without having to be there at 6am to queue up now they have altered their opening times.

Vaccinations have gone as smoothly, just a couple of boosters needed which were wonderfully pain free until waking up in agony having slept on the arm that had received them.

And the malaria prescription is on order – something high on the must-have list with my propensity to attract any nasty little buzzy creature within a few hundred miles (the evidence of which is written in marks on my forearm due to an even greater propensity to scratch any bites).

My mossie magnetism was welcomed by fellow travellers on the London to New York trip when we hit Alaska as they were left largely untouched as word went out around the local insect population about the meal on offer.

It all earned me the nickname Honey Boy, courtesy of tales from exclusive golf clubs where rich golfers were kept free from mosquitoes by the presence of a poor local paid pennies to follow them round the manicured fairways covered in honey.

Honey’s definitely not on the packing list, but malaria tablets and the strongest anti-buzzy thing spray most certainly are.

The rest of that list keeps growing – at least it would if written down. ‘Write Packing/To-Buy List’ has been on the to-do list for days without being done. Instead, it exists merely in my head and grows every time a new travel website pops into view.

A new rucksack definitely needs to be on the list (courtesy of an irreperably broken zip on my last one), along with a smaller laptop/day bag (the current shoulder strap is about to give way in spectacular fashion), three months supply of contact lenses and a new camera, unless some technical wizard can mend either of the current ones which steadfastly refuse to even turn on (to say nothing of the smudge on the lens of one of them).

Clothes-wise, it is a case of working from the feet up as the ultra-comfortable all-purpose outdoor shoes which saw me round the world once are consigned to history – at least on wet days, even falling apart they are just too comfortable to dispose of altogether.

Two hunts for replacements have so far proved fruitless – these are old friends that need to be replaced, not any old pair of shoes. It’s an emotional moment. Less so replacing the pair of sandals which did not get on that well with the soles of my feet last time, judging by the way they repeatedly rubbed each other up the wrong way.

At some point, there’ll be a rifle through the wardrobe to see just how many clothes are suitable, still fit, will stand up to life in a rucksack for three months and are not likely to be pulled out somewhere near the first laundry opportunity to be met with the phrase: “Why on earth did I pack that?”

At least one top will be consigned to the bottom of the rucksackĀ neverĀ to be worn – at least not after the first week or, on London to New York, the first day – or only as an emergency to signal the urgent need to do some washing.

Only then will the list be completed and the mad dash round the shops squeezed in, at which point the intended clothes for the trip will be laid on the bed and the realisation that there’s way too much there to qualify for the intended target of packing light.

It’s an admirable aim and one that is being strictly adhered to, right up to the point where temptation takes over and that bout of just-in-case seeks me out like a persistent mosquito.

If only there was a spray for that.

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