I've lost count of how many land borders I've crossed on a motorcycle. But taking a wild guess, it must be well over 50 borders. Some would say I have a lot of experience crossing borders on a motorcycle. That may be true, but I still managed to end up with an illegal motorcycle in El Salvador.
In this blog, I will give some answers based on my own experience. And hopefully, you will not end up riding an illegal motorcycle like I did during your motorcycle adventure!
Once you start crossing land borders with a vehicle, you’ll realize how easy it is to travel without a vehicle. You will just fly to a country and all you have to do is to go through immigration. Maybe you have to get a visa beforehand, but often you can get one at the airport, or sometimes you can even enter without one.
Things become a bit more complicated once you bring a vehicle with you. I write “vehicle” because whether it is a car or motorcycle, in both cases, you have to go through the same procedures. Besides immigration, you now also have to deal with the process of customs.
Traveling around the world on a motorcycle means that you are always just temporarily importing your motorcycle into a country until you are leaving it for the next one. Temporary is the keyword in the entire process. When you enter a country with your motorbike, the first thing a customs officer wants to know, is whether you are importing your vehicle into the country permanently, which means you have to pay import taxes, or temporarily.
When you enter your bike temporarily, you either need a Carnet De Passage or a Temporary Import Permit (TIP).
Carnet De Passage
A carnet is required for countries like India, Pakistan, and several African countries. A full and up-to-date list of the countries that require this, can be found on the website of Overlanding Association.
A Carnet De Passage is basically a passport for your motorcycle, and it is suppose to work as a guarantee that you are not permanently importing a vehicle. You are merely passing through. It needs to be bought from an automotive organization, and the costs for this document depend on the value of your vehicle and where you buy the carnet. For more information on where to get one and the costs, check the website of Overlandsphere.
In general, a Carnet De Passage is costly and a bit of a hassle. On top of that, many customs officers don’t quite know what to do with it and can make mistakes filling it in. That’s why South, Central and North America are great places to travel, because here, you don't need a carnet!
Temporary Import Permit (TIP)
To bring your vehicle into a South, Central, or North American country, you need to get yourself a Temporary Import Permit from the customs office. Often, a TIP doesn't cost anything at all, and if they charge you, you'll usually pay something between 15-50 USD. Normally, the customs officers will do the paperwork and hand you this permit. But still, don’t count on it! When I wanted to enter Colombia, they recently had changed the rules, and now you have to sort it out yourself using an online form.
In order to get a TIP from the customs officers, you always need to show your passport and always show the ownership papers, also called a title in some countries, of your vehicle.
I travel on a motorcycle that has been registered in The Netherlands. My ownership document has the shape and size of a credit card. It states who the motorcycle is registered to and provides details on the motorcycle like the year it was built, engine size, and engine/frame number.
Sometimes, the customer officer will ask for your driver's license too. I then show my Dutch one. I also carry an international driver's license with me, which you can buy at your local automotive association. During all my travels, only once I have been asked for my international permit. This was in Thailand. In all other countries, my Dutch driver’s license has always been accepted.
Once the customs officers have checked your documents and processed the TIP, they will hand you a paper document: the TIP. Please read it carefully to see if all the details are correct, and keep it in a safe place, as you will need to show it again once you leave the country. Usually, the TIP is valid for the exact same duration as you are allowed to stay in the country. So if you got your passport stamped and can stay 90 days in a certain country, the TIP will also state that you can have your motorcycle in the country for 90 days. If you overstay those 90 days, the fines can be huge or in the worst case scenario, your motorcycle might be confiscated.
Once you leave the country, customs at the next land border will cancel your TIP. Having your TIP canceled is important, because when it remains open, you may be registered as having a vehicle illegally in the country. When you enter the same country again at a later time, with or without your vehicle, you may get into some serious problems.
Piece of cake
That is it. That is all you need to know when you want to cross a border with your own motorcycle. When you travel on a rental bike or a bike that is NOT registered in your own name, you cannot always cross borders. I have written about this on my blog about choosing the best bike for motorcycle travel, whether to rent, ship, or buy one locally.
What went wrong in El Salvador?
If it is all that simple, then what went wrong when I entered El Salvador? Well, I learned that, apparently, not every land border post has a customs office. The immigration officer at that border stamped my passport to let me in, but there was no customs officer that could process the TIP.
I ended up riding around in El Salvador on an illegal motorcycle. I could have gotten into trouble with the police if they had stopped me. Luckily that did not happen!
I did get into trouble though when I tried to leave El Salvador’s and enter its neighboring country, Guatemala. The customs officers in Guatemala need to see the exit papers of El Salvador, which I didn’t have, because I never entered legally. In the end, I managed to get out of El Salvador and into Guatemala on my motorcycle without paying a fine! How I did that, you can view in Illegal.
In any case, I learned my lesson and will now double-check if the border crossing that I have in mind, has a customs office!
It’s interesting that you were able to enter with you passport stamped legally yet also bring a vehicle in illegally. But I’m happy it worked out for you and Alaska in the end. And I am quite pleased to get to meet Charly and begin viewing his YouTube channel now. Incidentally, I’ve met Charly before! In Ouray Colorado when he was doing the TAT. Our paths crossed there as I was riding the Colorado BDR. I have photo of him with his moto and mine parked on a side street there in Ouray. We ate lunch at the same restaurant there. As he likes to say, that was what the scriptwriter wrote for the two of us that day. I only wish I had caught on to what he was doing and started following him then. Thanks to you both for making my motorcycling passion and life that much more interesting! All the best to you both!!
On a trip (especially as long as each of your have been Noraly) something is bound to go wrong. Handeling it and resolving it with a calm state of being is always the best. Don't loose your cool. That is one of your best qualities and examples to those that follow you.
Oops, make that 55 years ago, I'm still young.
You have inspired me to purchase a bike. I'm looking at an African Twin Adventure Sports ES to go back to NM and ride some gravel roads where I grew up. Rode a dirt bike a little in my early twenties, but never on the street, so after 65 years it's bucket list time to ride again. Stay safe
Hi Noraly, You are such a likeable person it's little wonder every one helps you out if the situation goes belly up.