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How to Cross Borders with a Motorcycle

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The following piece is by Vagabond Journey’s motorcycle travel correspondent, Bob L — or Motorcycle Bob as he has come to be known. In this entry, Bob answers the question, “What has been your experiences of taking a motorcycle across borders?”

My personal experiences with crossing borders are limited, compared to those on an around the world motorcycle trip. The most number of borders I crossed in one trip was a trip in the Balkans area. Turkey, Greece Albania, Serbia etc etc. This trip was more or less organized by a tour company. It was somewhat of an expeditionary tour, as the company had never done this route and we were invited Guinea pigs. The organizer took care of all border crossing details, and I suppose a few bribes. For those of us on the tour, it was just a matter of hanging out near the bikes and waiting to show our passports, (where they bothered to ask for them). This was the only trip where I needed a Carnet for the bike, but that was the responsibility of the tour operator, so I cannot even say I dealt with that.


As for my solo experiences, I have not found them to be much of a hassle if I did my homework. I have been across the US/Mexican border a number of times. The Mexican/Guatemala and the Belize/Mexican border once each. These were fairly simple, with the only hassle being that I had to go back to a bank to pay a tax or something before being able to get out of one country and into another (can’t remember which it was). I knew about this tax, but got to the border quicker than expected. I also had to get some photocopies of paperwork, also not available at the border. Other than that, it is mainly a matter of going from window to window getting the right insurance in some places (there are often places at the borders) and filling out the right forms and paying the right fees. Crossing borders with a vehicle is seldom cheap.

Then, they always have to disinfect your vehicle. This requires a small fee, then someone with a small bug sprayer waves a wand near your tires, wetting them slightly with what is probably just water.

Take your photos well away from borders and checkpoints. The less time spent at them the better.

The borders that I crossed in South America were pretty much the same thing, other than the bike I had was illegal at the time I crossed the first border. It had been in country too long, and was not brought into the country by me. There often is no legal way to sell a bike to another person when the bike is in another country, unless you want to pay an exorbitant import tax, worth possibly twice the bikes value. The way it is usually done is both riders cross the border on the bike leaving the first country, then exchange paperwork between border stops, then cross into the next country. I never met the man I bought the bike from, and had home made paperwork because of oddities in my states laws.

For this border crossing, I had to leave Argentina with the bike, and enter Uruguay. I chose a border that supposedly did not yet have computers. That had changed. Fortunately, there were other borders in Argentina at that time that did not have computers, so I claimed I came in through one of them. My Vehicle Title (ownership papers) was a photo-shopped Title printed on water proof paper. I had no entry papers for the bike. My passport showed me having been in Argentina for a few days, but the bike had stickers on it from all over South America and Argentina. I made sure my limited knowledge of Spanish disappeared. Smiling a lot, I used wild hand gestures to try to show that I had entered at some border where I’d lost my bike papers, and flew home and came back by magic carpet or whatever.

When the guard noticed my guidebook and maps, he asked a bit more specific questions. I pointed at calendars, borders all over the map and various places in the South American guidebook. The guard was getting more and more suspicious, looking at his computer, calling various other borders, even licking my title to see if the ink would run. At one point, after I pointed to a calendar, the guard carefully counted out the days and smiled. I expect that he figured I overstayed the bikes visa, and he wanted to be part of the conspiracy. The next thing I know, he was stamping my passport and my bike’s papers and wishing me well.

Standing and waiting is common at borders when on an organized tour.

From there I legally entered Uruguay, then back into Argentina at another border, now with legal Argentinian paperwork. (the Title was still counterfeit, but that was no longer an issue)

I have been told that Argentina has since gotten a lot more strict on this sort of thing. Now, if they suspect your vehicle has overstayed it’s welcome, they just hold you until you pay the crazy import duty. I suppose if you pick the right border and get lucky you might get away with such a crossing but even when I did it, I was lucky to get the right guard. I am told, true or not, that if you get caught like this, it is just a matter of money and time to get out of trouble. A LOT of money. Lawyers, taxes etc. So, do your homework and try to do things completely legally if you can. Each country is different.

Some western country borders, such as the US/Canadian border, can be a bit more strict if you answer their questions wrong. Although it happens infrequently, it is not unheard of to have the border guards take all your gear out of your bags and spread it around, even taking parts of your bike apart. Guess who is responsible for getting it all back together. This is usually because they suspect you of having drugs or guns. At these borders, don’t “look” suspicious, don’t joke, answer the questions asked honestly (mostly) but with care. I have been across the US/Canada easily 200 times, maybe more, yet have only been detained twice. Once because the guard (US) was bored and just wanted to mess with a young long haired biker. That involved just a little fishing through my gear, and asking a few extra questions. This lasted until a truck came, giving him something more interesting to do. The other time was when I answered a question wrong. I was asked why I was going to Canada. I said to visit a friend. That was the wrong answer, as they now had to record who I was visiting. I should have just said I was a tourist. Then, when asked where he lived, I said Toronto. They could not find him on the computer, and were doing all kinds of searches. They did not tell me what was going on, and I had no idea that is what they were searching for. There were multiple officers involved. Finally ( more than an hour later ) they asked me for the address. Oops, it was in a town just outside of Toronto. one minute later I was on my way. Honest, but careful. The only way to answer questions.

Once in a country, there will be checkpoints, either police or military. In my experiences, the military are the better ones, as they have nothing to gain from hassling you. The guards tend to be young and bored. They will joke around with you (better to let them start the joking). Be cool, be legal and smile a bit. But be ready to go when they are done with you. Better if they don’t have extra time to think of things to ask you. Often they will want to look at your bike. Maybe even get photos of themselves with the bike. Some riders will get pictures of themselves with the guards, and in some obscure locations the guards will even let the riders hold the machine guns (the guns are probably broken anyway). Generally they just check your passport and bike papers and maybe make you open a bag just to see your reaction. Sometimes you are required to go into a building where your passport and license plate numbers are recorded in a book.

Never take pictures at a border. It makes the people with the guns nervous.

Police checkpoints will sometimes ask for money. I have been asked for money for a cup of coffee in an area where coffee can be gotten for only $.25. Smile and give them a small amount. Think of it as a toll. If they want a lot, then you can decide how much resistance to give, or just hand them a small amount which will probably be accepted. I am against giving bribes or paying extortion, but when you have a vehicle, the police have a bit more control over you. I have never had to pay a bribe, and have just given token amounts when asked. There may be tourist agencies that will help, and can be mentioned to get out of a bind. There is always the risk that you will be accused of speeding or something.

I was stopped in Argentina before I had legal paperwork and accused of passing a school bus. Big fine. I was arguably guilty, as there was an altercation with a school bus that just pulled out of a road. Normally, in a case like this I would have argued my case, and gone to court if necessary to save the $150 or whatever. I am sure that I could have bargained my ticket down if I held fast and threaten not to pay cash. In this case, I did not have legal paperwork for the bike and the cop knew it. He was not going to budge. It was painful, but worth it to just pay the fine and get out of there before the cop got other ideas.

Some riders have strong opinions on how to deal with officials. Some will not show them their original paperwork unless forced to, using photocopies instead. The theory here is that a cop has you by the balls if he has your original paperwork. Others think this might just piss the cop off. Make your own choices.

As always, proper preparation will make your life easier in border crossings. Find out the latest information, what you need to do, what you need to have. It is a good idea to have a bunch of photocopies of your passport and maybe a few passport sized photos. Find out what the right way to deal with insurance is, it may be available at the border, or may not be. Offices may only be available at certain times or certain days. As with any land crossing, some places are easier or faster than others.

Bob L has been traveling on a motorcycle for longer than I have been alive. He has taken long distance trips on motorcycles through Central and South America, Europe, Southeast Asia, and across the USA and Canada more times than I assume he cares to remember. To ask Bob a motorcycle travel question that will be answered here on this site, fill out the contact form on ASK Travel Questions.

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