Border crossing in the Middle East belongs to my favorite activities. Why not? I mean, we in the West have no idea what borders mean anymore. My parents used to have to wait for 12 hours when they wanted to cross from Slovakia to the neighboring countries in the time of communism. The car was taken apart and they were (almost) stripped naked. Where are the times when border crossing stories was the most horid and the most entertaining kind of storytelling? Well, not in Europe, at least. But Middle East is right there and right now!
Out of all borders, the Israeli one in my opinion, is the most interesting one. First of all, its a culture shock (especially coming from Egypt) – in all the good sense of the word. Clean. Toilets that you dare to sit on. Bistro with fresh sandwiches (or at least a vending machine on the Arava border). Very well stocked duty free shop (the Bet Shean Crossing) and place to sit down, put down the bags, rest a bit (all of them).
Now comes the “bad” part.
Israeli border can be a hassle because:
1. There might be many, many and many people
This is true especially after the day of Yom Kippur (when border crossings to Israel are closed), during major Christian holidays when the neighboring countries receive higher number of visitors and when you meet with Nigerian (April) and Russian (winter) groups in the border :-).
2. There can be a troublemaker
I have waited for hours at various Israeli borders because there was a suspicious bag or person that needed more attention. As you will very soon find out (after you arrive at the border), the Israelis take their borders very seriously.
3. The border officers might not be the most friendly ones
They are officers. They protect their border. They are not there to cater to your needs and feelings, so many people become aggravated by their behavior. Well – tough. One has to deal with that.
4. There might be a sharp item or just a bag of nuts
You might be delayed at the border and taken for a more-detailed control if your bag has something suspicious inside. It can be a plastic bag with the nuts you bought in Aqaba.
5. They want you to pay for all this!
Yes, there is a fee. Upon your departure from Israel, you are paying a border tax. All major currencies accepted. The price of the border tax varies according to the border, and it can change. Since 2007 when I started crossing the Israeli border, it has grown from 66 to 103 shekels.
SO, HOW TO MASTER THE ISRAELI BORDER?
Stay cool – take joy in the experience, think of your Mom and how you will share this story with her and with your friends. It is part of the whole traveling experience, and it might be the strongest moment of your trip in Israel.
Have plenty of time – you can be delayed for hours at some borders which you might get through in 40 minutes at others. Make sure you are not trying to catch the flight taking off in a couple of hours. NOT a good idea.
Bring some food and drink along – the Israeli border does sell food and drinks, but it might be long before you are allowed into the border building. Be prepared.
SMILE! You might meet the most amazing people who are crossing at the same time, you might find friends for life, and you might have the most amazing conversation amongst your painful hours of waiting.
THE BORDER CROSSING PROCESS
When you are crossing into Israel, this is what you can expect:
- Initial welcome at the gate – prepare your passport, tell them how many you are in the group, what is your purpose of the travel. They might ask your name – just to check that you are handing them YOUR passport and not a stolen one.
- Entrance to the building – you are going to be questioned in detail about the purpose of your journey in Israel. Have your hotel reservations ready to show them if they ask you. They might ask (very likely) about your departure and again it is good to show them your flight ticket. Do you know anyone in Israel? Are you planning to go to the West Bank? Who did you meet with in Jordan/Egypt? These might be some of the questions. Do not get startled if they call another person who will post the same questions. It is part of the procedure. Do not lose the colorful paper you obtain at this point.
- X-ray control. ALL, and I mean all things will go through X-ray. You will be asked to take off your jacket if you have one. At the other side of the X-ray machine, they might ask you to open one (or all) of your bags. If they do, they are probably looking for something specific that looked suspicious – this is where the nuts thing comes in! For some reason, nuts always end up being suspicious.
- Passport control – this may be another time when you are questioned about your trip to Israel. They might ask you for your parents’ first names or your mother’s maiden name. AND! Since January 2013 the Israeli authorities have not been stamping the passports of the foreigners!!! They are given the entrance visa on another piece of paper where the photo and personal information of the person are mentioned. It also says when the visa expires and what type is it. This is in practice at all border crossings expcept for Yitzhak Rabin one, which is to introduce the system soon. So, you will not get the Israeli stamp anymore, and as American (or other nationality from the countries when you can be holder of just one passport at a time) – you are going to be very sorry Syria is in such mess at the moment.
- All that said and done, you can head over to the sandwich stand, have your drink, use the bathroom. Only one more thing is required – as you are leaving the Israeli border gate, you will hand in a piece of paper you got in your passport when going through the X-ray. That’s it! Baruch haba – welcome.
- When arriving at the border, you will first head for the exchange office – this is where you purchase your border fees. You will get a piece of paper in your passport, do not lose it.
- Passport control – very easy process, no questions involved this time (you are going out, so who cares for your mother’s name?)
- In some borders you will HAVE to go through the duty free store, so spend some last shekels there. Buy something to drink. stop at the sandwich place – you might get hungry on the other border.
- You will be asked for the little stamped border fee (if they did not take it from you at the passport control)
- You’re done!