Surviving the Dreaded Beitbridge Border Crossing

Warning to our regular readers: this is another one of those “logistics” posts that we hope other travelers will find helpful.  We won’t fault you for waiting for our next post on the ruins and national park we visited as part of this trip into Zimbabwe!

For days we’ve been a little edgy as we mapped our weeklong excursion into Zimbabwe’s southeast corner. We have two border crossing options from our peaceful village in Limpopo, South Africa; both would be an adventure, but neither sound entirely appealing (but then I suppose no border crossing would ever be described in those terms):

  1. Outdoor adventure:  The first is an isolated track through the northernmost reaches of the Kruger, into Mozambique where political unrest is stirring and travel in some parts of the country (although not our proposed route) is by military convoy only, and finally through a remote Zimbabwe border post in a remote corner of the remote (see a theme?) Gonarezhou National Park, home to large predators and angry, poacher-weary elephants.  There are no paved roads along this route, and crossing the Limpopo River is via a wobbly, homemade, single vehicle ferry.
Note our "Tracks4Africa" GPS map descriptors: "Bad road" and "Difficult crossing"  Despite this, we would have returned home via this route were it not for the $162 in American visas ($82 each) required to cross the Mozambique border and a strange clunking sound coming from Snoopy's undercarriage.

Note our “Tracks4Africa” GPS map descriptors: “Bad road” and “Difficult crossing” Despite this, we would have returned home via this route were it not for the $162 in American visas ($82 each) required to cross the Mozambique border and a strange clunking sound coming from Snoopy’s undercarriage.

2.  Urban adventure:  Frankly, this option sounded worse: cross from South Africa directly into Zim via a large national highway system.  At the busiest border crossing in Africa.

Google Beitbridge and you will find discussion forums, trip reports and blog posts to make any independent travelers’ blood run cold.  “WARNING: Don’t use Beitbridge!” “Never going to Zim again!!”  “Avoid Beitbridge at all costs!!”  “Would I do it again? Never!”

We read that, to drive a car across the border, it usually takes 3-4 hours to navigate the combined exit from SA/entrance into Zim.

Here’s our checklist for slipping through [relatively] unscathed in a mere 2.5 hours.  Scroll halfway down if you need the beta to cross the other direction (from Zim into SA).

I.  LEAVING SOUTH AFRICA

We camped near the border and were at the border post by 7:15 am on a Thursday morning.

1) It was early so we had front row rock-star parking.  Parking is in front of and on the side of the public toilets and a Duty-Free shop.  Walk across the street to the border post building.

2) If you’re driving a car, the driver must first visit Customs (a small sign above a door says “Customs”) to complete a vehicle form (plate number, engine number (aka “VIN” to Americans), etc.).

3) All travelers must then go next door to Immigration to receive an exit stamp in their passports and on their vehicle form.  The entrance for Immigration does not have a sign that says “Immigration,” but rather “Departures.”

4) Return to your car and drive on the street toward the Zim complex.

We made it through the SA border control in 20 minutes.

[Side note:  According to the official Facebook page of the Zim side, SA deports illegal Zimbabweans on Tuesdays by unceremoniously dumping up to 500 of them at this border post, so keep that in mind for scheduling.]

II.  ENTERING ZIMBABWE

1) Park your car.   It was still early, about 7:40 am, which seemed to be a good time.  The parking lot only had a few cars, one long-distance bus, and the remainder were semi-trucks that have to go through a separate commercial inspection. When entering the Zim border post do not follow the semi-trucks.  Drive around them and stop in front of the moveable plastic barriers that block a small parking area directly in front of the border control building.  There is a guard at the barriers who will move a barrier and let you park if there is room. (Give the gentleman who promises to watch your car R10 for his efforts when you return.) If there is not room then you will have to park in the larger overflow dirt lot on the left.
2) Helpers.  When you exit your vehicle you will immediately be approached by a “helper” who will try to give you some forms, which, if you accept, will secure their services.  Decide whether to accept help from the “helpers.”  This is much-discussed on forums, and some people pay them to get them to the front of the various lines inside.  We just said no thank you and handled things ourselves.  We made some mistakes, though, so perhaps they could have saved us some hassles. One way to look at it is that you’re paying for a service and helping with the 50+% unemployment problem (like the guy watching our car), but plenty of people are convinced it’s a scam and the “helpers” don’t actually speed things along.  Not to mention they’re helping you to line-jump, which isn’t cool IMHO.

IMG_0507a

3) Get your gate pass. Once inside the process moves from right to left.  On the right is a window to pay your bridge “toll” and get a gate pass. The price varies depending on your vehicle.  We paid $9.45 (Zim switched to the US dollar several years ago) and had to provide a passport and car plate number (“registration number”). This pass is like Willy Wonka’s golden ticket; DO NOT lose this ticket or give this ticket to anybody, and be certain to get it stamped at every window you visit.    Repeat after me: get this gate pass stamped at EVERY station until you hand it over to the gatekeeper when you finally exit the funhouse.

The nice lady at this window pointed us to our next station and warned not to pay the touts (aka “helpers”): “They will rip you off.”

Taking a cue from her, we asked at each subsequent desk where we should go next and this proved very helpful.

4) Go to Immigration. This is the next section to the left.

IMG_0508There are 4-5 windows. The window on the left is if you need to apply for a visa (Americans do).  Do not wait in the immigration line as most people in the line are not applying for a visa. Instead go straight up to the visa window. There might be a short line…it’s a bit chaotic.

Wait in the Visa Processing line and pay $30 for a single-entry visa.  (Check your own requirements if you’re not American).
[Side note:The lady here was pleasant enough but spent so much time texting and chatting with her neighbor that we suspect that job performance evaluations are not based on the number of applications processed.  It took her 20 minutes to review our half-page visa application, take our money, and affix the visa sticker to a blank page in our passports (it’s one of those that covers an entire page, if you’re low on empty pages).  But she was friendly, and because I forgot to get the gate pass stamped here, when I returned an hour later she remembered me and let me bypass the long line when I caught her eye.]

5)  Up next: Customs.  Keep moving left.

IMG_0513This is where a “helper” might have helped, as it took us 4 tries to get it right.  Here’s the proper way to do it (I’ll spare you our bumbles):

a.  Papers you will need:

i).  Vehicle registration;

ii).  TIPS form;

iii).  Declarations form- if you have anything to declare; and

iv).  Passport

b.  Obtain the correct forms.  There is no sign that helpfully says “Forms Here.”  Instead, there is a security-guard-like-fellow sitting at the far end on a stool minding his own business.  Approach him and request a form. He will gladly give you a blue declarations form.  If you are in “the-know,” you will also request that he give you a TIP [Temporary Import Permit] application form (a pink form and is for the required third party insurance).  If you are driving a vehicle you must obtain a TIP Form.  (We learned this the second time through the line);

c.  Fill out the TIP forms, show the driver’s passport, and provide your vehicle registration papers, pay $55 for TIP, a road tax, and a carbon fee. (Only the driver is needed here, so passengers can relax and read a book for the next hour or so). *IMPORTANT: After you pay you will be given a receipt (Customs Payment Receipt).  This is a temporary permit that you are required to present when you leave the country…..Woe be unto the careless few who lose it.IMG_0506

d.  Declarations Forms. We didn’t have anything to declare, and nobody ever took our declarations forms, so this is a guess, but if you need to declare anything, try stopping at the desk marked Pay Duty Here, also in the Customs room.  (This applies to all passengers, not just the driver.)

[Side Note:  Both employees at this station were helpful but the power went out after our 3rd try and one of them never got his computer back online so things slowed down. The other, when we finally made it to her desk, discovered the missing gate pass stamp from the prior immigration station but let KC finish with her while I went back to the Immigration room and got the gate pass stamped by the friendly-texting-talking-to-her-neighbor-official.]

6)  Back outside now, we stopped in the building labeled Third Party Insurance across the street, but the young man only admonished me for taking photos (as if I was doing recon to invade Bob’s country) and waved us to the next building.  So you can skip this building as it’s been combined with the prior Customs stop.

7)  Police Station.   Go to the Police building (entrance in back).  Show your vehicle registration book and get your Gate Pass stamped.  If you’re renting a car, I imagine this is where you show the letter authorizing cross-border travel.  (Driver only here)

8) Vehicle Inspection.  Whew… Almost done!  Retrieve your car (tip the nice man R5-R10 for keeping an eye on it) and drive under the covered area (“the shed”) for a vehicle inspection.  Our inspection was cursory with a simple lift of the tailgate while KC chatted with the inspector about our foreign (Americans driving a Botswana car?!) vehicle.

9) Gate guard.  Now, if you’ve managed to hold on to your gate pass (ours was in 2 pieces by now), drive to the exit, show it to the first guard then hand it in to the second guard who will drop it in a box and lift the boom. Aaaand…

Welcome to Zimbabwe!

*********************

And here’s the routine from coming back across the other way.  [Side Note: If you arrive on a Sunday, make certain it is before 5pm, as that is the time the longhaul buses from Harare to J-burg arrive.  A couple who makes the trip monthly said those buses can disgorge 2,000 passengers in an hour!]

III. LEAVING ZIMBABWE

This is a 4 step process

1)  Bridge Toll/ Gate Pass.  If you are driving, you will need to pick up and pay for a gate pass.  Enter the door on the right hand side at the end of the covered area of the main building.  There will probably be a line snaking out of it.  Do not wait in this line.  It is the immigration line. First, squeeze your way over to the window on the far left and get your gate pass.

2)  Immigration.   Now stand in the long line snaking out the door.  Once you arrive at the window, present your passport, gate pass, and the Customs Payment Receipt that you received when you entered the country…somehow we had managed not to lose ours….whew.

[Side Note:  The Zimbabweans officials were very efficient when a long haul bus disembarked 50-75 people.  The officials immediately opened up another window that was just for the bus passengers.  Although there were now 2 lines snaking out the door, both lines moved quickly and we were out of Zim in under 15 minutes… most impressive.]

3)  More Stamping.  As you exit the building, there will be an official sitting a desk minding his own business.  The desk does not have any indication that a person should stop at this desk, but you must stop at this desk.  This official will make certain everything has been stamped and will then stamp everything confirming that everything has been stamped….it was actually a simple efficient method.

4)  Police Station.  Drive your car past the covered area and park in front of the police station.  Walk inside and present your gate pass, vehicle registration, and passport.  The gate pass will be stamped

5)  Leave the country:  Once in your car you will be stopped at the gatekeeper who will take your gate pass, lift he boom, and you’re out into the DMZ crossing the bridge to South Africa.

 

IV.  RE-ENTER SOUTH AFRICA

1)  Park in front of the Customs/Immigration building.  This will be on the opposite side of the building from when you exited the country

2)  Stand in line for the immigration window.  At the window present your passport.  *Important: If you are driving request a “yellow slip.”  I got lucky because the pleasant immigration official asked if I came in on a bus and when I told her I drove, she gave me a yellow slip, but others in the next line had to ask without the benefit of their official volunteering it.  Fill-out the slip at the window- it requires your vehicle information.  The official will then review it.  I don’t remember if she stamped it, because after going through “stamp-happy” Zimbabwe I had stamps on the brain.

3)  Vehicle registration papers & Yellow slip.  Move over to the customs windows, but don’t stand in the line, if you have nothing to declare.  However, if you are driving, you will need to slide up to the window next to the customs window.  There sits an official looking down at his computer, and you are not certain that you are at the correct window until he eventually looks up and compares your yellow slip with your vehicle registration and your passport. He will stamp it and send you on your way.

4)  Vehicle inspection.  Next drive over to a covered vehicle inspection area.  Present the yellow slip and your passport.  The police will search your car…or maybe just look at your dust covered, grimy, camping equipment, and send you down the road.

5)  Gatekeeper.  Give the gatekeeper your yellow slip and you are free.  Sunday afternoon’s entire exit/entry hoop-jumping exercises took under an hour.  C-Ya bye!

So, would we do it again?  Sure, especially now that we’ve done it once and know where to get all the forms before waiting in the lines.  We probably wouldn’t get “lucky” with a mere 2.5 hours again, so bring a book and plenty of patience.  And don’t drink coffee in the morning unless you have a passenger to hold your place in line.

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9 comments

  1. I imagine this will be very helpful to anyone planning to make the border crossing Very detailed, while lightened with humor! Congratulations on a successful crossing!

    1. Thank you! We owe our successful crossing to lots of South Africans who described their trials and tribulations on the Internet. But the one thing that was missing was the visa info: South Africans don’t need visas. Maybe we can help some other foreigners with our posting.

  2. The only way I know how to reward your effort – both in the actual crossing and then again in taking the time to explain so eloquently for others who follow….is to direct you to my own Balloon Fiesta post today – no directions needed (well – “look up” “ooh and ahh”!) 🙂

    1. Oh, thanks for a great pictorial! My aunt and uncle are there from Flagstaff this week.

      What I wanna know is this: when picking that ONE custom balloon that says to the world, “This is me!” …How does one decide on Darth Vader? Or an alarm clock?! (Ok, for ballooners maybe I understand the alarm clock…) Or Elvis? I rather like the zebra and hummingbird.

      1. Ive often wondered the same thing! So here’s an interning tid bit that the man standing next to us noticed – I never would have – the time pictured on that clock – 8:20 – was the exact time it took off…

  3. […] how, a few weeks ago, we found ourselves on the other side of the Beit Bridge border crossing and shortly thereafter, we were pulled over at one of Zim’s infamous police stops along the major […]

  4. […] Africa from a three day trip to Zimbabwe.  We endured the dreaded Beit Bridge border crossing (See Bobbi’s blog entry).  When we exited SA, Bobbi had no problems.  When I stepped up to the window, I only presented […]

  5. […] word “Beitbridge” gives me cause to reach for a large glass of wine. Caty had found a blog post about how to navigate the absolutely bonkers visa system at the border into Zim, and it saved our […]

  6. […] ämpäreistä matkalaukkuihin.  Sitten se show vasta alkoikin. Olimme tulostaneet Goal 42 -blogista englanninkieliset, pitkät, ohjeet siihen kuinka selvitä Beitbridgestä. Ne olivatkin monessa […]

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