Do you know your rights when it comes to travelling overseas?


My sister and I have become avid fans of a programme called Border Security.

For those of you who don’t know, it’s a show that details how the customs and immigration officers at airports deal with folk who violate the laws of the country they’re trying to enter.

It’s rather fascinating to watch, but also very stressful because judging by the amount of people that go through customs trying to trick officers into believing that they’re in the country on valid visas, many people think they can get away with passing through the borders without getting caught.

From people trying to smuggle drugs into the country (this never goes well), to those who use cruel and unusual methods to sneak exotic animals for breeding purposes (it breaks my heart when I see animals squashed in containers and so obviously dehydrated and in pain because of movement restrictions), I’m always surprised by what people do when they’re travelling abroad.

I can’t help but wonder what is it that makes people take such huge risks when going to another country? Do they think that they’re exempt from another country’s laws because they’re at the country’s gates? 

WATCH: Border Security - Canada

Is the desire to make a little extra money so bad that they’d be willing to risk freedom in order to transport drugs in hidden compartments? It almost always ends badly.

But that brings us to the question – how do you protect yourself when you’re travelling overseas?

If you don’t want to be fined or even denied entry in the country then make sure you’re up to date with items that need to be declared beforehand.

What do you need to declare at customs? And what documents do you need to have in order for you to be able to pass through without any difficulties?

For seasoned travellers, the answers to these questions might be obvious, but not if you’re travelling for the first time. Here are some important issues to consider when you’re about to travel:

Research and find out what you can take with you

We’re not just talking about researching the places you’d like to visit in the country, but we’re talking about looking at things like their cultural customs and practices, and the laws they have in place.

Find out how their customs and immigrations processes work so that you know what you can take with you as hand luggage and what should remain in your other bags.

For example, according to South African Airways, you are allowed to carry liquids, gels and drinks on board, but they shouldn’t exceed the capacity of 100ml. Anything that goes beyond that won’t be accepted (unless for medical reasons or special dietary requirements).

Visit the website of whichever airline you’ll be travelling and check out the list of restrictions and make sure you follow the guidelines – also make sure that it’s in accordance with the border of the country you’ll be arriving at as well. If you’re uncertain – contact them and ask.

Have the necessary items declared

If you don’t want to be fined or even denied entry in the country then make sure you’re up to date with items that need to be declared beforehand.

If you’re on medication that needs to go with you, get a doctor’s letter in addition to having it declared. Make sure you also have certified copies of your prescriptions on you and saved on an external drive in case you encounter any problems.

While there are certain items you can bring in duty-free, it usually depends on the quantity of what you’re buying.

If you participate in any criminal activities, the South African government can’t protect or prevent you from going to prison.

Gift purchased or received? Taking a case of wine or a box of biltong with you? Declare it. Also, before you decide to bring food with you, make sure that the country doesn’t prohibit you from actually bringing it into the country.

Passport, Visa and identity documents

Everyone will tell you that you need to have your passport, visa and identity documents on hand, but you should also make certified copies of your documents and keep them on hand in case you lose or misplace them.

According to Traveller24, you should also make sure that your passport is valid – some countries require one that has at least six month’s validity on it, so don’t book your trip without making sure that your passport won’t expire within a month or two of you going on the trip.

READ MORE: Going abroad: Tips to take the hassle out of long-haul travel

Oh and while we do enjoy the benefit of being able to travel to certain countries visa-free, please don’t try and get a job while in that country. Trust me, it almost never goes according to plan and getting caught could see you deported and banned from ever travelling to that country again.

Go through the right channels – apply for a proper work permit instead.

Registration of South Africans Abroad  (ROSA)

According to the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), whether you’re travelling abroad for the first time, are a frequent flyer or planning to live abroad for a few months, it’s always a good idea to register and have yourself listed on the Registration of South Africans Abroad service.

In the event of an emergency or if you need to be informed about any attacks within the country you’re visiting, this service basically allows the government to inform you of any relevant information that you or your family need to be informed of and allows them to assist you in the event of any natural disasters or any trouble you may find yourself in.

Note: Once you leave South Africa, you are subject to the laws of the country you’re travelling to. If you participate in any criminal activities, the South African government can’t protect or prevent you from going to prison.

Usually passengers are prioritised in the order that they are checked in – but any offloading should take place before the passenger even gets near the plane.

What they can do, however, is ensure that you’re being treated fairly according to your legal rights. So think twice before you consider partaking in any criminal activities.

What should you do if you’re being manhandled or treated unfairly at customs or in the aircraft?

By now, you’ve all probably seen the video of a man who was brutally dragged from his seat because United airlines had overbooked that flight. What happened was completely unconscionable and if we were in that man’s position, we’d sue the living daylights out of that airline.

Weirdly enough, according to Traveller24, airlines are allowed to sell more tickets than there are available as people tend to not show up, or cancel trips.

If an airline demands that a customer give up their seat, however, they would have to compensate them and provide them with a physical copy of their compensation rights.

But, does the customer have the right to refuse giving up their seat considering that they paid for it? And what happens when staff or customs officers mistreat you?

We spoke to Selene Brophy, editor of Traveller24 and she says:

“It has become common practice across the globe for airlines to overbook flights. The overall aim is to maximise revenue around load factors as well as avoid having empty seats that are either not used due to no-shows as well as being able to accommodate passengers on standby who urgently need to travel.

“While policies vary from airline to airline – allowances are made for the offloading and overbooking practice by the Consumer Protection Act in article 47, detailing parameters of due process that should involve prior notification and compensation where possible.”

“Local airlines say that while it seldom happens, the conduct is outlined in the conditions of carriage which explains the due steps around notification and compensation policies of each particular airline.

“According to the Head of the Airlines Association of South Africa, Chris Zwiegenthal, these requirements vary quite extensively from airline to airline, and passengers should familiarise themselves with it.

“It can either be a voluntary or involuntary process, when it comes to offloading.

“Voluntary means the passenger is offered the option to travel at a later stage. When it is possible and suitable for the passenger, added to the compensation of a reduced ticket price making it even more worthwhile, then the process is smooth.

“However involuntary is never ideal, as was the case with the United passenger. Usually passengers are prioritised in the order that they are checked in – but any offloading should take place before the passenger even gets near the plane.

“According to Zweigenthal airlines very rarely want to antagonise or disrupt the travel plans of their passengers and he knows of no known instance locally, similar to the United airline incident – which has largely been attributed to a systems issue.

“Traveller24’s advice is to know you conditions of carriage and be timeous in your arrival and check-in processes so as not to get into any compromising situations. While involuntary offloading might not be frequent, delays or cancellations are.  

Here’s what you should do when in this situation.

READ MORE: What SA travellers should know about airline overbooking and offloading policies

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