Cross Border Travel Tips

Overland Travel/Cross Border Travel Tips

By Mike Ilsley

One of the most rewarding experiences any 4x4 owner can have is travelling to neighbouring countries with your family and friends. The objectives of this chapter are to provide pointers to enable you to be more prepared and make the experience even better. If some of the items seem very generic, that is the purpose as every country has different rules and regulations and these must all be taken into account. The following issues are covered in this section.

  • Behaviour
  • Dealing with officials
  • Country Specific Restrictions
  • Documents
  • Passports
  • Personal Medical Documents
  • Vehicle Papers
  • Tax Forms
  • Drivers Licences
  • Documentation suggestions
  • Medical Aid
  • Disease Management
  • Legislation
  • Currency
  • Security
  • Radio legislation
  • Time zones
  • Time Management
  • Vehicle reliability and roadworthiness


It is important to remember that we are visitors in the countries we visit and just as we would not appreciate bombastic behaviour, the local populations will appreciate a more humble approach.

In preparing for a trip, use all resources available to you and research the local customs and try to avoid the no-no’s of the culture you are visiting. These can be in the form of understanding religious practices, or to simply leave the gate in the position you found it, when you pass through a farmer’s lands.

Probably the most important of all, is to remember that you are dealing with people, and people normally appreciate common courtesy and respect;

  • Be polite at all times and remember that the customs official facing you has probably spent the day in the hot sun, and on this continent, has most likely not had the luxury of air conditioning.
  • In many cases these people are just doing as instructed, they cannot change the rules, so when he asks you to fill in an entry card, do so with good grace.
  • Before taking a photo of a person (or place for that matter) ask permission. In some cultures it is “stealing the person’s soul” to take a photo of them.
  • Be especially careful when attempting to take photos of military or government buildings, bridges, vehicles and staff as you can be arrested as a spy, and I don’t think any of us would like to spend time in an African jail.
  • A strong tip would be to ask questions politely when you don’t know, show no emotion except a friendly greeting when arriving and leaving, and for the rest, keep quiet.
  • Do not talk in another language thinking you are not understood by the local people.
  • Do remove caps / sunglasses and control children.
  • If arriving in a large convoy, send the group leader in to advise them of the numbers and how they would like to deal with it – overcrowding causes anxiety!
  • When passing as a group through customs, it is advisable for each “family” to move away from the post as soon as they are cleared. Re group some distance away from the post as to avoid attracting attention from the officials.

Dealing with officials

This is always a challenge and the more prepared you are the better.

  • As a rule, make sure before you depart, what the traffic and other rules in the countries you will visit are. A good source of information other than the internet is the Automobile Association of SA. 
  • Irrespective of country, type of road surface, area and location, in Africa, if there is a STOP sign, then stop dead. This is irrespective if an official who waves you on just before you arrive at the sign. It is a legendary scam to fine foreigners and locals. Wait for the official to gesture you to move forward before doing so – this, after you have stopped dead behind the line.
  • The attitude of officials differs vastly with countries like Mozambique displaying a high degree of animosity towards ZA registered vehicles, while Botswana officials are normally very helpful and generally pleasant to deal with. Just remember, they are “in charge”.
  • In most cases, I have found that a cool head and good manners generally gets the best results. The less you speak, the better.
  • If you are stopped for an “infringement” your best defence is keeping your wits about you. Relax, remain calm and avoid the temptation of paying a bribe. Do not become aggressive towards the situation or the official!
  • Try to co-operate, but keep an eye open for “ambushers” on the other side of the vehicle.
  • Always keep all doors locked and windows closed when you are not in your vehicle.
  • Other vehicles in the convoy can assist by keeping their eyes peeled while the vehicle in front or behind is being examined.
  • Try not to let them separate you from your group, a technique often encountered when the next step is going to be trying to extract bribes.
  • When approaching a roadblock or official checkpoint or border post, all vehicles (when fitted with radios) must maintain radio silence, unless there is an emergency. What you don’t need is someone making an inappropriate joke or comment on the radio within earshot of the officials. On approaching such a point, the lead vehicle should warn the convoy that they are “going silent”. When the last person leaves such a point, he may then declare the radio open again.
  • When you see the locals being treated differently to you, just keep your cool, you remain a visitor.
  • When faced by an official carrying a gun with menace, be very careful to keep your head about you, your life could depend on it.
  • When traveling in the group and you are the “leader” or guide vehicle and the official wants you to get out and listen to a safety talk, like in Botswana, where you know the officer will ask all the vehicles behind you to come along. Inform the officer who is traveling with you and ask him if you can arrange for the rest of group to park behind you in a safe place.
  • When speaking in front of the officer, speak in English which will normally be the language, in which you and the officer will be communicating, so he can understand exactly what you are saying.
  • Also when you talk to your navigator asking for the documentation which the officer is requesting, speak English to your navigator.
  • Never offer any form of bribe as this may be a trap.

Country Specific Restrictions

There are many restrictions that apply when visiting other countries, and again, research is key.  Some items we have encountered on our travels include.

  • Restrictions can exist regarding transporting certain foodstuffs like meat and animal products that can carry foot and mouth disease. When travelling into areas where this is a problem, be aware that you will not be able to carry fresh meat across the “veterinary” fences. They are normally well marked and the gates are manned. We have encountered these in Namibia, Botswana and Swaziland, but check before you depart.
  • Even meat purchased in countries like Botswana and Namibia can be transported from South to North over the “red” line but you are not allowed to take any meat back from North to South. Also remember when taking meat from South to North like in Botswana you have to declare the meat taking up at a certain vet point. If you did not declare the meat will it be confiscated! When the meat is confiscated do not argue with the officer as he is not the person doing the wrong you are. Give it to him and carry on with your journey. But sometimes you can negotiate with him to go back to the correct point to declare it.
  • Taking foodstuffs into some neighbouring countries, such as Lesotho, legally incur taxation. Be aware of this, and if challenged, accept it, produce the necessarily receipt, and pay the taxes. Entering into a dispute could end your journey unnecessarily.
  • Road restrictions almost could make a chapter by themselves, but in most cases the main differences are that many 4x4 vehicles are considered light trucks, so they need to be fitted with reflective tape in some countries. This is normally white reflective tape in front with either red or yellow facing the rear. Ensure you understand these before departure, and remember to get the correct size that is required by the country you are visiting. The AA is a good source for the tape (blocks) and information too.
  • Of course a ZA sticker is required for all South African registered vehicles crossing out of our borders.
  • Trailers may require their own reflective tape in some countries and in Mozambique a yellow triangle on a blue background is required on the front of the tow vehicle as well as on the rear of the trailer. Trailers require a red on silver “T” in Zimbabwe
  • A fairly new requirement in Mozambique is the need for warning triangles and reflective vests to be used in case of a breakdown, although the locals just drag a bush onto the road! Zimbabwe also has specific requirements.
  • Speed restrictions need to be adhered to, and local rules apply, so make sure you know what they are and adhere to them.
  • Customs officials may charge “import duty” on fuel carried in jerry cans. Whether this is legal or not is debateable, but it is a better idea to fit extra tanks to your vehicle as far as possible rather than to use jerry cans. This can also apply to fuel being brought back into South Africa from neighbouring countries.


The following documents are required for most cross border trips, but this list is not exhaustive and you are advised to contact the consulate of the country you intend to visit. It is a good idea to make at least 3 sets of all your critical documents, have the sets certified by the SAPS, not just a Commissioner of Oaths, and store in separate places in your vehicle. This will assist you greatly in the case of loss / theft of original documents. If theft does take place, get to the nearest SA Embassy as quickly as possible.

A tip – create a small, laminated card, with all relevant details on it of your whole vehicle unit (car registration number, vin number, engine number, same for trailer, people’s names, id’s, passport number, expiry date etc. It makes it easier to complete forms at the border post, and if asked, the necessary document can be produced from your files. Attach one such card per person, on a lanyard around your neck, with a pen attached. It works wonders!

A tip – have a file for all documentation neatly sorted with certified copies handy at border points.  Any information that is requested is then immediately available, also giving the official the peace of mind that your paperwork is in order.

A tip – attempt to have border permits that need to be completed at Border points filled in prior to your arrival at a border point.  This saves time and confusion when at the border point.

Have a black pen handy for each passport holder.


  • Get valid passports for all travellers, they must not expire for at least 3 months after your travel schedule ends.
  • Small children may travel on parent’s passports, but it is recommended that all children have their own passports.
  • Make sure the passport is in good condition, not full, and that there are at least three pages available for stamps.
  • Recently, holders of temporary South African passports have experienced problems in some African countries, so avoid using temporary passports if possible. Note:
  • Protect passports at all costs, keep them in the vehicle safe and only use them when needed.
  • Ensure that when you pass through a border post that your passport is indeed stamped and that it is stamped correctly.  We have experienced in the past where passports are not stamped or stamped with the exit stamp (or visa versa).  This causes a lot of confusion, time delay and unnecessary focus on yourself.

Personal medical papers

  • Vaccination certificates are required for some countries and this can vary, so check before you go as you do not want the border medical give you injections with “used” needles.
  • Some vaccinations have a lead time of a few days or even weeks, so make arrangements in time.
  • Make sure the doctor gives you a proper certificate, stamped and signed legibly.
  • Visit National Institute for Communicable Diseases website for up to date information on vaccinations, and most countries have websites that provide this information.
  • If one of your party is using prescription medication, it is recommended that you keep a copy of the Doctor’s prescription in the vehicle to prove that they need the medication as you may be accused of smuggling drugs. Also ensure the person who is using its name is on the medication and not another person not travelling with you.
  • Obtain a letter from your medical aid confirming that you are covered across border with regard to medical emergencies.  Keep this letter handy in case of need.

Vehicle papers

  • The license disk must be valid for the period of travel and placed on display in a suitable, easy to access location.
  • Don’t forget the trailer’s license! An official must be able to find it in the dark, without your help.
  • The vehicle’s original licence papers (not the renewal slip which contains the license disk) is a prerequisite.
  • Make sure that the engine number and chassis (VIN) number match those on the papers perfectly as well as the registration number plate number is the same as on the paper. It has happened quite often that you only realise when they check that two digits or numbers are swopped around.
  • If the vehicle has had an engine change, the engine number on the manufacturer’s plate and the number on the engine will no longer be the same.  Make sure that in addition to the revised license papers (showing the new engine number) you have the engine change papers with you. Also make sure that the engine is clean in the area where the engine number is located and use white chalk rubbed into the numbers to make them easier to read.
  • The owners name reflected on the papers must be the same as that on the passport of someone in the group.
  • If this is not the case, and the names differ, an affidavit giving one of the group permission to use the vehicle must accompany the vehicle.
  • If the vehicle is financed, a letter must be obtained from the finance house, giving permission for all the countries you intend to visit.
  • If you vehicle is in the name of the company ensure you have a company letterhead and stamped by the police to state you are allowed to take the vehicle across the border. The same applies if the vehicle is registered in another person’s name such as your husband or wife and that person is not travelling with you.
  • If the vehicle was financed and has been paid off, it has to be reregistered (Change of Ownership) with the new owners name reflected on the certificate.
  • Don’t forget that this applies to all vehicles, including trailers.
  • In some countries they require that you get vehicle clearance papers stating the vehicle belongs to you and is not stolen. This can and will be a challenge to get from the police station as it seems no one knows exactly what to give you. In other countries you do not have to get the clearance papers from the Police but you have to buy a “Carnet du Passage” from the AA.

Tax forms

  • Goods being imported into a country with the intent to export them back to the country of origin are required to be listed on the SARS Form “DA 65 - Registration of Goods for Re-Importation”. You are advised to check the new process currently being piloted by SARS at Botswana border posts.
  • The DA 65 form is available for download from the SARS website under “All Forms>Importers”. It is also available from some customs offices such as at major Airports or some SARS offices. Some of the major Border Posts have the form, but do not count on it, especially at smaller Border Posts.
  • The form should be completed before departing from home, and all high value moveable items such as cameras, cell phones (if more than 1 per person), satellite phones, radios, fridges, GPS’s and laptops must be listed on the form, with the description, make and model and serial number.
  • It is a good idea to draw up your own list (and keep a few copies handy) of all such goods that need to be listed.  This makes for ease of declaration at the Border Posts.  Sometimes it is an accepted practice to attach this list to the SARS declaration form without having to re-write all goods listed.
  • Before exiting SA, have the form stamped by the SA Customs Officials at the exit point. The form can also be stamped at your local Police station. Ensure that you however follow the correct procedure at the border post, to ensure a smooth return!

Drivers Licences

  • In all cases the original of the SA Driver’s license card must be carried.
  • Temporary licences may not be accepted is some countries, it is best to check first
  • SA Learners licences are only valid within the borders of SA, so SA learner drivers may not drive in the neighbouring countries at all.
  • Even though it is seldom a prerequisite in the SADC Countries, always carry an International Driver’s license, obtainable from the AA of SA for a minimal amount and two photos. This document can be produced in lieu of your SA Drivers card.

Document copies

Here are some good ideas on how to manage your documents on long trips.

  • Make two good colour copies of all your documents and laminate them. Have them certified by all means, but make sure they are good, full colour copies.
  • Keep the sets separate, one at hand in the vehicle.
  • Lock away your originals in the vehicle’s safe and only produce them when under duress and then only at an established official building.
  • Only certify any documentation at the police station, some countries will only accept police certification as in their country only the police can certify documentation.

Medical Aid

  • Most medical aids will provide assistance in medical emergencies, but remember to let them know and get authorisation before you go. In some cases there could be a “top up” charge.
  • Make sure what you are covered for and what telephone numbers are available for you to call in an emergency.
  • Over border extraction of patients is very expensive and not always covered in basic policies. Make sure what your medical aid’s policy is in this regard.
  • It is recommended that at least one person in the group have basic First Aid training and that someone in the group carry a comprehensive medical kit.
  • Note: certain scheduled medications need preapproval for transport over borders, such as morphine.


Some comments on repatriation, cover, cassava etc. Important contact numbers – Satphone?

•     Make sure that your insurance company is aware of your travel outside of South Africa.  They should be able to provide you documentary confirmation of your cover outside of South Africa.

  • Make sure that your insurance company does cover your vehicle in the country that you are visiting.  Check the fine print too, make sure that the insurance company will recover your vehicle from point of break down and that you are not responsible to bring your vehicle to the closest South African border post.
  • Don’t forget to get cover for your trailer as above.

•     Make sure that you are aware of the fine print regarding recovery outside of South Africa.  In some cases, cover begins when you have your vehicle brought (at your own expense) to the closest South African Border Post.  This can become an exceptionally costly exercise…


This is a difficult one.

  • Keep your currency out of sight and only have the amount you absolutely need on hand.
  • Keep more than one currency with you.
  • Have a range of denominations of each currency as you may really have a problem to extricate your change.
  • At some Border Posts, if you do not have correct amount to be paid, the officials may not issue you with change.
  • Know the prevailing exchange rate.
  • Try to exchange currency at banks or at a “bureau de change”.  Local Currency Exchangers are con artists at best.
  • When more than one currency is accepted, look which one offers the best rate, most times, but not always, the local currency is best, but check before you pay.
  • We have encountered situations in mid Zambia where the local currency was not accepted, but ZAR’s were! At the next point only USD!
  • US Dollars are generally accepted in most SADC countries, in fact they are normally the preferred currency, but strangely they are not accepted in South Africa.
  • US Dollars have another peculiarity. Older USD notes have “Small Heads”, that means that the picture of the President does not fill the height of the note. By reputation, these notes are no longer accepted by the African banks as valid tender, so are often are not accepted in African countries. The newer USD notes have a larger “head” of the President and are generally accepted. It is very difficult to get information on this aspect, and the best suggestion if to visit Wikipedia, which has images of the notes or to check that your notes have a recent date on them.
  • In some SADC countries Petrol Cards and / or Credit Cards are accepted.  Although this is the case, do not rely on this and ensure that you have sufficient cash on hand.  Inform your bank that you are travelling to foreign countries and that it is your intention to use Petrol and / Credit cards for transactions.
  • Be vigilant when using your Petrol and / or Garage cards and make sure that your card is not cloned in the process.


All the security measures you normally exercise, still apply, but the following are highlighted.

  • Try to never leave the vehicles unattended, even if half of the group visit the customs and then the other (we have been robbed inside the customs secure enclosure in Botswana) .
  • Lock your vehicle even when in you are in the roof top tent
  • Stick together as a convoy at all times
  • Keep doors locked while driving and especially rear doors and canopies
  • When sleeping, keep keys and valuables, under / in pillows etc. but in a difficult to get to place. The latest trick is silently cutting tents with blade and stealing keys etc. from you while asleep!
  • When leaving your vehicle, even in the most remote areas, to take photographs etc, close and lock your vehicle.  In Africa, you are never alone!
  • Do not leave your keys in the ignition and unattended, even for a short while.

Radios/Satellite Phones legislation

Two way radios require special attention

  • Two way radios licensed in South Africa require separate licences in each neighbouring country as there is no SADC wide license. Each country requires a license to be purchased individually.
  • In South Africa licensing of these radios is handled by ICASA where for the frequencies in use by 4x4 owners who belong to AAWDC affiliated clubs, it is handled by the Off Road Radio Association (ORRA).
  • Contact the radio licensing authority in each of the countries you wish to visit and get a license.
  • This process normally takes a few weeks so start early.
  • Some low powered hand held units do not require licenses, but these are seldom any use in convoys due to their short range capabilities.
  • Satellite phones are almost undistinguishable from large cell phones and are highly recommended take along items.
  • Ensure that the Satphone connects to satellites that are in the area you intend visiting.
  • Ensure that your account is charged / paid up before departing.
  • Take the battery charger along.
  • Remember to include your Satphone on the DA65 form!

Time zones

  • In the SADC region Namibia is the only country that has Daylight Savings. Their time zone is 1 hour later than SA’s in the winter months. Beyond the region, Angola also has Daylight savings.
  • This must be taken into account when crossing the border at the smaller Border Posts as the two sides do not always align their closing and opening times. You can be stuck for an hour is no mans land!

Time Management

  • Time management – distances travelled may differ hugely in relation to the “normal” time taken.  Road conditions, road blocks, border crossings, congestion at Ferry crossings all influence time.
  • Convoy driving generally is slower than driving alone especially where there are lots of towns and robots or on very dusty roads.
  • Some border crossings may take as much as 1 day.  Plan accordingly!

Vehicle reliability and roadworthy

  • Ensure your vehicle and trailer or caravan is serviced at least 2 weeks before going on a trip and drive your vehicle for at least 200km to ensure everything is in working order.
  • Check all fridges, radios, GPS and other equipment that is going to be used on the trip,
  • Ensure your batteries and charging system is working
  • Remember chargers for cameras, phones and lights
  • Ensure all reflectors, light lenses, etc. are not broken or full of mud
  • Keep spare bulbs and fuses in the vehicle
  • Keep a spare number plate in the car
  • Ensure you have adequate spares and tools to do basic repairs. Different vehicles can carry different tools which can be pooled when required, to reduce the loads.
  • Consider the area and terrain you going to and even take a second spare tyre. Throw a spare inner tube in somewhere for emergencies.
  • Make sure that all tyres are of the same diameter, size and that rims have the same stud pitch.
  • If the rims differ on the tow vehicle and trailer, check that the wheel nuts will fit when swopping spare wheels as often mag wheel nuts do not work with pressed steel wheels and visa versa.
  • Check that tyres meet the minimum roadworthy specifications, as you do not want to be pulled over and get a huge fine for worn tyres.