Borders, customs & scams

BORDER CROSSING PROCEDURES, CUSTOMS, INSURANCE PAPERWORK, TRAFFIC POLICE SCAMS, PETROL STATION SCAMS, ETC…

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CARNET DE PASSAGE

We got a carnet de passage which allows you to temporarily import your car into almost every country of the world without having to leave a cash deposit at the border (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnet_de_Passage). You can get it from the national automobile association of your home country and it usually takes about 1 month to prepare. In the Americas you don’t need it but in for example Japan you do.

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Entry CANADA (shipping the car from Rotterdam to Montreal)

We used the shipping company SCL in Rotterdam. They specialize in shipping cars. In total the car was 11 days underways. We had to deliver her two days before in Rotterdam. In Montreal we used an agent recommended by SCL to get Frida out of customs.

We spent 10 days in Montreal waiting to get the car out of customs. First, the car spent 5 days (3 working days and the weekend) with one customs authority and then it took 2 days including 1-2 hours of final customs inspection before all the paperwork was done. The rest of the time was transit time between warehouses.

How to get an insurance for driving a foreign registered car in Canada

First you have to call at least 5 different car insurance companies/brokers and ask them to insure your car, start by calling for example Allstate Canada. All of the companies will all say no to insure your car! They will say that it is impossible, you have to have Canadian plates, or even Quebec plates and a Quebec drivers license (if you are asking in the province of Quebec). You have to note down the sequence in which you call them and the full name of the person you speak with. Then, after being rejected at least 5 times you go to the IBC/BAC (Insurance Bureau of Canada/Bureau d’assurance du Canada), in Montreal it is located at 800 Place Victoria, bueau 2410, and you ask their assistance to get a car insurance. They will ask you to give them the list of the companies you called and then they will contact the same companies and force one of them (starting with the first one you called) to make you an insurance. You are guaranteed this by Canadian law. But first you have to call around yourself to get 5 rejections!

We finally got an insurance covering all of Canada and the USA for 1 year at 1800 CAD with the company TD Insurance. The insurance can be cancelled when not needed anymore and the remaining amount will be reimbursed by check. Most probably it was the first time TD made an insurance for a foreign registered car because it took them forever (3 days) and it only happened with a lot of help from IBC/BAC!

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USA border crossing (from Canada to USA)

At the border between Canada and USA it took us about one hour to get the correct stamps on the carnet de passage from Canadian customs (you have to pull over at the Canadian Customs office as there is no Canadian check-point going out of Canada). And then it took about 2 hours to get through US border control. Everything went smooth. The carnet de passage is not needed in the US so that saved a lot of time.

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MEXICO border crossing (from USA to Mexico)

We crossed from USA into Mexico at the Calexico East – Mexicali II border crossing. The whole process took 3 hours at a quite relaxed pace – including that we had to walk back to the US border to give them our green immigration cards because we did not see any check point or US officials leaving USA…

First we had to register the temporary import of the car at the Banjercito. Then we had to go to the immigration office to hand in our passports. There we paid 20 USD per person. Then we had to go back to the Banjercito with the stamped immigration cards and pay the temporary importation fee for the car which was 40 USD plus a deposit of 400 USD which will be returned to us when we leave Mexico. Then again back to immigration with the final car import papers to get the stamp in our passports.

NOTE on return of deposit: If you pay the car import deposit with credit card, you should be aware that all bank transfer charges will be charged to you – and that you should not expect a good exchange rate! If you can, it is better to pay by cash.

It is not obligatory, but we strongly recommend to go to customs to declare your personal belongings. They checked very briefly the stuff in the car, we paid 200 MXN (12 EUR) and we received a stamped customs clearance paper saying that we complied with the inspection and paid the proper duties.

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BELIZE border crossing (from Mexico to Belize)

(Belize dollars:USD = 2:1)

We crossed from Mexico into Belize from Chetumal at the southeastern corner of Mexico. The border crossing went very smooth and all the officials were kind and helpful. There is no cost associated with entering Belize with your car. The only thing you have to pay is a small tax when you exit (currently 37.5 Belize dollars per person)

Note, do not yield to any of the arm waving men on the way to the Belize border. You do not need anybody’s help. If you are in doubt where to go, pull up to the Belize border and ask the officer there. He will tell you exactly what to do.

And a note on changing money: We did not change money before the border so at the immigration desk we asked the officer, who allowed us to go back through the border to a small money changing booth just on the other side (in the free zone) where they change from MXN to Belize dollars. This is normal procedure and the exchange rate seemed ok. You go back the same way (even if it says do not enter).

The border crossing took about 1 relaxed hour and went like this:

In Mexico, first you go to immigration to have your passport stamped and the tourist card taken out (a small kiosk just to the right of the border gates). If you have not paid the immigration tax already when you entered Mexico, you will have to pay it going out. It was 300 MXN per person. If you have already paid you just show the receipt. Then you pass the border, showing your passport, and immidiately after the border gates you turn left and park your car in the small official looking parking lot at the Banjercito. Go to the window of the Banjercito. They will register your car as exported again from Mexico, i.e. they will cancel the temporary import permit and will give you back the 400 USD you paid in deposit when you entered (by cash or by credit card). Then you are finished with Mexico.

Between Mexico and Belize there is a free zone with a casino, some small restaurants, etc. Continue driving and you will see the official Belize border. Don’t accept assistance from nobody (you don’t need it) and don’t buy your insurance from the small booths here, there is an insurance cooperation as you enter Belize, see below.

We pulled up to the Belize border and told the officer that we had a car to temporarily import, so what to do. He asked us to park off to the side and enter the official building on the left. There we first had our passports stamped by immigration, then we continued to the customs counter where we had the papers filled out for the car. The customs officer went outside with us to check the car, he asked a few questions and then approved our entry into Belize. Otherwise nothing. We then crossed the actual border, showing our passports and the car import papers. Any fruits or vegetables will be confiscated at this point.

Note, there is no cost associated with entering the country or importing the car! There is an exit tax of some 37.5 Belize dollars, which you have to pay when you exit the country.

After crossing the border you will see a big white building saying Insurance Cooperation of Belize (ICB). Enter here to buy your mandatory liability insurance. We paid 29 Belize dollars for one week for a 4-cylinder car (you pay per time and per cylinders).

And one last point, you should in principle have your car fumigated before entering Belize, but we missed the fumigation point! When we asked the guy at the insurance company, he said not to worry, there are no check-points and if anybody asks, just say you lost the receipt. Don’t worry, be happy! Welcome to Belize.

Ah – and by the way, don’t expect to see a lot of road signs! Buy a good map if you plan to do a lot of exploring.

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GUATEMALA border crossing (from Belize to Guatemala)

At the border we exchanged Belize dollars to Guatemala quetzales at 3.6 quetzales to one Belize dollar.

We crossed from Belize into Guatemala at the Cd. Melchor de Mencos border crossing. The whole procedure took about one hour and was very easy.

First, we went to Belize immigration and had our passports stamped and paid the exit tax of 37.5 Belize dollars per person. Then we went to have the temporary import permit of the car cancelled. Done.

At the Guatemala border we went through immigration to have our passports stamped and pay an immigration tax of Q20 (quetzales) per person. Then we were directed to the counter for temporary import of the car. First we had to get photocopies of our passports including immigration stamp, our drivers licenses and the car registration papers. This is done just down the road and cost Q10. Then we paid Q160 to have the temporary import permit for the car. The officer briefly checked the car and we were ready to go.

Just after the border we were stopped by a lady who asked us to pay Q50 to enter the municipality (tax)! She was wearing an official uniform and handed us the receipts.

It is quite easy and inexpensive to get a liability insurance for driving in Guatemala. If you enter from Belize, drive to Flores, which is the first bigger city going west from the border. You need to go to G&T insurance in Flores, also called Todosriesgo Agencia Peten. Coming from the border to Belize, the road splits into two one-way streets as you enter Flores (there is a Texaco petrol station at the split). Turn left at the first road after the split (if you turn right you go to Flores Island), then again turn left at the first traffic light (direction back towards Belize) and the insurance company is on your right hand side in the 5th building. There is also a G&T Bank on the corner at the traffic light. You can ask at the bank if you cannot find the G&T Insurance building. G&T Insurance has a liability insurance option just for tourists visiting Guatemala by car. At the time of writing it costs Q230 for 15 days, Q305 fr 30 days, Q460 for 60 days and Q1070 for 90 days. Max coverage is Q130000. The insurance covers you in all of Central America but there might be countries (like Belize) where a specific insurance is mandatory and where this insurance will not be sufficient.

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EL SALVADOR border crossing (from Guatemala to El Salvador)

We crossed from Guatemala into El Salvador at the Valle Nuevo border crossing. It is a quiet border crossing with few trucks. In total we spent about 3 hours; 30 minutes on the Guatemalan side and 2.5 hours to get into El Salvador because they tried to cheat us with the car export papers from Guatemala. More on that later!

The Guatemalan border procedures seemed to be very simple … but read below about the trouble we encountered with the Guatemalan papers when trying to enter El Salvador! When you arrive to the Guatemalan side of the border there is a big official building in the middle of the road. Immigration is to the left, second door, where you get your passport stamped. Customs is also to the left, first door, where you go to clear the temporary importation of the car. The customs agent takes the form issued at the entrance to Guatemala and after few seconds he releases the same form stamped and signed. You get a photocopy.

You must take this form (key document!), as it will be required at the border to El Salvador. There is no cost associated with leaving Guatemala.

Everything seems very simple…..now drive for a few km until you reach the river, cross the bridge and arrive at the border to El Salvador. Immediately when we reached the other side of the bridge, a customs officer with an official tag requested the Guatemalan document for export of the car (cancellation of temporary import into Guatemala). He also handed us a form for temporary import of the car to El Salvador, which we had to complete. Once the form is completed, the same customs officer quickly checks the data and the car and signs the form.

Then we were asked to proceed to the customs office with the two documents: Import into El Salvador and cancellation of import for Guatemala. In the same building you have to visit immigration to have your passport checked, they will not be stamped.

Note, that if you enter El Salvador from the border of Valle Nuevo, the tourists takes precedence over the truck drivers, so you can move directly to the front of the line for customs!

The El Salvador customs officer asked for the two famous documents (import El Salvador, export Guatemala) along with the driving license and car registration certificate (and one photocopy each of all 4 documents). After a few moments we were called back to the counter and advised that the document issued by the customs of Guatemala had the wrong chassis number (VIN). On the document we could see a number, which was completely different from the correct chassis number, not just one or two digits mistyped, but an entirely different number. This caught our attention. The customs officer said that this was a serious problem and he did not know if we could enter El Salvador when we had the incorrect papers from Guatemala….!

By now we knew for sure that we were being fucked and that they were looking to give us a nice big fine. We waited approximately one hour for something to happen = being toasted by the guys (it was really very hot!).

We began to doubt whether the Guatemalan document was really the original one (which had already been a photocopy) or whether it was a photocopy of the photocopy with the chassis number changed. Also, we are not sure if the customs officer El Salvador or Guatemala might have done this! Therefore, in hindsight:

1) Carefully control the form that the Guatamalan officer gives you back for export of the car (cancellation of temporary import).

2) Take a photocopy of your Guatemalan papers before arriving to the El Salvador border so you are not giving the only copy away. There are photocopy booths along the road in between the two borders.

In our case we had no photocopies, so we were now running the risk of having to pay a fine/bribe to be allowed into El Salvador. After we had waited almost 2 hours and it was getting 5 o’clock in the afternoon, it was time to get things moving. So we argued that the El Salvador customs were not entitled to claim any document issued by the Guatemalan customs. As evidence that we were right and that the El Salvador customs officers were only hoping for a bribe, they finally gave us the document for temporary importation of the car into El Salvador. No costs were associated with the importation. But like they said, you might have problems if you try to return to Guatemala! Si si, adios!

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HONDURAS border crossing (from El Salvador to Honduras)

We crossed from El Salvador into Honduras at the El Amatillo border crossing. In total we spent about 1 hour crossing the two borders.

At the side of El Salvador, border operations were very simple. We went to the immigration office to have the passports checked. No costs associated. We then continued to customs to clear the temporary importation of the car. The customs agent takes the form produced when entering El Salvador. No new document is released. No costs associated.

The Honduran border operations are just as simple, even if the border looks a bit rough. We went to the immigration office to get our passports stamped (in a small kiosk on the right side of the main road) and paid USD 3 per person as entrance tax. Then we went to customs (next building on the right) to record the temporary importation of the car. The customs agent asked us to complete a form and hand over the driving license and registration certificate (including 3 photocopies of all documents). There is an importation cost of USD 33; you get a receipt for this payment and the official document for temporary importation.

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NICARAGUA border crossing (from Honduras to Nicaragua)

We crossed from Honduras into Nicaragua at the El Espino border crossing. In total we spent about 1 hour crossing the two borders.

The Honduran border operations were very simple. We went to the immigration office to get our passports stamped. No cost associated but you have to hand them the receipt for the USD 3, which you already paid. Then we continued to customs to clear the temporary importation of the car. The customs agent takes the form released when entering Honduras. No new document is released to attest the cancellation of the temporary importation. No costs associated.

At the border to Nicaragua, the procedures are just as simple and they were accompanied by nice romantic Nicaraguan pop music. We went to the immigration office to have our passports checked by an incredibly precise immigration officer (forms were filled out and stamped very, very neatly!) and to pay USD 12 per person as entrance tax. Then we went to customs to register the temporary importation of the car. We had to complete a form and hand over the driving license and registration certificate (including one copy of all documents). No cost is associated. After a few minutes you get the official document for temporary importation.

Inside the building of the customs office, we were approached by a guy who offered us an insurance of civil liability for USD 12. He told us that it is not mandatory but that if you do not have it, the police will give you a fine/bribe that will surely amount to more than USD 12! We already had an insurance covering most of Central America, including Nicaragua, but reluctantly we accepted, arguing to ourselves that it was not a lot of money…and shortly after we thanked ourselves for buying the extra insurance for we had hardly left the border before we were stopped by the police who immediately requested the insurance papers….welcome to Nicaragua! We recommend taking the insurance!

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COSTA RICA border crossing (from Nicaragua to Costa Rica)

We crossed from Nicaragua into Costa Rica at the Penas Blancas border crossing.

The entire border crossing took 3 hours: The exit from Nicaragua took 1 hour and the entry into Costa Rica took 2 hours, including making the mandatory liability insurance.

As we approached the border there was a queue of trucks several km long. We passed the line and arrived to the border. We found the offices of customs and immigration in a white building off the road to the left. First we went to customs to cancel the temporary import of the car and got a document with lots of stamps and signatures as confirmation. This form they required to see at the Costa Rican immigration to confirm that we arrived by vehicle (otherwise they need to see a ticket from for example the bus). Then we went to immigration with our passports. At the entrance we had first to pay a fee of USD 1 each for the municipality (= 46 COR)… And finally we had to pay 45 COR each as exit tax. Make sure you get the exit stamp in your passport as you are now exiting the union of Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Then we proceeded to Costa Rica on a muddy, potholed road. First we went through immigration, which was in a nice air-conditioned official building. There was no entrance tax but he needed to see either a ticket from the mode of transport used to enter or the registration papers of the car and the export papers from Nicaragua.

Just across from immigration there is a small shed for customs inspection. You might see a long line outside with people who are waiting to have their luggage checked. Don’t worry about this line but go to the small window and speak with the guy. He told us to go and make the obligatory insurance for Costa Rica first. And then we needed to return with 1 copy each of the driving licenses, passports including the pages with the immigration stamp, the car registration papers and the insurance papers.

The insurance office was approximately 150 m down the road on the right hand side. The cost of the insurance was around 17 USD.

With all the copies mentioned above and the original papers of the insurance, we then returned to the customs inspection shed, where we were asked to fill out a form for the temporary import of the car. The customs officer quickly inspected the car and approved the form.

Now, with all the copies of our documents mentioned above and the original form from customs inspection, we had to return to the building of the insurance office where also the main customs office is located. The customs officer there inspected all the documents and issued the final certificate for temporary import of the car. There were no costs associated.

That’s it! Welcome to Costa Rica!

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PANAMA border crossing (from Costa Rica to Panama)

We crossed from Costa Rica into Panama at the Rio Sereno border crossing. It is a very small and quiet border and at first it seemed like this would be our fastest border crossing so far. But then we encountered the lady at the Panamanian customs… The border crossing took 2 hours but it could have taken less than one hour if it had not been for “software problems”!

First of all, the road to the Rio Sereno border crossing is not easy to find. There are no signs at all so you have to ask your way. The last 8 km or so are on a dirt road. Then you arrive at the small village, Rio Sereno, where the border is located. There is no barrier to stop you from just driving into Panama so keep your eyes open for the official buildings.

Just as you enter the village, there is a white building on your left hand side. This is Costa Rican immigration and customs so make your first stop here to have your passports stamped and the Temporary Importation of the car cancelled. A few buildings further ahead, where the road swings to the right, you will find the Panamanian immigrations. Get your passport stamped here.

About 100 m further down the road, still on the left hand side, you find the shack of the Panama customs. The only sign we noticed was “ADUANA” painted in blue letters on the doorstep. But before you can proceed to customs, you have to have your mandatory car insurance ready. This is produced in another shack, down the road and to the left. Cost 15 USD. Then you can proceed to customs. In principle, they have to fill our an electronic form with all your details, but the lady in the office was not able to fill it out correctly, so after about 1 hour of struggling, she filled out the old paper form instead. Note, this is absolutely not good enough for customs in Panama City if you have to ship your car to Colombia! Fortunately, it only took a few hours at customs in Panama City to get the paperwork corrected. We knew it would be a problem so we went one day earlier to Panama City to make sure we had time to do the paperwork for the shipment.

One important detail, if the customs officer is able to fill out the electronic form: Be sure that all the below fields are filled in with the Chassis Number of your car:

– “Chassis Number” = Chassis Number

– “Engine Number” = Chassis Number

– “VIN Number” = Chassis Number

This is the only way DIJ police in Panama will accept your documents without sending you to Customs in Panama City (lost time!) in order to arrange the papers. Insist with the customs officer at the border to fill out the form in the right way!

The last thing you have to go through is fumigation of the car, 1 USD.

Welcome to Panama!

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SHIPPING from PANAMA to COLOMBIA

Apologies for not having written down the full story of how to manage this special shipment/border crossing. We used a lot the web site http://www.dare2go.com/shippinginfo1 for information. We used Evergreen as transporter and Everlogistics gave us the required support. The procedure in Panama is not very complicated (we speak Spanish). It is much more tricky upon arrival in Colombia but we still managed to get the car out in one (long) day.

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SOUTH AMERICAN border crossings

From Colombia and down through Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina the border crossings are very easy. Only pay attention when you enter Chile as they are very strict with regards to import of foods, especially honey, meat, cheese, fruits and vegetables….well almost anything! At the border between Peru and Chile we were asked to put all our stuff through a scanner (yes, a lot of stuff).

Insurance South America

In Colombia we got the car insurance in Cartagena. In order to get the insurance you have to show the customs clearance papers for the car. And in order to take out the car from the port you need to show the insurance papers.

In Ecuador, we got the car insurance in the first slightly bigger city that we passed through. Cheap and easy. We got the directions by asking at a petrol station.

In Peru, we got the car insurance on the border. Obligatory.

In Argentina we got an insurance in Salta covering both Argentina and Chile for 6 months. Insurance company Liberty Seguros.

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SHIPPING from CHILE to JAPAN

We shipped our car by container from Valparaiso in Chile to Tokyo in Japan through the same company that we used to ship from Europe to Canada. It is called SCL, from Rotterdam. They arranged the container through Panalpina. We paid around 3.500 USD for the freight and 1.800 USD for the expenses in Japan.

We met with Panalpina representatives to whom we gave the original of our Carnet de Passage and the copies of our passports. They fixed us an appointment some days later in order to load the car into the container, an operation that took place in the Panalpina hub in Santiago. The loaded container was transported by truck to Valparaiso port from where it was loaded into the vessel after custom inspection. We were not requested to be there for the custom inspection but this could happen. The container arrived in Tokyo around 30 days later, on schedule.

Important: the shipping line could ask you to load the car into the container with the cables of the battery disconnected and with the fuel tank almost empty. If you will not do it, they might ask you to sign a paper in which they are asking to take responsibility in case of accidents.

The process to export the car from Chile has been managed by Panalpina. The same day we loaded the car into the container, they gave us back the Carnet the Passage properly stamped by customs for export. One week later, Panalpina sent us by email an electronic copy of the Bill of Lading.

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TEMPORARY IMPORTATION of the car in JAPAN

In Japan, the operations to un-load the container and to temporary import the car have been extremely easy and fast.

One week before the arrival of the container to Japan we went to JAF (Japanese Automobile Federation). They translated our Carnet de Passage into Japanese (two copies). This service is free of charge. We had to go to the main JAF office in Tokyo (2-2-17 Shiba Minato-ku).

As soon as the container arrived to Japan we were contacted by a Panalpina representative who fixed us an appointment for the day after with their agent. The day after, the agent drove us to the port where we un-loaded the car from the container.

After that, the agent drove us to Japanese Customs (in the port area) where in 1.5 hours we got a stamp in our Carnet de Passage and one copy of the same Carnet de Passage translated into Japanese. In the Customs Office the following is needed: The original Carnet de Passage, 2 copies of Carnet de Passage translated into Japanese (from JAF) and the passport of the owner of the car. Important: The customs officer asked us to show him the invoice we paid for the entire shipment from Santiago to Tokyo. This was a “must”.

After customs clearance operations were concluded, we went back to the port and we could drive out our car.

In Tokyo we got a car insurance with a private company. For two months insurance we paid around 25.000 Yen, including also “Casco” (insurance is valid also in case of “solo accidents”). There is also the possibility to have an insurance per day, but it is not covering “solo accidents”.

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RUSSIA border crossing (from Japan to Russia)

We took a ferry from Japan to Russia with the Japanese company, Heart Land Ferry (HLF). The ferry runs from Wakkanai on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido to Korsakov on Sakhalin Island in Russia. The ferry takes about 6 hours to arrive in Korsakov. Lunch is included in the price and the ferry is nice and clean with tatami-areas for resting. Check http://www.heartlandferry.jp for the schedule etc.

We paid 25,000 Yen per person and 34,000 Yen for the car, in total 84,000 Yen. In addition we paid 5,000 Yen + 10,400 Russian Rubles to Nippon Express for customs assistance and Russian car insurance, see below.

Customs formalities took place in Wakkanai (Japan) and then on the ferry at the pier in Korsakov (Shakhalin – Russia). Note that HLF is using Nippon Express as customs agent. It is mandatory to pay Nippon Express for the customs assistance, both in Wakkanai and upon arrival in Korsakov. These are the rules. You cannot take the ferry without accepting these fees.

In order to reserve space on the ferry we contacted Mr. Tomoyuki Tamashima (ty.tamashima@heartlandferry.jp) who asked us to send him scanned copies of a series of documents:

1. Passports
2. Russian visas (we got 3 months business visas through the Russian Embassy in Tokyo)
3. Registration certificates of the car (issued by Italian Automobile Federation)
4. International driving permits
5. Registration document (issued by Japanese Automobile Federation)
6. Carnet de Passage
7. The Japanese exportation voucher of the carnet
8. Filled out questionnaires for formal booking confirmation (provided by Mr. Tamashima)
9. Filled out document for temporary import and export for motor vehicle (provided by Mr. Tamashima)

In Wakkanai, the customs and immigration procedures went very smooth and took around 1 hour. Our customs agent from Nippon Express gave us an appointment 2 hours before departure in front of the HLF terminal. A Japanese customs representative quickly checked the plate and frame numbers against the car documents, had a rough look inside the vehicle and stamped our Carnet de Passage for exit. The Nippon Express agent was always with us in order to help. For Japanese customs formalities we had to pay to Nippon Express 5,000 Yen.

While HLF drove our car onto the ferry, we passed through immigration and then we boarded. We only had the keys of our car back after Russian customs formalities were finished in Korsakov. But no worries, everything is very safe and organized and the key is always with a Japanese HLF employee.

When we arrived in Korsakov, Russian customs agents boarded the ferry. They asked us the passport of the vehicle owner and the car documents. After a quick check they stamped the passport and filled up a Temporary Importation Act, which we had to sign. This document allows you to drive in Russia and to go out again from the country with the car.

From the ferry we were transported by bus to the immigration office where we had the entry stamp on our passports. An agent from Nippon Express met us just after the immigration counter. We paid her 7000 Rubles for the mandatory Russian car insurance and 3500 Rubles for customs fees. You have to have the Rubles ready when you arrive in Russia, i.e. get the rubles at a bank in Wakkanai, Japan.

The Russian car insurance, which is issued upon arrival to Russia is mandatory, even if you have another insurance, which supposedly covers Russia. The insurance was issued while we waited for immigration, all arranged by Nippon Express in advance.

Finally, the vehicle owner was transported back to the ferry where our car was ready (but locked) on the pier. An HLF employee gave us the keys of the car and a green paper. We drove from the pier to the exit gate of the port where a Russian lady asked for the green paper. Then she opened the gate and we were officially in Russia!

The entire operation in Korsakov took us around 2 hours and nobody checked what we were transporting! A very smooth border crossing thanks to Nippon Express.

OTHER FERRY OPTIONS from JAPAN to RUSSIA

There is another ferry option between Japan and Russia. The South Korean company DBS Cruise Ferry runs a ferry from Sakaiminato in Japan, over Donghae in South Korea to Vladivostok in Russia. Check http://www.dbsferry.co.kr.

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HOW to get from SAKHALIN ISLAND  to MAINLAND RUSSIA

An old train ferry runs daily to Vanino on the Russian mainland from Kholmsk on Sakhalin Island. It is quite straightforward to take the ferry even if it might be a bit confusing.

We showed up the day before to buy the ticket at the Daltransservis office in Kholmsk on Katernaya Ulitsa, a small side street to the main Sovietskaya Ulitsa. At the end of Katernaya Ulitsa there is also the entry to the port where you have to enter to board ferry. The building of the ticket office (on the right hand side facing the port) has a blue sign outside. Enter the building, walk up the stairs and turn left to the counter of Daltransservis. The ladies are speaking very little English so a bit of Russian will help, but they were quite helpful so everything should work out ok eventually, even if you speak no Russian.

We bought the tickets for the ferry leaving the next day, total cost 17,388 Russian Rubles for two people and the car, including a very basic cabin and a very Russian dinner. We had to pass by a small office at the entrance to the port (just 20 m down the road) to have our passports registered and to pay the port fees (can’t remember the amount). The ladies did not know the departure time of the ferry so they asked us to phone them in the evening to get an update. Since we did not have a mobile phone, we agreed with them that we would instead show up at the office again at 9 am the next morning.

The next morning the ladies told us to be there at the entrance to the port (just outside the Daltransservice office) at 13.30 and then departure would be at 15.30. We were there at 13.00 and then we waited and waited and waited but nothing happened. But as with any kind of transport in Russia, don’t worry, things will happen in due time and somebody will make sure that you are in the right place at the right time because you have a ticket! Eventually we found out that the train carriages bound for the ferry were not ready and they had to board first. And finally, a couple of hours late, we boarded the ferry together with around 10 other cars and 10 trucks.

The ferry, Sakhalin-9, was quite large with a nice open deck upstairs and a small cafe. There were cabins upstairs and downstairs. Unfortunately we were downstairs. It was not a nice cabin! The attendant lady will hand out bed sheets but it is a good idea to bring something, like a light sleeping bag, to be a bit more isolated from the nasty mattress. The cabins upstairs seemed nicer so if your Russian is ok you can try to book one of those.

According to schedule it takes 18 hours to cross from Kholmsk to Vanino but we managed it in 16 hours. Departure from Kholmsk was at 18.00 and arrival in Vanino around 10 in the morning the next day. In Vanino, everybody has to reverse out from the ferry with the cars and trucks, a bit messy since nobody directs who is going when or where. And then very importantly, you have to go to a nearby building, up the stairs to a small window in the wall and pick up a green paper, which will allow you to leave the port! Watch where the other drivers are going and bring your ferry ticket. The road out winds a bit through the port area, then you arrive to a gate, hand over your green paper and you are free to go!

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GEORGIA border crossing (from Russia to Georgia)

We crossed from Russia into Georgia at the only official border crossing open for foreigners in Verkhny Lars (Russian side). It was surprisingly easy!

The Russian exit took 30 minutes. They checked our papers for the car and our passports and a guy from customs very quickly checked the car, trying to suggest that we were “contraband” and when Marco showed him all our mountain equipment and said we were alpinists, the fat bastard (!) suggested that a girl could not be an alpinist (but apparently she could easily be contraband!)!!!!!! Anyways, the border crossing went very fast and without any problems.

The Georgian entry took 10 minutes! The passenger had to walk through immigration while the driver took the car through. Then customs opened the car, took one look inside and said “go go!”

In Russia, when we were driving from Vladikavkaz down to the border at Verkhny Lars, there was a police check point but they did not stop us. Five minutes later a police car comes up behind us at high speed with all lights blinking. We pulled over and two civilian dressed guys from immigration jumps out together with the police man. They checked our passports and registrations, asked us what we did – we said we climbed Elbrus – they asked a bit into the climb, how many days etc. We had the feeling that they wanted to check that we were not there as journalists or something. At an earlier police check point they guys only wanted to ask us if we knew the road down to the border and they made suggestions to the route.

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TRAFFIC POLICE

Canada: Stopped 2 times – routine alcohol check and insurance paper check. No fines.

USA: None

Mexico: A multitude of police and military road checks, no problems, some very helpful with information. The police in Acapulco tried their best by pulling us over for not using the indicator when we were changing lanes – and asking us to pay a fine of some 150 EUR! And by the way, we could have back the driving license and the papers for the car “manana”. Thanks to Marco speaking perfect spanish and to our intensive training with corrupt road police in Kazakhstan we ended up paying nothing and getting our documents back! But it was not an easy one.

Belize: None

Guatemala: None. The police was always helpful with answering questions and giving directions.

El Salvador: Stopped once to check papers and the car. No fines

Honduras: Stopped once to check papers and the content of the car. Bad attitude! No fines. In Honduras we recommend having reflectors on the front and the back of the car, least 2 emergency triangles and a fire extinguisher. These are the most common things they ask for at the check points.

Nicaragua: Stopped twice to check papers and insurance.

Costa Rica: None.

Panama: None.

Colombia: Once, just to check papers.

Ecuador: A few time to check papers.

Peru: A few times to ask us if everything was ok, if we had had any problems. Once we were stopped because we did not know that we had to drive with full lights 24 hours. The officer tried hard to get some quick money from us (it will be very complicated for you to go and pay the fine at the official office…) but ended up letting us go with a “warning”.

Argentina: Generally we had no problems. There were LOTS of checkpoints where we had to show all our papers on the road RN 14 going down to Buenos Aires from the north along the border with Uruguay. Twice the police tried to tell us that our car was illegal because we did not have the rear bumper (the Land Rover Defender model looks like this but they claimed we had modified the car). And one police officer told us that we were  not allowed to have a winch on the car (yes we are allowed). Obviously, they were all hoping for some personal benefit. In the region of Entre Rios, just north of Buenos Aires, we had to pay a fine of 480 pesos for not having our lights turned on – and this amount was with 50% tourist discount (officially, it is even written on the ticket). Conclusion, pay attention in the area of Buenos Aires and north of Buenos Aires. Everywhere else we had no problems.

Chile: No problems

Japan: No problems. The police came once and checked us when we were sleeping in the car down by the habour in a quiet village. They asked us if we were fishing and asked to see the passports, polite as always. Another time we arrived very late in Aomori with the ferry from Hokkaido. We found a big park on the map and drove there. In the darkness we could not see much (and of course we could not read any of the signs) but we found a nice big and empty parking lot next to the park where we stayed for the night. During the night, a police car came by several times and the guys also jumped out of the car, checking Frida, obviously in doubt what to make of this. Malene was really upset that they could not just let us sleep in peace – until next morning we discovered that it was the parking lot of the police station / the area where they are making the driving tests for the motorcycles – hahaha!

Russia: Generally no problems. Sometimes we were stopped at the check points and asked for papers, but there were never any problems. Only in Caucasus did we meet the first corrupt policemen who tried to make us pay them a bribe (we had crossed the full line on a very quiet road in the mountains). We paid nothing, it was not difficult to avoid. They were not at all interested in going to the station to have us pay the official ticket. Apparently in the Caucasus region, the police are often trying to catch you crossing the full line, so just be aware.

Georgia: No problems.

Turkey: No problems.

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PETROL STATION SCAM MEXICO

Always check that the meter is on zero before the PEMEX employee starts the fuel pump – and then watch him/listen to the pump!

This is how we were (almost) cheated: When we pulled up to the pump, the guy came over as usual but also another 3 guys came over from the other pumps, pretending to be interested in the car and asking us if we needed any help to find the road etc. Then, before charging any fuel, the pump guy said that unfortunately the machine printing the receipts was broken so he would not be able to print us a receipt with the amount of liters pumped and the cost. We said ok and told the guy to start pumping. As the guy started pumping we were distracted by the other guys who were looking inside the car, asking questions – all friendly but too much friendly! And suddenly the pump stopped and the pump guy said: I charged the 100 pesos you asked! We told him no, we asked a full tank. He said ah sorry, my mistake, and started again the pump. But in between, the pump had been zeroed so he had to add the first 100 pesos to the final bill. We paid and we left….but then we started thinking about the situation. We checked our fuel calculations on our computer (km vs fuel) and realized that it was impossible that the guy had charged us so many liters. He never charged fuel for the first 100 pesos! We were only 10 minutes down the road so we turned back and went to complain. The pump guy had left for lunch (with the 100 pesos!) but the other guys gave us back the 100 pesos after Marco in perfect Spanish told them what had happened, that he worked in Veracruz in the oil business and that a big PEMEX boss was a very good friend of his!


2 responses to “Borders, customs & scams

  • Tammy Barbour

    Thank you so very much for this wonderfully detailed information. We are currently in Belize after returning from a week in Guatemala. We are planning on a trip all the way down to Argentina and find your site so informative. Perhaps we shall see you on the road again.

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