Crossing an international border in South America is, on the whole, very easy. A little too easy in fact. I have crossed 14 international borders in South America since I arrived last August, and once you know how it works the first time, the rest of the crossings should be a doddle. There are still a few things to bear in mind when you are crossing borders in South America.
During my 10 month journey I have crossed the following borders, mostly by land, and a few by air:
1. Bolivia to Peru 2. Peru to Ecuador 3. Ecuador to Peru
4. Peru to Panama (by air) 5. Panama to Venezuela (by air) 6. Venezuela to Brazil
7. Brazil to Argentina 8. Argentina to Brazil 9. Brazil to Paraguay
10. Paraguay to Argentina 11. Argentina to Bolivia 12. Bolivia to Peru
13. Peru to Ecuador (by air) 14. Ecuador to Colombia
This of course does not make me an expert, however after crossing so many borders (including entering Colombia with an emergency passport) I can hopefully help guide you through without any problems!
Crossing Borders in South America by Land or By Air?
Backpackers and budget travellers like myself tend to favour travelling by land, if their timetable allows. Personally I prefer travelling over land because you can see more of the country along the way, and bus travel tends to be cheaper than flying! However, distances in South America can be vast, so sometimes for convenience and time saving, it is worth flying although cross-border flights are always more expensive than internal flights. Land crossings can be a little more complex as you are responsible for going to the immigration offices, which sometimes are not clearly signed, and they may not be open 24 hours a day. However, they usually ask fewer questions about onward travel, which is handy if you have no fixed itinerary. With air crossings, it is impossible to cross borders without going through the immigration procedure, you just follow the signs at the airports. They can be sticklers for questions though, and in some cases will demand proof of onward travel before they let you enter.
Things to remember when crossing borders in South America
Stamps in & Out
Sometimes it seems that no-one cares if you cross land borders illegally or not. In many border towns, locals (and sometimes foreigners) can pass between borders without checks if they are only staying in the next town. For example, in Santa Elena in Venezuela it is common to pop over to Brazil to take cash out and buy essentials that aren’t available in Venezuela, and come back across to Venezuela without needing to go through the immigration process. However, this practice makes it inconvenient for those of us planning to travel in the rest of the country. Buses or colectivo taxis across borders often won’t stop at immigration, so make sure you tell the driver you need to get off at immigration to get a stamp before you leave the country.
Crossing from Paraguay into Argentina I had enough time to hop off the bus, get an exit stamp & hop back on while the bus driver waited, although this is rare! Often the best thing to do is hop off at the exit immigration office & get your stamp, walk over the border (often across a bridge) to the new country immigration office, get your entry stamp, and hop on the next bus. It is your responsibility to get an exit stamp from your current country, and an entry stamp for the new country. If you don’t get an exit stamp, it appears that you are still in the country, so will have problems if you ever want to return – and more than likely you will be sent back to get am exit stamp before you are allowed an entry stamp for your next country. Failing to get an entry stamp will result in a hefty fine if you are stopped by the police, and possible deportation. So don’t forget!
In Colombia I met a young traveller who forgot to stop at the border for his stamps, and when he realised he asked at the next immigration office in town what he could do. They said he could either pay for an entry stamp there, which would cost around 150 euros, or return to the border 8 hours away and get a stamp for free. He opted to go back to the border!
The Time to Cross the Border
Not all border crossings are open 24 hours a day. If the immigration office is closed I highly recommend staying around until it opens, or checking if the immigration office in the next town will be able to stamp you in. It is not uncommon for travellers to have to return to the border to get their stamps. I prefer crossing borders during the day – partly for safety reasons, and partly because the immigration offices will be open! If you are travelling alone and you arrive at a border town in the evening or at night, it can be better to spend the night in a cheap hotel, and head for the border the next morning, instead of risk a night crossing.
Some borders are very busy at certain times of the year, for example holiday periods like Easter and Christmas, when people travel to spend time with their families. At busy times, try to arrive as early in the day as possible, and bring snacks and water – some borders can have huge queues where you will have to spend hours waiting to cross the border.
**UPDATE FEBRUARY 2018** The border between Colombia and Ecuador is very busy at the moment, apparently due to the high number of Venezuelans fleeing their country and heading South. I’ve heard stories of people waiting for 7 hours and longer to cross the border!
Crossing Borders in South America: Requirements for Immigration
You must check the entry requirements of each country well in advance of crossing the border, to make sure you have everything you need.
Some countries will require a visa for some nationalities, and have restrictions on the time allowed in the country. Bolivia for example will only stamp you in for 30 days as a tourist, and you can stay a maximum of 90 days in a year period. Other countries are easier for long-term stays, and just require a border hop to ‘re-set’ the 30 or 90 days they granted you on entry and you can stay again for another 90 days. This is becoming less common though, as all countries try to crack down on people overstaying and working illegally in the country.
Visas may need to be applied for in advance, when you have to send them your passport for checking, whereas some can be done online, and others just require a visa on arrival, with some sort of fee to be paid. These vary per country, depend on your nationality and can change without notice though, so keep up to date!
Several countries in South America require a vaccination certificate for Yellow Fever if you are coming from a country where yellow fever exists. I highly recommend getting the vaccination before you leave home, and carry a copy of your certificate with your passport. You should also take copies or a photo of it in case it gets lost or stolen. Other vaccinations are recommended but are not legally required, such as typhoid, hepatitis and rabies – check with your doctor what they suggest, or use your country’s government travel advice website.
Proof of onward travel
Some countries such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil (among others) can demand proof of onward travel to show you will be leaving the country when you say you are going to. If you have a flight out of the country that is best, as they won’t accept the typical backpacking story that you’re travelling by land and don’t know when you will leave.
If you have no idea when you will be leaving the country (within the legal time limit allocated) then before you cross the border you could book a refundable flight ticket and cancel it once you are safely in the country. Make sure you read the terms and conditions carefully though as the last thing you want is to be stuck with a hefty cancellation charge!
How to Avoid Purchasing Onward Travel Tickets:
FlyOnward.com is a fantastic service that saved my skin when I flew to Ecuador from Peru. I didn’t have proof of onward travel, and when I arrived to check in at the airport the check-in agent demanded to see an onward flight ticket. Luckily there is wifi in Lima airport, so I scampered upstairs to the wifi area and logged onto FlyOnward. They will book a flight for you, acting as a travel agent, and send you a confirmation, but cancel the flight 24 hours later, for just $9.99. I managed to “book” the flight on their website, receive the confirmation and show it to the agent in time to board the plane. I was terrified he would check if I really had the flight; perhaps he did – but either way it worked, and I was allowed to board.
**UPDATE 2018** I have recently been told that FlyOnward is not as reliable as it used to be. I have been doing some research into alternatives, and have been recommended onwardflights.com, returnflights.net or Bestonwardticket.com although I haven’t used any of these myself yet. If you know of any that definitely work please let me know!
Crossing Borders in South America: Don’t Break the Law!
Make sure you are aware of what is legally allowed to cross borders, and what is not. For example, coca leaves are legal to buy & use in both Peru and Bolivia, but crossing the border between the 2 countries with coca leaves definitely is not!
It may be obvious but I feel I have to say it: do not carry any kind of drugs or illegal substance across borders, and don’t attempt to smuggle anything. Don’t agree to carry anything across the border, even from people you know. There was a high profile case recently of 2 British women caught smuggling cocaine into Peru in 2013, who were caught and sentenced to 6 years in prison in Peru. It is not worth the risk – remember Bridget Jones? We don’t all have a handsome human rights lawyer who will come to our rescue.
Crossing Borders in South America: Get the Most Up To Date Information
For British travellers, use: https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/ for up to date travel advice and entry restrictions.
Americans can use the Department of State website: https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/country.html
Canadians click here for Canada’s requirements: https://travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories
Australia has Smart Traveller to help: http://smartraveller.gov.au/
Apologies if your country isn’t listed here – a quick google search for (country name) gov travel advice should bring up the relevant information for your country. I hope this guide will help you crossing borders in South America, I wish you safe and happy travels!
Do you have any more tips for travellers crossing borders in South America? Please share them in the comments below!
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