How to Cross African Borders Overland by Car

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Driving overland across the African borders sounds more adventurous than it is. Especially crossing the border by car, in particular, seems like a big challenge. When I started this road trip across Eastern and Southern Africainfo-icon, this procedure was my biggest concern. In vain, I tried to find out more about these obstacles, but could not find an overall guide. Some experienced travelers mentioned a few comforting words about African borders but were not very specific. After having successfully crossed over 10 African borders, I feel like sharing my experiences. Let me assure you, crossing borders on the road is no big deal.

1. Preparation: What do you need?

The absolute minimum to cross every border are two documents: your personal passport and an official document for the car. Most countries issue a Visa on Arrival but check the internet before proceeding. As for the car, you either have a Carnet de Passage (Carnet) or a Logbook. The first simplifies the temporary import/export procedure substantially. With the latter, you have to fill out a form and pay for the Temporary Importation Permit (TIP) on every single border. Having a COMESA insurance also reduces the administration, but local insurances can always be bought at the border. Last but not least, you need enough cash, ideally some US Dollars, to pay for the visa, TIP, and maybe insurance.

2. Step-by-Step: the same procedure as always

Luckily, all African border crossings follow a standardized procedure. First, you check out at the office of the country you are leaving, getting your passport and the Carnet or TIP stamped. Usually, those steps are the fastest and without complications, you are done in 5 minutes. Only Zambiainfo-icon was asking for a road toll on exit. Next, you pass the no-mans-land between the two countries, often by crossing a bridge. On the other side, things can take a bit longer. You have to acquire the visa and officially immigrate as a person. Next, you get a new TIP or an import stamp in your Carnet. Immigration and import should get you two stamps on a simple paper as a gate pass for the barrier. Afterward, you put down a handwritten entry into their big logbook. Sometimes, the officer wants to see your car and randomly verify the car’s chassis number (never the engine number!) or asks about your luggage. Then, if necessary, you buy insurance and pay the road fee or even Co2 taxes. After a total of 30 to 90 minutes, you should be done!

3. People: Keep calm, be patient and friendly!

As long as you do not break any law and calculate enough time, everything is fine. Most customs officers in African borders are really friendly and helpful. They patiently explain the procedure and give a hand with the paperwork. From my experience, most borders are fairly quiet and officers have enough time for you. If you greet them with a cordial smile and involve them in some small talk, they lighten up and enjoy their work. Only in Malawiinfo-icon, the officers delayed the process unnecessarily in order to get a bribe. With some time and patience, that can be easily overcome.

Clearing my car with the customs officer in Uganda

4. Cars: Carnet de Passage (Carnet)

For some reason, African countries are very cautious about importing cars. All nations are afraid that you will bring in old or new cars and sell them illegally. Carnet and TIP are the means to prevent this by limiting the duration of the temporary import. A Carnet is a deposit from the country of origin/registration and is fully refundable. It proves your intention to return back and thus simplifies the temporary import process. Like with one’s passport, you get an entry as well as an exit stamp for every country. Carnets are issued by local Automobile Associations and vary in price and destination countries. Make sure to initiate the registration in advance as it may take up to a week.

5. Costs: Visa, taxes, insurance and TIP

The total costs for African border crossings by car can vary. Most customs offices have transparent prices and helpful officers. Nevertheless, it is wise to look up the prices and regulations beforehand. Some countries issue an affordable Transit Visa for up to one week, while some officers do not want to issue them. In Eastern Africainfo-icon, road taxes and tolls are not known yet. Southern African nations sometimes combine road taxes with a basic insurance (Botswanainfo-icon and Namibiainfo-icon). Zambia asks for an independent road, community (for cleaning) and CO2 taxes. Zimbabweinfo-icon even introduced toll roads with checkpoints like in Europeinfo-icon.

6. Money: Currencies and exchange rates

On African roads, cash and especially US Dollars are King. When approaching and departing a border post, forex traders are looming like hyenas. A clever and savvy traveler is informed about the current exchange rate (e.g. by using an app like xe currency) and negotiates a good rate. Since this is the trader’s sole income, they try every trick in the book to rip you off. By demanding a price, rather than asking for the rate, I always got a way better deal. It takes quite some patience and stubbornness to persist on the better rate though.

Crossing African borders by car successfully

This is a fairly comprehensive overview of how to successfully perform a border crossing with your private or rented car (see more on car rental cross border charges here). As all the steps are pretty clear and reasonable, there is no magic involved. Everybody can cross African borders overland, without a tour operator or assistance.

Adrian Sameli founder and editor of aSabbatical.com
Travel mindfully to meet local people around the world and embrace new cultures. Get inspired and inspire others!

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