Visa requirements can be a hassle when crossing from one country to another – but add a motorcycle into the equation, and crossing borders becomes an even bigger challenge! Your world travel guide, Pat Harris, explains everything you need to get you and your bike from one country to another safely in Part 5 of our World Traveling Series.
In this article…
- The three main hurdles to overcome to get from country to country
- All about visas, and the different ways of getting them
- Carnets: visas for your bike (and how to get them)
- Smart tips to make going from one country to another a smooth process
Anyone who’s done a fair bit of international travel knows that border crossings and visa requirements can sometimes be a bit of a hassle, and that they vary greatly from country to country. And when you add a motorcycle into the equation, things get even more complex! But with a little bit of preparation before leaving home, you can greatly reduce headaches and wasted time while you’re on the road.
In this edition, I’ll cover the three main hurdles you’ll need to overcome in order to get from country to country:
- First, you’ll need to know the visa requirements for each country you’ll plan to visit (getting yourself into the country).
- Then, you’ll need to figure out what is required in order to get your motorcycle temporarily imported into each country.
A collage of visas and other paperwork from all around the world.
The first thing you’ll need to get sorted out is visas. Once you’ve figured out which countries you want to travel through, and how long you want to stay in each, look into the visa requirements for each one. Some countries may not require that you have a visa, and some may grant you a visa upon arrival, for a small fee. Both of these cases are fairly easy, as you don’t have to do as much in the way of pre-planning.
In the case of a country that will grant a visa on arrival, there are still a couple things you’ll need to verify before showing up. First, does the country grant visas at the port of entry that you are using? Some countries might grant a visa upon arrival if you enter through the major airports, but if you cross the border overland, or arrive via a smaller airport, you might not be able to get a visa at that particular location. And also, how long is the duration of the visa that they will grant you on arrival? They might only offer a 30 day visa at the border, but if you want to stay longer, you’ll need to apply for the longer term visa ahead of time.
Another thing to pay attention to is the currency that they accept payment for the visa in. They’ll likely accept something other than the local currency (which you probably won’t have, as you’ll just be entering the country), so it’s not a bad idea to always keep some U.S. dollars stashed away. But they may also have a very poor exchange rate for currencies other than their own, so it’s worth looking into beforehand to try and determine the most cost effective and convenient way to pay.
Visas by Application Only
If you can’t get a visa on arrival at your particular border crossing, or in the case of a country that doesn’t grant visas on arrival at all, you’ll need to apply for the visa beforehand.
One option, which is definitely more convenient (but doesn’t allow for as much spontaneity while you’re on the road) is to apply for the visas that you’ll need before leaving home. The primary issue that you’ll run into with this situation is that a visa will grant you a certain number of days in the country, but you’ll only have a certain amount of time for which the visa is valid. If a visa is only valid for six months, and you don’t plan on getting to that country until you’re nine months into your trip, there’s no point in trying to acquire the visa before you leave home.
So if you find yourself in this situation – or maybe you’ve changed your route mid-trip and added a new country to it – you’ll need to figure out how to get the required visas while on the road. In most cases, you should be able to visit an embassy shortly before you need to make that border crossing. It’ll probably just take a little bit of paperwork, some money, and a passport photo (keep a few of these on hand while traveling) to get your visa application started.
Some countries also require that you provide some type of itinerary and proof that you’ll be exiting the country before your visa runs out. For someone on a short and pre-organized trip, this isn’t so difficult, but when you’re on a motorcycle, chances are you don’t have everything planned down to the day, and if you do, there’s a good chance it’ll change. For an itinerary, just write up a brief description of your plans (even if you don’t have reservations for any accommodations, include hotels, hostels, etc. write it as though you did). If your plans change immediately, don’t worry about it…no one will be following you around or forcing you to check in.
“Proof of Exit”
Proof of exit can be a bit tricky. If you’re leaving overland, you can’t really provide any plane ticket receipt showing that you’re going home. One option that worked for me on both of the two occasions that I used it (for getting my visas into Indonesia and East Timor) was to print off flight details before actually buying a ticket. Using one of the flight booking sites online, I selected an appropriate flight that would get me home before my visa was up. On the last step before actually purchasing the ticket, I printed off all the details (which included date, time, and flight number). This document was presented to customs and was accepted as my proof of exit.
One slightly more expensive option was to buy and immediately cancel a flight. When I was traveling from Australia to New Zealand, I never realized that I had to have a flight out of New Zealand before Australia would let me check in for my flight (I’m still confused as to why they are worried about this in Australia). As I only found this detail out while checking in for my flight, I had to make a quick trip to a travel agent at the airport. It clearly wasn’t the first time she’d done this, so she booked me a cheap flight out of New Zealand for a couple hundred dollars, printed my tickets, and canceled my flight. I was refunded all but about $20 of the ticket price. I went back through the check in process, showing them my cancelled ticket out of New Zealand, and I boarded the flight without any further issues.
When you are making a trip to an embassy to apply for your visa, don’t expect to be walking out with your visa that day. Typically, it’ll take a few days at the least, so be prepared to spend some time without your passport while you’re waiting. This can make for a great opportunity to spend a few extra days exploring a city on foot. And a quick sidenote…always keep a few photocopies of your passport while you’re traveling, for situations like this, or in the event that it’s lost or stolen.
Penang, Malaysia is known for some really unique street art, along with wonderful food, so it was a great place to spend a few extra days while I waited on my Indonesian visa.
When Things Don’t Go According to Plan…
The only difficult situation I ran into on my trip was getting my visa for India. I researched everything before leaving home, and knew that if I acquired the visa ahead of time, it would expire before I arrived in Mumbai, so I would need to get it somewhere on the road. My plan was to visit the Indian embassy in Berlin. This seemed like no problem, as the timing would work out fine in regards to my expected entry and exit of India, and if I had to spend a week or more waiting around Berlin while my paperwork was processed, I figured that there was more than enough to do there to keep me from getting bored.
The problem started when I arrived in Berlin and stopped by the embassy, as I immediately found out that the rules for acquiring an Indian visa had recently changed (about a month after I’d been doing my research). They now required that your visa be granted in your home country. Luckily, I didn’t have to be present in my home country, but my passport did have to go to the embassy in Houston, Texas in order to go through the whole application process. So it didn’t seriously upset my travel plans, but it did cause a fair bit of stress and a few expensive FedEx trips for my passport.
After 3 days of dealing with customs in India, I finally got my motorcycle, and was immediately greeted by a very curious crowd.
Along with visas, some countries require that you’ve gotten certain vaccines before entry will be granted. First off, I’d recommend getting more than the bare minimum that is required, as getting sick on the road surely isn’t in anyone’s plans. If you want to limit the number of vaccines you’re getting, for whatever reason, at least make sure you have the required ones, as you could be turned away at a border crossing if you don’t.
When the vaccines are administered, your doctor should be able to give you documentation showing the date your various vaccines were done, and how long they are valid. As far as I can tell, it’s rare that vaccine documentation will be checked at borders, but you never know when someone will ask, so this information should be kept on hand.
Now You’re Clear…But What About Your Bike?
Alright, now that you figured out what you need to do to get yourself into the countries on your route, you’ll need to figure out how to get your motorcycle into each of these countries.
Some countries just won’t let you bring a bike in. Vietnam, for example, has a size limit on what they’ll let you bring into the country, so most people traveling on a big bike can’t get in (I’ve heard a few things about certain border crossings now allowing big bikes, so maybe this is changing). Other countries, such as China or Myanmar, will allow you to ride through, but they require a fair bit of paperwork, and that you travel with some sort of guide. If you’re going to travel through a country that requires a guide, your best bet is to get in touch with other people that are doing the same, and get one guide for your entire group, in order to split up the fees.
The rather large collection of paperwork that I carried with me.
Regardless of where you’re traveling, there is some paperwork you should always have on you when leaving your home country, both for yourself and your motorcycle. Obviously, you should always have your passport and driver’s license, but also consider getting an international driver’s license from your automobile association. This license will have your info in many languages, which could help eliminate some confusion.
For the bike, make sure you have your title (as you’ll often be asked for proof of ownership), insurance documents for that specific country (if a country requires you to get insurance, you can usually buy it at the border if you don’t do it ahead of time), and your registration. Strangely enough, I needed to present my registration (which was from the state of Colorado) on multiple occasions. Even if I didn’t need to have the bike registered in the country I was in, as it was just temporary, officials still wanted to make sure that the registration from my home was valid.
And don’t just bring one of each of these documents. Make sure to bring the original, along with multiple photocopies. This is good for a few reasons:
- First, if you lose the original of any of these documents, having a photocopy could probably suffice until a new one can be obtained.
- Second, I would typically present photocopies of all my paperwork when at a border crossing. I didn’t want to trust the border agents to not damage or lose anything, as the documents would often change hands multiple times.
- And lastly, if you really get into a sticky situation, a cop may demand documentation from you, and if a bribe may be his goal, he’ll have the upper hand if you’ve just handed him your original driver’s license and title. If you still have the originals packed away, and he just has a copy, you will be under much less pressure knowing that you can leave the situation without losing anything valuable.
Some police will want to closely inspect your paperwork if they stop you…others just want a picture!
Depending on what part of the world you’re traveling through, a carnet de passage may be required to get your motorcycle into certain countries. Think of it as a passport for your motorcycle. When entering a country that requires a carnet, a customs official will stamp the document, and when you leave, they will stamp it again, to show that your bike is leaving. The purpose of it is to make sure that your vehicle is only in the country on a temporary basis, and that you aren’t keeping it there and avoiding import taxes. If you need to get a carnet, contact your automobile association for information on how to get one. When I got mine in 2013, AAA didn’t offer them, but I could get one through the Canadian Automobile Association.
Some countries may also require some sort of temporary registration and a vehicle inspection. I had to do this in Australia and New Zealand. In both cases, they did a brief roadworthy inspection of my bike, verifying that it was in safe working order. They checked things like brakes, tires, headlight, taillight, blinkers, horn, etc. Once the inspections were completed, they could then provide me (for a decent fee, of course) with temporary registration and insurance. The inspection wasn’t terribly in depth. As long as the basics are in working order you should pass it just fine.
Waiting on my roadworthy inspection, so I can get registered for New Zealand.
Now that you’ve figured out how to get yourself and your motorcycle into the various countries you’ll travel through, I’ll move on to explaining how you can physically get your motorcycle to those countries (when you aren’t going overland, of course). Stay tuned for Part 6 of this series, where I’ll cover the process of shipping your motorcycle!
What would you like to know more about when it comes to preparing for an epic motorcycle trip? Leave your question in the comments below!