You haven’t really travelled until you’ve been pressured for a bribe. Meeting a dodgy cop who wants to verbally strong-arm you out of your precious savings is an inevitable conundrum for any long-term adventurer. But travelling with your own vehicle makes you an even easier target for the local authorities because there are more opportunities for your paths to cross and, of course, any foreigner with a car must have loads of money. Right? Right?
Especially for overland drivers, but adaptable for any kind of travel: These are our tips for keeping your hard-earned money in your pocket and out of the hands of corrupt officials, either on the road or at the border.
1. Know the law
Do background research and familiarise yourself with things like road rules, speed limits, road tax, and the exact amounts of the necessary visa and import/export fees at the border. If you know you’re in the right, and you know exactly how much something is supposed to cost and who to pay it to, you can hold your ground when confronted with the unexpected, and just wait it out.
2. Smile and be respectful
They’re probably going to shake your hand. They’re probably going to smile and try to be friendly. And then they’re going to try and extort money out of you. Keep the smile on your face and play nice as long as you can. Authorities are the same in every country: they want you to pay respect to their position, and they’re looking for any excuse they can to deem you a problem. Don’t give them that excuse. Be smiley and be respectful, but be firm.
3. Keep your wallet empty
It’s hard to bribe someone who has no money, and rather than tell them that you’ve got no money, it’s far more convincing just to show them. Best to remove credit and bank cards too, and keep them somewhere safe.
4. …Except for some worthless currency from a nearby country
Make it a dramatic appeal and play to their superiority complex. “What do you want, officer? I don’t have any dollars or euros or [local currency], nothing. I have 1000 [sum, dong, whatever], do you want that?” Of course they don’t want that shit, in the “real world” it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. But they’ll probably think your offer is funny… not only do you get the local joke, but you’ve also inflated their ego by bigging up their country.
5. Never admit to knowing the local language
Don’t play their game, and don’t let them force you into a situation where they have the upper hand. If they have to communicate in English (which, chances are, they don’t know very well), they’ll either lack the vocabulary to pressure you into doing something you don’t want to do, or they’ll just think the whole thing is too much trouble and send you on your way.
6. Never believe anything you can’t read
Be suspicious when cops show you anything in the local language that you can’t read, especially when it has a price attached to it that your background research didn’t bring up. If you’re pulled over for a traffic violation and the officer pulls out his big book and shows you The Law and The Fine, it’s probably bullshit. Show him your empty wallet and play the foreigner card. In our experience the customs documents have been legit, but watch out when it comes to customs brokers or third-party insurance.
7. Be patient and wait it out
The authorities won’t be happy that you’re not playing along nicely like the locals do. They might get huffy, or even angry, but usually in the end it turns into a contest of wills—who can hold out the longest? Stand your ground and be prepared to wait. It may take some time, but after a while they’ll realise that you’re not going to budge, and that this quick dollar is way more trouble than it’s worth. Another related tip we’ve read—an exception to tip #2 that we thankfully never had to use—was to make a big scene around as many people as possible, in English. The cops know what they’re doing is dodgy, and they definitely won’t like the attention. In the end you just want to show them that you’re not playing the game, and that you’re too much trouble to bother with.
8. Know that bribes are negotiable
If you have done something wrong, and hopefully it’s not something too wrong, know that any fee an officer is asking you to pay on the spot is usually negotiable. You can argue that you’re foreign and didn’t know, or that you’re in a rush, or that you weren’t going that much over the limit. It’s the same game the locals are playing when you see them on the side of the road arguing with the police, and if you’re persistent enough the money you hand over to the corrupt cops is probably cheaper than the official fine.
Have any personal tips or awesome bribe dodging stories? Share them with us!