Getting through border posts are notoriously the worst part of travelling in Southern Africa. One of the most vital aspects of preparing for your trip is to ensure that you have the right documentation for getting yourself and your vehicle through the border without wasting too many hours and getting yourself worked up too much.
If you want to travel Africa, you need a LOT of patience to get through most border posts. It is of no use to be in a hurry or to get uptight. Remember, if you take off your hat and your sunglasses and put on a smile, chances are good that you will get a much warmer reception.
Some people have had unfortunate experiences with having to pay bribes to officials at border posts and at some border posts you will feel harassed by opportunistic volunteers who offer to guide you through the official proceedings (of course at a small fee) or want to trade money for the local currency.
Having to pay bribes is most definitely not at the order of the day. In fact, if you have the right documents you don’t ever need to pay a bribe.
You can choose to ignore the harassing entrepreneurs but in some cases it really is worth the money to let them guide you through the whole process. When you arrive at a border post you are often greeted by long queues without any indications whatsoever of what forms you need to fill in, what is expected of you and which windows you should visit in which order. The only way of knowing is to ask and quite often you end up at the back of the queue again because you didn’t fill in the right form.
If you do decide to make use of these fixers be ready to stand your ground on what you are prepared to pay them for their services and check the exchange rates before you get to the border otherwise you might end up getting cheated badly.
The Namibian borders are most probably the easiest to cross from South Africa and from reports it seems like Zimbabwe (especially Beitbridge and Chirundu) are the most difficult. You need to be well prepared with all the necessary documents.
First things first
- Make sure your passport is valid for six months after you are due to leave the country.
- South Africans don’t need visas for neighbouring countries but if you are a foreigner you need to check whether you need a visa.
- You need a valid driver’s licence in English. If your licence is not English, you will have to get an international driver’s licence. (It is in any case advisable to get one.)
- Get the inoculations you need like Yellow Fever.
- Check which goods are prohibited to take across the border.
- Check what you are allowed to take through customs and what not. Countries differ as to what they allow duty free (like cigarettes, tobacco, wine, spirits and perfume) and there also might be restrictions on fresh produce like meat, meat products, fruit and vegetables.
- It is compulsory for any vehicle, caravan or trailer registered in South Africa to have a ZA sign displayed when it crosses any border.
Documents needed for your vehicle
If you are the legal owner of the vehicle that you are driving, you need the following:
- Original vehicle registration paper or a certified copy thereof.
- A Police Clearance Certificate stating that you are the legal owner of the vehicle. (Note that this has changed since 2014: the SAPS no longer issue vehicle clearance certificates for tourist cross border travel and will only do so if the vehicle is being exported from the country. -Ed)
If you are not the legal owner of the vehicle (e.g. it is still being financed by the bank, rented or a borrowed vehicle), you need the following:
- Copy of the vehicle license papers (where the renewal disk is cut out annually) or a certified copy of the vehicle registration papers.
- A letter from the financial institution/owner that authorizes you to take the vehicle across the border. This letter must stipulate dates that you are allowed to take the vehicle out of the country and be signed by a Commissioner of Oaths. Note if you rent a vehicle or borrow one you will need letters of consent from both the financial institution and the owner. The financial institution usually won’t give you a letter unless you provide them with proof that it is insured across the border.
- An affidavit from the police, giving you authorization from the owner/financial institution to take the vehicle abroad.
If your vehicle is registered outside SACU (Southern African Common Customs Area which consists of Botswana, Lesotho, South Africa, Swaziland and Namibia) you will also need to get a Carnet de Passage en Douane (CPD). This is the international customs document which covers the temporary admission of a motor vehicle.
Procedure at the border
Each individual in your group needs to fill in an arrival/departure form.
Requirements differ from country to country but at most border posts in Southern Africa the driver of the vehicle will need to:
- Get a TIP (Temporary Import Permit) for your vehicle.
- Get police clearance on your vehicle.
- Pay cross border charges to the local Roads Agency/Fund.
- Buy vehicle insurance.
- Buy a road permit for your vehicle.
- Complete the vehicle register and obtain a gate pass for the vehicle. The gate pass must be signed by both the customs department and the immigration department; otherwise they will send you back to the office for the additional stamp!
- Always check that your passport has been stamped according to the correct dates of your stay and have it amended immediately if necessary.
- It is best to declare all your valuable equipment like laptops and cameras at each border crossing otherwise you might end up having to pay import duty on your own equipment. Have a list of all your cameras and electronic equipment with serial numbers and values ready at the border. It will then be much easier to complete the forms.
- Check that your TIP has been stamped by the official when you entered the country as you will have to hand this stamped official document in when you leave the country again.
- Nowadays you will be checked for Ebola by a simple procedure of checking your temperature.
- You are allowed to stay for a maximum of 90 days and therefore you will only get vehicle insurance for three months. Make sure you don’t overstay your welcome.
- Make sure the registration number on your vehicle registration paper is the same as the registration number of the vehicle otherwise you are going to run into some trouble.
- Also ensure that the VIN (vehicle identification number) and the Engine Number on your vehicle registration paper correspond with those on your vehicle and that you know where the engine number is printed on your vehicle in case the border official wants to check that.
- Keep all your official documents together in a plastic envelope. Print your vehicle details (like license number and make) in large letter type and put that, together with your registration paper, back to front in the envelope so that it is readable through the envelope. If you have a trailer, put its detail to be visible if you turn the envelope around. Whenever you are asked for your vehicle or trailer details, you just hold your handy envelope against the window for the official to read.
- When you return to South Africa, you are not allowed to take fuel in containers through the border without paying import duty. Empty the fuel containers into your vehicle before crossing the border.