The 3 Steps of Entry: Visas, Immigration, and Customs

There are three steps to entering every country.  Well, nearly all.  For some reason there is a segment of American society that thinks that crossing our southern border shouldn’t require anything, but that’s a topic to be discussed over a few beers.

The first step is to determine if a visa is required.  Some countries have treaties that allow tourists to enter without one, but not all.  Do some research before you book flights, but here are a couple of experiences we had with Visas:

  • Jordan:  Bella found a consulate in a travel agency in Southfield.  We downloaded the forms and she took them in with our passports, paid the $40 fee, and were awarded them on the spot.  Be careful with dates though.  The Jordanian visa was good for one entry within three months of issue.  The date was hand written.  They were issued in December and mine was written 12-5-2011.  Bella’s was written Dec 5 2011.  She went through immigration in Amman in front of me with no trouble and the same guy told me mine was expired.  Americans and their MM/DD/YY sequence can cause problems since most of the world uses the logical DD/MM/YY pattern.
Jordanian Visa
  • Russia:  That was the most invasive questionnaire ever.  List all the countries you’ve visited in the last ten years, including dates.  Have you any experience with explosives or nuclear material?  Have you ever been involved in an armed conflict?  How much savings do you have and how do you plan to support yourself during your visit?  Russia also requires a letter of introduction and an address at your destination.  Fortunately there are intermediaries who offer that service.  For a fee, of course.  We paid for a three year multiple entry and plan to take advantage of it.  You are also required to register your entry with the police.  Fortunately, the hotel takes care of that and provides a form as proof.  Photos of ours are here.
Russian Document
  • Suriname:  They require a tourist card that is relatively inexpensive and can be purchased at the airport.  Read about that one here since we couldn’t live with just one.  They also claim to require a proof of inoculation for Yellow Fever.  We weren’t asked to prove it, but we had the yellow international vaccine document with us just in case.
Suriname tourist cards, stamped upon entry
  • Colombia and Guyana:  They don’t require one upon entry but they charge a fee and issue a ticket upon exit.
  • Costa Rica:  The exit fee is $29 and MUST be paid in USD.  Bella recommends always carrying around $100 in small denominations just in case.  It prevents you from getting ripped off too badly on the exchange rate in a pinch.  If all you have are $20 bills that exit fee will cost you $40.  You may get change back in the local currency.
  • Dominican Republic:  They have a $10 entry fee that must be paid in USD prior to reaching immigration.  We flew in from Toronto, Canada.  The line for the one ATM was pretty long.

Once you’ve determined you have the proper paperwork and you’re on the plane you’ll have to prepare for immigration.  Nearly every country has some sort of paperwork required to be presented along with your passport.  Airlines hand them out but won’t have pens.  Bring your own!  Inexplicably you’ll see people standing around filling out forms in front the of immigration line.  What did they do with their time on the plane?  At any rate, the common questions include your citizenship, passport number, name and address of your hotel, and the purpose of your visit.  The agent in Colombia was quite unhappy with us when we arrived without a hotel booked.  We were referred to his supervisor for an exciting discussion.  Some entry forms also ask some customs information and other countries require a separate form.  Usually every person gets an immigration form regardless of age and customs forms cover a family, but not always.  The flight attendants will know what is required for the most part.

Just because you show up with the right forms and your passport doesn’t mean you have the right to enter that country.  Every single country has the right to deny you entry if they find a reason.  Remember, you’re a guest.  Act like a jerk and that guy with a computer and a stamp will make your life miserable.

Usually there’s a line for the local citizens and one for visitors.  Choose the correct one, wait patiently, present your passport and forms, and the officer will scan your passport and ensure you’re planning to leave within the appropriate time.  If you don’t have a flight number and an exit date they aren’t happy.  Often, when we book flights on different bookings we can’t even board the plane without proving we have a prepaid way to get home.  They don’t want you to be a burden on their citizens nor do they want you to get a job under the table and avoid paying more than your share of taxes.  That’s why countries like Mexico give you a portion of the form to hold onto until you leave like this:

Mexican Exit Card

The immigration agent will scan your passport, which is checked against the manifests of the planes that arrive that day as well as some sort of international database.  That’s how folks who have the misfortune of a DUI in the last 90 years get barred entry into Canada.  Upon departure from Mexico the airline will staple your exit card to part of your boarding pass.  I can’t imagine somebody correlates all those pieces of paper but they have them if necessary.  The forms all have bar codes so it’s probably a simple exercise with the proper technology.

Once the immigration officer is satisfied you’re not a threat to their sovereignty they’ll stamp everything, including your passport (often poorly), and off you go.

Sometimes the next step is medical quarantine.  Jamaica asks what countries you’ve been to in the past few months and if it is one on the list you have to go to a secondary screening.  Some countries like Ecuador use an infrared scanner to detect elevated temperatures so if you’re worried about being sick I recommend taking Tylenol or other fever reducer a couple hours before landing.

The next major step is customs.  If you’re flying JustACarryOn style, look for the exit, but if you’ve checked bags you will need to go claim them, regardless of whether you’re making a connecting flight or not.

Customs is looking for things you’re not allowed to bring in, like livestock and fruit, but more specifically drugs and huge amounts of cash.  Don’t be surprised to see drug sniffing dogs and armed agents.  Often the customs agent will just look over your card but you may be selected for inspection.  Mexico has a push button lottery system.  They say “press here” and if the light turns red they’re going to open all your bags.  We’ve been selected upon returning to Detroit because the agent was suspicious because we arrived from Haiti via the Dominican Republic without anything other than the clothes on our backs.  It obviously didn’t take long since we didn’t have much to go through.  Netflix has a show all about the Canadian Border Patrol if you really want to see what people try to get away with and what the agents find.  And the penalties!  It’s amazing.  On a personal note, I once bought a bottle of Jameson and a bottle of Powers for $18 and $14, respectively, from duty free on my way into Canada.  I declared them, of course, and since they exceeded the allowable volume, I was sent in to pay duties on the excess (the cheaper bottle of Powers).  That cost $19 CDN… Whoops.

I hope this is helpful.  Just remember you’re a guest in a foreign land.  You’re not a citizen so you don’t get all the rights the locals get and they don’t owe you anything.  You don’t get to tell them how to live or what is wrong with their country.  Don’t be surprised to hear their opinion about your country, especially if you’re an American.  For some reason everybody knows enough to have an opinion, right or wrong.  Be good and represent your homeland with class.





I'm an engineer, a veteran, and an avid traveler. I agree with Robert Louis Stevenson - "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."

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