Border Crossings: Two Ways to Fail

Part 3 of the series ’16 Travel Tips for Your Next Big (or Little) Holiday’
  1. Before You Go
  2. Packing
  3. Border Crossings: Two Ways to Fail
  4. At Your Destination
  5. Psychology of Travel: 3 Reality Checks to Remember

Passing through immigration/border control is usually nothing more than a tedious formality for tired travellers. But screw up and the long queues will be the least of your worries.

Onward travel

Increasingly, international travellers must prove they’ve already made arrangements to leave the country they’re destined for. The airline you are flying with usually polices this. If you arrive and cannot clear immigration, then the onus is on the airline to take you back.

This almost caught me out on my last big trip. At the check-in counter for my Delhi to Colombo flight, the airline asked to see the ticket I would use to leave Sri Lanka. Thing was I didn’t really know when or where I would go after Sri Lanka. I figured I had a month in Sri Lanka to decide where to go next. And besides, chill-out and get off my case.

Kosovar border
Border crossings encountered by Westerners usually have less garbage and horses. [Kosovar border]

Luckily, it dawned on me a few hours earlier that I was heading for this sticky situation. Over frustratingly patchy wifi, I booked a flight out from Sri Lanka. Not one that I would later use, but at least it kept the trip on track. Still, it was much too close a call.

To me, these rules run counter to the serendipity that should be part of travel. So below I’ve outlined a few workarounds:
  • Book an outward flight with an airline that provides a full refund for cancellations. Cancel the ticket once you have gained entry to the country. Downsides are that finding tickets like this can be difficult, and as they’re usually expensive you could be tying up and risking money you need soon.
  • Book a ticket that allows changes without a fee. Still hard to find, and there’s usually less scope for changing destinations rather than just the date of travel.
  • Find and book a low-cost way out of the country. It could be a flight, but look also at buses, trains and ferries. Often losing the cost of this booking will be cheaper than the fees for changing your flight.
Crossing Thailand-Malaysia border
There’s less at stake at land border crossings – trying again later is a lot cheaper when flights aren’t involved. [Thailand-Malaysia border]

As circumstances vary between countries and over time, you should naturally look for advice on your specific situation close to your date of booking and/or travel.

The two workarounds below are free, but riskier:
  • When booking a flight online, there is usually a page that will show all the details and costs of the flight you have selected. Before you press ‘confirm’ and pay, take a screenshot of this page. Don’t complete the booking. Some travellers have successfully used this screenshot, instead of an actual ticket, as proof of onward travel. If there is small amount of text on the page that gives away the ruse, then paste it into Word and delete the offending text before printing. If you’re not using a printer then do the same into a document app on your smartphone. Boost your chances by using an airline that isn’t the one that will be checking this ‘ticket’, or even one in the same airline network.
  • Turn up and take your chances. You’re more likely to have luck with this at smaller entry-points like land border crossings. Even in recent times, on rare occasions I wasn’t checked. At one airport where I was with a girlfriend, they checked only her onward travel, incorrectly assuming that we had the same plans.

These last two options become riskier if you’re on a tight schedule, as failure could set off a cascade of missed bookings. Whereas if you have an abundance of time then making other arrangements and trying again might’ve been worth the gamble.

Looking north from JSA/Panmunjom in South Korean DMZ
You’d need some fancy documents to cross the border here. [Joint Security Area, DMZ, South Korea]


Some border guards are jerks. Yet I do have sympathy for them. It would be a terrible job. A never-ending stream of tired and accented travellers, many unable to grasp basic instructions. And it’s your job to process every single one, by mechanically stepping through the same boringly simple tasks over and over again.

I was almost denied re-entry to the UK recently. I had an employer, but was on unpaid leave. The guard said this made me unemployed. I was even more of a risk, he said, because I didn’t know where I would sleep that night. Never mind that I was meeting my parents, who had that part organised. While I eventually did get through, it was a near thing.

Sign for Republic of Uzupis, Vilnius
A border with a smile. [Vilnius, Lithuania]

I could have avoided most of the trouble if I had previously got the name and address of any hotel in my arrival city, and written it on the arrival card. They won’t check. And if they do, and find out that you don’t have a booking? Say something like “They confirmed my reservation via email. I’ll straighten it all out once there. Alas, if only I’d printed the email to show you.” Or some other word instead of ‘alas’, if you don’t feel comfortable speaking in old timey English.

That said, I’ve had more good experiences than bad with border guards. Late one dark night, I’m sitting in a little shed by a lonely mountain road at the border into Bosnia-Herzegovina. The guards seem surprised that anyone is here, let alone an old campervan with two young Aussies dressed for the beach.

I scan the room while the guard next to me leafs through paperwork. There’s a large poster on the closest wall. It is mugshots of a few dozen major players in the Yugoslav Wars, wanted dead or alive. Many of the faces are crossed out, as if the nation is playing some morbid version of bingo. Their English is poor. My Serbo-Croatian is far worse. But it’s clear they want something that I’m not giving them.

We wait awkwardly as an interpreter is summoned from a nearby village. I conjure a tube of Vegemite from somewhere, hoping an impromptu cross-cultural taste-testing will earn us brownie points.

The interpreter arrives. An older man, he’s not an employee of the border service but rather the uncle of one of the guards, wearing the comfy tracksuit pants and sweater he’d been watching tv in at home. It’s not a bribe they want. Rather, entry can only be granted once they’ve seen our van’s registration and insurance papers. A reasonable request, and one that would ordinarily be easily satisfied, yet when we bought the van we somehow forgot to get all of them. Oops.

The uncle confers with the two guards. Together, they agree to pretend that our papers are in order. The uncle fortunately has taken a shining to me. Moreover, he wants to go home.

After a disconcertingly long absence, I reappear from the shed and tell my buddy we’re free to go. One of the guards strides over to lift the boom gate. He’s a tall and very solid bald man who makes a formidable sight approaching through the darkness in his uniform. I hurriedly fumble in the glovebox. Finding what I want, I pass it to my friend, who in turn leans out the window to deliver it to the guard as we roll past. It’s a little furry clip-on koala, holding an Australian flag.

Our last sight as we drive away from the deserted checkpoint is the big guard, standing head hunched in the light by the doorway, somehow a little childlike as he peered down at the strange little toy.

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Read next: Okay, so you’ve picked up your bags and stepped into the bustling arrivals hall. What now? The next section gives in-country tips, starting with why you should put those bags straight back down.

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