Border Control: That Time I Went to Argentina for Absolutely No Reason

I’m very lucky to carry a British passport.

It makes my life wonderfully easy at border crossings around the world – particularly in South America, where I’ve watched numerous Americans being forced to hand over wads of dollars for a visa I get for free.

The bad thing, however, is that an English passport is usually so problem-free that I often forget it’s necessary to double check a country’s requirements. You’d think that travelling a lot would make me a pro at how to enter and exit a country correctly, right? But while my passport is stuffed full of stamps, my brain still hasn’t quite caught up.

And sometimes, not knowing how a country operates can really screw your travel plans up.

Border Control: That Time I Went From Bolivia to Argentina for Absolutely No Reason

I’ve had issues with visa restrictions before.

Last year in Asia when my six month India visa expired, I travelled onwards to Thailand, planning to fly back into Indian airspace solely to catch my pre-booked return flight from Mumbai to London. I forgot, of course, that my two separately booked flights would require me to pass through customs in Mumbai, collect my bag and recheck in – and that’s simply not OK when you don’t have a visa.

Luckily, things ended up working out, but it still warranted a very stressful 48 hours in Bangkok and at Mumbai airport. And the situation still didn’t teach me a very important lesson…. But let’s get to that later.

The task: trying to extend my Bolivian visa

I’d been in Bolivia for over two months when I realised I wanted more time to travel around the country than the ninety days my initial visa offered me. The problem was hearing rumours about those who’d overstayed their visas: some people had faced fines at the border, while others actually got deported.

Something I really didn’t fancy.

And by the time I reached Tupiza, in the very south of Bolivia, there were just ten days left out of my ninety.

Luckily, Tupiza is a mere hour’s drive away from the Argentinian border – so, after a quick Google search informed me I could simply cross the border, reenter and get myself another thirty days, my plan seemed simple.

Deceptively simple, as it turned out.

Border Control: That Time I Went From Bolivia to Argentina for Absolutely No Reason

Step 1: leaving Bolivia

I left Tupiza on a bus bound for Villazón which arrived in a cloud of dust an hour later, to the catcalls of tour guides and drivers wanting to take me as far as Buenos Aires. I pushed through and started walking – only to halt a few blocks later when I realised I didn’t know where the border crossing actually was.

A nearby cab took me five minutes down the road and the driver indicated across a bridge.

“Aqui es la frontera,” he assured me – so off I went, crossing the dusty bridge and balking slightly when I saw a double decker coach and a lengthy queue ahead.

I settled into the queuing system – typical Bolivia, with approximately forty people waiting to be seen by a single Bolivian clerk, responsible for allowing us to leave the country. It took at least two hours for me to shuffle forward enough to reach the man’s desk.

He asked where in Argentina I was going. I explained that I was simply crossing the border to come back in again – “Yo necesito solo una visa nueva por Bolivia,” I said, confident that I’d see him smile in understanding, hand me back my passport and close the first of four sections to this process.

Except he didn’t.

“Tu puedes tener solo noventa dias cada año,” he said. There was no chance of a smile appearing on this guy’s face.

You only get ninety days a year? What?!

My brain began to panic, calculating what on earth I was going to do. We had a whole month of travel planned out for Bolivia – surely I wasn’t going to have to bail on it all?!

The man in front of me clearly didn’t care in the slightest that this English girl was having a semi-breakdown in front of him. The speed of my Spanish increased tenfold as I got more irate (my Colombian teachers would be proud).

Border Control: That Time I Went From Bolivia to Argentina for Absolutely No Reason

I don’t have a photo of me getting irate. Instead, here’s me in some Bolivian hot springs – the kind of serene and tranquil feeling place that part of my brain was busy trying to channel…

Eventually, despite my protestations about simply needing those extra thirty days, the guy pointedly started to deal with the man behind me. And since I couldn’t really handle having both their arms stretched across my shoulder, I made an unhappy exit from the queue.

Step 2: Entering Argentina

As I wandered miserably towards the next queue, a much more helpful Argentinian official monitoring said queue listened to my sob story with patient ears, and reassured me that once I’d re-entered Bolivia again, I’d definitely be allowed a new thirty day visa. Buoyed by his words, I powered through the next hour of queuing until I reached my second counter of the day: the one that would let me enter Argentina.

By this point I’d made friends with the Bolivians around me, to the extent that one of the guys let me go in front of him. He also very kindly helped me explain my rushed exit/entrance/exit/entrance strategy to the border guard, who looked confused when I tried to say it solo.

But I got my entrance stamp, and it was like gold dust. Two counters down, two to go…

Step 3: Leaving Argentina, entering Bolivia. Again.

Once I walked the few steps to the other side of the bridge and reached the Argentinian exit queue, things moved a lot quicker. I shot through departing the country, and was suddenly at the last window of the requisite four.

Handing my passport over to the Bolivian at the counter I was already sidetracked, thinking mainly about what kind of lunch menu I’d look for back in Villazón.

And then he wrote ’10 days’ next to his still-fresh stamp.

I started speaking rapidly in Spanish once again – except this time there was less anger and more tears. I couldn’t believe I’d managed to waste three hours of my life standing in queues for absolutely no reason – not to mention wasting two pages of my already uncomfortably full passport.

And absolutely nothing had changed. I was still in the same situation, with ten days left in my visa and a desire to spend at least another month in Bolivia.

Border Control: That Time I Went From Bolivia to Argentina for Absolutely No Reason

The offending pages. Too many stamps, just one date…

Through my tears of frustration, the man explained what I already knew – that I could only have ninety days a year. When I tried saying the Argentinian official had said otherwise, he only shook his head at me. But then a friendly security guard behind me piped up.

“Can’t she go to an immigration office and get more days there?”

The Bolivian official immediately began to nod. Yes, that was certainly a possibility. Apparently the border guards can’t issue more days, but in any of the bigger cities – La Paz, Potosí, Cochabamba – you could easily get an extra thirty day visa.

Lucky, then, that Cochabamba was my next destination after visiting the salt flats – and that I’d be arriving there within my allotted ten day window!.. Or so I thought.

So what happened in Cochabamba?

The first day in Cochabamba started off interestingly enough. Our overnight bus stopped at 6am in the middle of a long line of trucks, cars and other buses, about 30km away from the city. There were protests, held by the drivers of Cochabamba’s public transport system in demand of higher ticket prices, and no vehicles were going anywhere.

So we started walking.

Border Control: That Time I Went From Bolivia to Argentina for Absolutely No Reason

After four hours of carrying all my possessions on my back under the steadily shining sun, through fifteen blockades comprised of a never-ending sea of minivans, and getting déjà vu of a very similar experience in Peru, we eventually made it to the immigration office.

And unsurprisingly enough, my day didn’t get any better.

Step 4: the actual reason why I get just 90 days in Bolivia per year

The man in this final office was actually wonderfully blunt. I explained my situation for the umpteenth time, hand shaking somewhat as I offered him a sheaf of photocopied passport stamps. I reiterated that “all the men at the border told me I could get a visa extension in the city”. And, as ever, I received a shake of the head.

It turns out that I, and many other English passport holders, definitely cannot get more than ninety days of travel in Bolivia per year. But what I’d never understood until the Cochabamba immigration office was exactly why.

Border Control: That Time I Went From Bolivia to Argentina for Absolutely No Reason

‘Why?!’ said all the Bolivian llamas. They were equally fascinated as to the outcome of this story.

Because UK passport holders are entitled to a free 90 days, any extra time they want to spend in Bolivia after this period needs to be paid for. Although it’s explained in terms of ‘a fine’, it’s actually just a nominal fee for each day that you’ve overstayed your visa.

Therefore, when I leave the country at the start of January, I’ll need to pay about twenty days of overstay time – and at approx. 20 Bolivianos a day, it’s little more than £40 altogether.

Searching for a moral in the mess

It’s not all bad, though. After travelling for seven years, on this continent for eleven months, in this specific country for long enough to know how ridiculously bureaucratic it can be, I still manage to royally screw up – and that’s an important thing to bear in mind. I sometimes forget how easy it is to get tripped up while travelling.

What I’ve learnt from such a debacle is this:

  • Do your research. Google can be great for most things, but a few results giving you the answer you’ve already decided you want isn’t always going to cut it.
  • Sort visa issues out with time to spare. Hearing I only had ten days gave me shivers – but I knew that if it turned out to be my only option, I could still easily sort a new plan and get out of Bolivia in that timeframe.
  • Don’t give up hope. Although the first guy gave me the same info as the last, if I hadn’t bothered going through the whole process I wouldn’t have realised I had a potential chance to fix everything in Cochabamba.
  • A little local language goes a long way. This may seem like an obvious one, but its one of the times I’ve been so glad I can actually speak Spanish. Who knows how I would’ve handled it with a language barrier as well as a literal border in front of me?

My only question now is: can I still use my Argentina entry stamp for a later visit?

Border Control: That Time I Went From Bolivia to Argentina for Absolutely No Reason

Have you ever had a border crossing which went totally wrong? Let me know in the comments! 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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28 Responses to Border Control: That Time I Went to Argentina for Absolutely No Reason

  1. Aggy December 19, 2013 at 7:09 am #

    I completely understand the frustration with VISA though in my case it’s not usually problems in the border but more in the embassy (since I only have Indonesian VISA). Knowing Spanish definitely helped you – I wish I knew some more French, Romanian and German when I had to live in those countries as I had some bureaucratic bumps.
    Interesting read! I always thought those with British/American passports never had any complicated problems 😀

  2. Agness December 19, 2013 at 10:16 am #

    I can totally relate to this post. Visas are so troublesome in most of the countries. I remember my struggle with working visa in China when I had to travel to Hong Kong every month to extend it, crazy!! Being British is awesome (I’m Polish) when traveling in South America, that’s so true and I I completely understand the frustration with the visa, but look… you had an amazing travel experience and all turned out to be great!

  3. Sally December 19, 2013 at 10:33 am #

    My Argentine tourist visa looks exactly like that it’s apparently good for 10 years… so you can probably use the same one later too. I’m a USA passport holder, though, so I can’t be sure.

    Visa things drive me insane, too. Latin America visa policies? Shoot me. No wonder I stayed in Argentina my entire 5 months, haha.

  4. Ben December 19, 2013 at 11:24 am #

    Oh no, that sounds like a bit of a nightmare. It is definitely important to research visa extensions properly before hand although ofcourse this isn’t always possibly as travel plans change all the time! The best thing is to go straight to the officials and try and get a straight answer instead of listening to several different rumours.

  5. Jennifer December 19, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    I too saw many Americans having problems at borders in South America – one that didn’t check that the guard had actually stamped his passport in…so when he came to leave the country there was no record of him even entering! It delayed everyone waiting on our coach, and when it was all sorted out and he got on the coach an hour later, the coach erupted in clapping. Moral of the story – always check your passport has actually been stamped!

  6. Tom Bartel December 19, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

    I could have been a lot worse. I tried to extend a visa to stay in Ecuador once, and finally just gave up and went to Chile. Their “fine” for overstaying, they told me, was $200 USD per day, which is what I was paying monthly for rent. Sometimes I just fail to understand why countries don’t want visitors to stay in their country and spend money.

    • Kevin G September 12, 2015 at 1:01 am #

      Uh, as if the USA, UK, etc. Are welcoming to anybody from these countries..
      call the wah mbulance.

  7. Britany December 19, 2013 at 2:25 pm #

    Visa issues can be such a nightmare. Glad to hear this one got solved and you’re able to stick around! I wish I had spent more time in Bolivia myself. It’s such an incredible country!

  8. Kellie December 19, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

    Wow this sounds like a bit of a drama. I think I probably wrongly assume that everything will be ok with a British passport too, as most of the time it is. We’ll be heading to South America, at some point (currently in Mexico with no real plans), so thanks for sharing this and all the tips. We will learn from you debacle.

  9. Jordan December 20, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

    I just narrowly avoided a stuff up, didn’t realise I needed to get a preapproved visa for Vietnam. Lucky there’s plenty of expats in chiang mai! Glad you got your situation sorted 🙂

  10. Max December 30, 2013 at 9:22 am #

    Sorry to be that guy, but you don’t have an ‘English Passport’.

    There is no such document. The first photo in your article shows that.

    • Flora January 1, 2014 at 4:17 pm #

      Yep, very true. Thanks for the clarification Max.

  11. Ben Alcock January 4, 2014 at 6:45 am #

    I overstayed my visa limit in Bolivia many, many years ago. From memory my Australian passport only entitled me to 30 days.

    We visited the local visa office in La Paz and, after much shaking of heads, serious facial expressions and tisk-tisking from the officials, new visa stickers were applied, passports were thumped, and we were good to go.

    Amazing what a few US dollars will do.

    Their passports might not be welcome in that part of the world, but their currency certainly does the trick.

    • Flora January 18, 2014 at 11:32 pm #

      Those green bills certainly do the trick. I think they changed the rules averagely recently, so whereas it used to be a renewable visa, now it’s a specific number of days per year. But this is for a UK passport as we don’t have to pay for that initial visa – American passports have to pay immediately on arrival, so I think it’s easier for them to renew their visa when its due to expire.

  12. Ruth January 5, 2014 at 4:35 am #

    I only had a problem with visas once. The border guy didn’t stamp my passport when entering Belize and then I had problems when trying to exit the country for a day trip to Guatemala. Going to the immigration offices seem like the way to go. For years, I have heard how US passport holders have 90 days in what is known as CA-4 (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua). Almost everybody says the only way to get more days is to exit the area. Then, I was reading about this guy who got an extension by going to the immigration office in one of the cities. The rules seem to be changing constantly (or applied at discretion) so even though you do research, things can be different.

  13. Brenna January 13, 2014 at 1:45 am #

    I love that you turned an incredibly frustrating situation into a great read – one of the reasons you’re my favourite travel blog! Oh and don’t even get me started on visa issues… though I’m in the same boat, Canadian passports are generally quite easy to travel with.

    • Flora January 19, 2014 at 12:05 am #

      Brenna, you’re making me blush 😀 I think we get quite cavalier with our ‘good’ passports though – or whenever I seem to, there’s an issue I hadn’t anticipated..

  14. NZ Muse January 21, 2014 at 10:22 pm #

    Blimey! I cannot imagine walking for four hours with my pack – you are a trooper. It is easy to get complacent about visas, hey – as an NZer we felt the same, the only place we had to get visas ahead of time was Vietnam (and apply for US visa waivers online).

    • Flora January 24, 2014 at 9:49 pm #

      Trooper I may be, but we literally didn’t have a choice in the matter. By the end I definitely wasn’t walking willingly!

  15. Gringo in Bolivia August 24, 2014 at 2:17 am #

    Bolivia has had a 90 day stay per year for years. It’s been a long time since you could just cross the boarder and get a new 90 days. They do this because they want to encourage foreigners living here to apply for residency.

    There is a new rule now, that tourists can apply for a further two months of a tourist visa. This must be done at a migraciones office and works out cheaper than the 20bs per day overstay fine.

    • Flora September 26, 2014 at 10:51 am #

      Thanks for the updated information! I still wish it was more accessible for tourists to find out though.

  16. Kevin G September 12, 2015 at 1:05 am #

    Try being a Bolivian trying to go to the USA or UK, Etc. For real frustration. .ah but those non anglo saxon people don’t matter, who cares if THEY experience problems.. BTW, who was it who put a gun to your head and forced you to go to Bolivia, or elsewhere?

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