3 Ways to Cross Borders Better in Africa

In 2022 alone we made 36 border crossings on our adventures from South Africa through Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. Some of these were easy, simple, and fast, but others took up to four hours and some dollars to get through!

Approaching a border always induces a bit of anxiety. How long will this take? Are we going to have to deal with a recalcitrant/bored/corrupt official? 

I always try to keep in mind the three P’s for smooth crossings.

1. Paperwork

For yourself: Your passport needs to be valid for six months after your planned exit. You will also need details on where you’ll be staying: a street address, contact number, name. Remember to check your visa requirements at least a month before you arrive at the border. Most African countries are moving to pre-approved e-visas. While some, like Kenya, are very efficient, other countries can be frustratingly slow, like Malawi.

For the bike: You will need the original registration certificate, or a letter of authority if the rider is not the owner of the bike. A Carnet de Passage can be useful, but not always necessary. A police clearance document is also helpful, but in our experience not always necessary.

2. Pennies

Some borders have ATMs for local currency, but don’t bank on it (pun intended). There will always be local money changers around. Whilst it is a good idea to find out the official exchange rate before you engage with them, in my experience they know the official rates and what the competition is offering and usually offer reasonable rates. It’s good to ask around to get the best offer. Don’t worry about trying to find the changers, they will spot you coming well before you arrive.

Stock up on cash before you arrive so you can exchange for the next country’s currency.

Countries such as Malawi accept only USD cash for things like Carbon Tax, so try and have some new, undamaged 10/20/50 USD notes.

Visas at the border are usually $50 and some take cash only.  

3. Patience

Border officials have no place to go, and all day to be there. I sometimes think it must be a soul-crushing job done by those who can’t find anything better. In my experience, the person behind the desk is usually friendly and helpful. Sometimes though, they aren’t. 

You, on the other hand, have a destination to reach and money to save. If you’re expecting to sail through in five minutes, it can be hard to remain patient. And losing your patience never, ever helps. 

So, manage your expectations. For some borders I plan on spending three or more hours there. If we get through quicker then that’s great. If we have a border crossing to do, I plan a simple travel day with a short distance to our destination. For new borders, I’ve learned to expect a tortuous procedure, and allow myself to be pleasantly surprised when it’s not.

Always be friendly. See if you can get a smile from the person dealing with you. Ask for clarification and be prepared to comply with their procedures – and they can be crazy, like having to walk to a bank, queue and fill in deposit slips to pay your Road Access Fee. 

The thud of the entry stamp on your passport or import document at the end of the process is just the sweetest sound. And the sense of adventure as you ride into a whole new country is worth all the preparation and friendliness you can summon.

Dealing with Agents
At most borders you’ll be approached by ‘agents’ offering their services to guide you through the process. While this can make navigating a seemingly chaotic border post easier it’s almost always possible to navigate your way by asking where to go. If you do agree to an agent’s help make sure you agree on their fee up front.

Here's a bit of information on some of the borders we've crossed in 2022

Namibia to Zambia at Katima Mulilo / Sesheke
Watch out for: crowds of people, hustlers, 'agents', money changers. The process to enter Zambia is tortuous especially if you have one or more vehicles. 
If you're heading east towards Livingstone the road is in very poor condition (March 2022) 40km east of Sesheke for about 160km. Large potholes and eroded surface.

Botswana to Zambia at Kazangula
Much better option to enter Zambia from the south. The new bridge has been commissioned and there's a well-run central building with both border posts inside. ATM available for local cash

Zambia to Malawi at Chipata / Mchinji
Be ready for lots of 'agents', money changers, sim card dealers to greet you. Make sure you have your e-visa ready if your home country is on their list. No ATM around so have local / USD cash with you.

Malawi to Tanzania at Songwe
Be ready for 'agents', money changers, sim card dealers to greet you. Entering Tanzania is pleasantly easy, officials were friendly and helpful. 

Tanzania to/from Kenya at Namanga
A smooth, relatively well-run operation in a single building. You're likely to have all your bags X-rayed entering Tanzania. Carnet de Passage is essential to enter Kenya. 

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