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Welcome to Tanzania: Scammed at Immigration

As humans, we’re not comfortable with the unknown, and thus when faced with a new situation we immediately form first impressions, a lasting set of ideas and emotions which, whether right or wrong, give us something to work with, something to grab onto.

Our first contact with a new country is often in the airport, that first window of insight into a culture, it’s economic prosperity, and things to come.

Landing in Mumbai makes you feel like you’re going to encounter poverty – there’s a tin shack shantytown that ends at the airport fence. As you’re taxi-ing to the landing gate, you’re immediately presented with people shaving, dressing, and going about their business, just on the other side of the wall.

The view from the plane window in Mumbai

The view from the plane window in Mumbai

In Helsinki, you have the eerie feeling of being in the middle of nowhere, in a cold grey place, surrounded by snow and pine trees as far as the eye can see. You immediately feel like you’re in the North North North, no wonder Santa chooses to live here.

Helsinki's airport

Helsinki’s airport

Landing in Dar however…..ah Dar is a different story.

Although Tanzania was the second country in our tour of Africa, we can safely say that it was probably the first encounter with “real” Africa, miles away from the well run, European feeling Cape Town.

As the seat belt sign goes on and the landing gear is out, we start getting excited and take a first look out the window at the country that is to come, the country that will take us on a safari tour, to the beautiful isle of Zanzibar, and to the birthplace of humanity.

What we’re presented with is……nothing.

Welcome to... ? Dar es Salaam's Airport greeting.

Welcome to… ? Dar es Salaam’s Airport sign.

Vast, black, empty space. The night’s abyss speckled with a few dim lights here and there, more like a warehouse than an international airport where millions connect.

This is all curious and we’re a little bit intrigued about spending our next three weeks in this dark and foreign land, but as we approach the immigration office, our curiosity turns into dismay and… soon after, anger.

Every country has different visa procedures. Most provide you (us Canadians) with a free entry visa on arrival. Many others, like India, China and Brazil, require you to get a visa ahead of time and pay a reciprocity fee which, albeit annoying, is kinda fair.

In others however, you just pay at the counter, where your passport gets stamped. That’s mainly the case in developing countries, the Laoses and Indonesias and Cambodias of the world. This was the case in Tanzania and so we queued at the customs counter, watching the people in front of us, getting their visas approved and stamped at the booth.

To our surprise however, an immigration officer walks around to collect some, but not all, of the traveler’s passports. She asks us to put inside the passport, the visa fee of US$100 (for 2 of us), and brings them to the counter, in an effort to “speed up” the process. This is most unusual, and as seasoned travellers, it raises red flags. We’re always reluctant to give anyone money ahead of time, but what the heck, these are customs officers, the best and brightest of the country, certainly trustworthy?

A police officer to trust in Turkey. He gave us a ride to our hotel!

In Turkey, a police officer to trust – he gave us a ride to our hotel!

You can imagine our shock when we approach the counter and are told that our crisp, straight out of the bank, $100 bill is fake. Fake??? Are you out of your minds, is this a scam? Did you change the bills in the process? Needless to say, with every second our rage was growing. The problem wasn’t that the the bill was pre 2009 (which they don’t accept, precisely because there’s so much counterfeit currency in Tanzania), or that it was dirty or crumpled. According to the officer, it was straight out fake.

So what do you do? accuse a government official of switching your bills? Even if it’s the truth, will they admit it? Who do you turn to, their colleagues? Our only option was to give them another new $100 bill (yes, from the same bank that the “fake” one was from), and demand the counterfeit one back.

Would you believe the immigration officer gave it back to us?

It’s frustrating when the people that are supposed to make life easy for you, make it difficult, but that’s how it was…at least in the Dar es Salaam immigration office.

As far as first impressions go…. well thank goodness, they were wrong.

TIA – This is Africa.

Waiting for our flight to Arusha

Waiting for our flight to Arusha

Visa Requirements for Tanzania

If you have Tanzanian Diplomatic or Consular representation in your home country, it’s strongly advised to obtain a visa in advance, due to the “difficult” circumstances you may encounter inside the country.

However, it’s possible for most Canadians and Europeans to obtain a visa on arrival in Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar, Kilimanjaro and Mwanza airports, or at Holili, Horohoro, Kabanga, Kigoma, Masuguru, Msimbati, Mutukula/Kyaka, Namanga, Rusumo, Sirari, and Tunduma border crossings.

We opted for the visa on arrival because it’s about half the price of getting a visa in advance!

Keep in mind that you’ll need at least 6 months of room on your passport, crisp new $US bills and the visa application form (which can be obtained in the immigration office). Photos are not required.

The High Commission for Tanzania in Canada can be found HERE.

Our Tips for Entering Tanzania

Take a picture of your money, before handing it over.
Obviously, when traveling you cannot avoid altercations, but you can minimize your exposure to it by thinking about potential issues. This particular problem could’ve easily been solved by simply taking a picture of the bill’s serial number, or making a small mark to denote it, before giving it to the “authorities.”

Stay in line.
After a long flight, we were tired and just wanted to get through immigration as quickly as possible. When this immigration officer offered to take our passports and put them at the top of her pile, seeming to bypass the line-up, it seemed like a godsend. But of course, it wasn’t.

If it seems too good to be true, it usually is. 😦

Don’t necessarily trust the authorities.
We made the mistake of trusting the “officer in uniform,” and nearly paid a heavy price.

I’ve had to bargain with Burmese customs agents on the amount of the bribe necessary for them to let me through (saying you’re a broke student helps), seen customs agents in Laos stamp an entry visa, only for the next counter to refuse it and have you pay double. The same goes for police officers in certain countries, who are underpaid and often rely on “baksheesh” to round up their wages.

Unfortunately, in certain countries, being in an official government office, doesn’t insulate you from potential scams. Be cautious with your trust.

Research potential scams for the country you’re visiting.
An online search can yield a treasure trove of information about common scams in a particular country. Knowing about the possibilities could help you avoid a risky situation.

Don’t let it spoil your trip.
Scams are undoubtedly one of the most frustrating parts of traveling. Fortunately, for every scam artist you meet, there’s many others who simply want to show you the beautiful side of their country.

Don’t let a scam spoil your trip, it’s nothing against you. And you’ll end up with a great story and travel memory.

Have you ever been involved in an altercation with authorities in a foreign country? Have you ever had to pay a “tourist tax?” What was your reaction? We’d love to hear from you.

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40 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for the heads up! I am planning to visit Tanzania in the near future…and will be prepared.

    October 13, 2014
    • Agri @ Travel-Stained #

      Lucky you. The country is beautiful and you’ll come back with a lot of great memories I’m sure. But also, if you ever plan on visiting Zanzibar, beware of the Beach Boys, they’re real scammers, and of any stranger approaching you on foot in Stone Town, there is a lot of drug addicts. They’re harmless, but they’ll try to get a few extra bucks out of you.

      October 15, 2014
  2. Reading this made me so angry. It’s hard not to let scams ruin your trip. I travelled through Thailand and Vietnam earlier this year and after a while become so annoyed with nearly everyone trying to scam me, I kind of turned into a constantly suspicious and unfriendly person when someone approached me. And I won’t go back for a little while I think. It’s a real shame! Thanks for warning everyone about this scam, hopefully other travellers learn from it.

    October 13, 2014
    • Agri @ Travel-Stained #

      I feel your pain. S. East Asia is notorious for pushy vendors and tuk tuk drivers, which do keep you on edge. And crime is apparently up on Koh Phangan and other islands, which is unfortunate because most of the people are so kind. But at least you can get out of the cities and check out into a remote beach, can’t go wrong with coconut shakes and reading books on a hammock.

      October 15, 2014
      • Sorry for the late reply I was off! Your last sentence about hammocks and coconut shakes has just brought back amazing memories of my recent Thailand trip 🙂 and these things do make up for the bad stuff I guess, it kind of depends how much crap you get in your time there. And I think if you manage to avoid taxi and tuk tuk drivers you’ll be ok as they’re the worst. Shame about Koh Phangan actually, they have a proper Mafia there now collecting large sums of money for any songthaew that passes certain checkpoints on the road (from the ferry pier down to haad rin) !

        October 27, 2014
  3. Getting a scam at the beginning of your travel was simply disturbing! So sorry to hear this, I hope your trip in Tanzania was fine in the end..
    And many thanks for the tips!

    October 14, 2014
    • Agri @ Travel-Stained #

      Yeah we did have a great time overall, and the country is beautiful and so diverse, and the people are very gentle, save for the beach boys and drug addicts lol. I’d say Zanzibar is one of the best islands I’ve ever been to, certainly worthy of your photography.

      October 15, 2014
  4. damn that’s crazy, I’m glad you got your money back!

    October 14, 2014
    • Agri @ Travel-Stained #

      Yeah we’re happy we got our money back too 🙂 albeit the fake bill. Spent the next few weeks wondering if we should pass it onto someone else in the country, and if so who to? We’re not exactly used to passing counterfeit bills, but we did pay our boat tickets with it, to our chagrin.

      October 15, 2014
      • That sucks! You didn’t have much choice though…

        October 19, 2014
  5. crazy!. hopefully u’re next episode gonna be nice.

    October 14, 2014
    • Agri @ Travel-Stained #

      Yeah it was pretty crazy, but when you travel you win some and you lose some. Hopefully our next nice episode will be in your corner of the world, I’ve always wanted to come to Eastern Indonesia, Sulawesi and Pulau. Heard great things about it. Hopefully soon.

      October 15, 2014
      • yes… east indonesia really exotic to visited.
        But the big problem going there only accomodation plus air plane ticket so expensive. sorry just corection not pulau but Palu – Sulawesi :).
        this is the one island must be visit, Misool Island. u can check by google Image bout this island or click this link : http://id.indonesia.travel/en/destination/805/pulau-misool

        October 15, 2014
        • Agri @ Travel-Stained #

          Oh wow, the pictures are stunning. Nothing I like more than a beautiful tropical beach and baby blue water. I’ve heard so many good things about Sulawesi, from the gorgeous beaches, to the unique culture. I watched a whole documentary on a village that keep their dead family members in the house for many months as if nothing had happened, a bit weird but interesting none the less. The next time we have a few months off we’re definitely coming, do you mind if we contact you?

          October 17, 2014
  6. Our biggest tourist scam was at a hospital! When you are an expat and coming to China you must have a full on body check upon arrival. They poke you, take blood and do tests to ensure you are healthy. Since I was employed by a school they arranged everything and paid for the check up. My husband wasn’t employed by them and we had to pay for his check up ourselves. That was all we were told. Well you would THINK you needed to pay this at the clinic. When my husband was finished he asked the staff at the desk, where he handed in the completed test forms, if he could pay there. They said yes, so he did. A week goes by and I get an email to pay for his health check… but I emailed them I did pay! So they asked me for a fapiao (f-ahh-pee-ow). A what??? A receipt that you should always get for anything you paid for. Well of course we didn’t. After a few days in a new country how would we know that and wouldn’t you trust the hospital? It wasn’t cheap either… we just lost $100-150 Canadian! That was money we couldn’t really afford at the time. After all we just paid 2 airline tickets, extra baggage etc and I wouldn’t get paid until the end of the month. Ouch! It opened our eyes, even as seasoned travelers that sometimes you need to ask questions because not everyone gives you all the information you need. Certainly it hurt, but someone must have needed that money more than us.

    October 14, 2014
    • Agri @ Travel-Stained #

      Oh no, you’d think hospitals are legitimate business no…. But yeah, don’t get me started on China, once in Beijing the rickshaw driver pretended to be getting tired so his friend came along and split us, me and my wife, and took off with my wife, only to find him stopped in the middle of a run down neighbourhood, no where near the temple we were supposed to go, asking for 300 Yuan when they told us the ride was 3. I almost got into a fistfight with the two of them before they accepted my 10 yuan. This was in 2008 mind you. Once more at the Kunming bus station, a “manager” comes to tell us that our bags are about 35 pounds overweight, as if it were a plane, and that we had to pay about $100 US for it. After a 20 minute discussion where he refused to come to the counter where we purchased the tickets, the bus driver told him to go away and at that moment he got so angry and came on the bus asking me to give him my shoes. In a fit of rage I had to push the guy down the bus before he gave up. Not my idea of a peaceful interaction with the locals. It turns out he was one of the displaced earthquake survivors of Shenzen (I believe), and he probably did need the money, but scamming tourist is not the way to go about it. So yeah China, so much for it being the next Superpower. Good luck to you guys and hope you have a great experience.

      October 15, 2014
      • That is terrible! I would be freaking out if they separated me and my husband. As to the extra $100 wow… I guess some people in survival mode just take chances and many tourists don’t know better and they get away with it. We have been scammed probably many times, but usually only a few dollars nothing so noticeable. It is hard to remember, especially when living in Shanghai surrounded by extravagance, that China is poor. Even on the fringes of Shanghai there are people living in falling down structures that you can’t even imagine as a house. It doesn’t make it right, but it happens. We haven’t traveled so much in China more around Asia, so we maybe avoided some of the trouble. We have been living here almost 5 years so we know what to look for and only experience has shown us. They do feel all Westerners are rich and that is another reason they go for us. Compared to their wages it would seem rich… and some parents at my school that work for corporations get paid HUGE my salary is a small fraction of that. SO many of those people flaunt it and again it makes them feel we can afford it. Again not right, but they certainly don’t feel so guilty about it. Then you have companies who make huge money selling products to the west and pay their workers pennies or sometimes not at all and again it just angers them and target us. We have been pretty lucky though and the local people have always been kind and helpful. Some know us and we are always welcomed when they see us. I will certainly miss a lot of China when I go home. The most annoying for me is always the pushing and have to be first… in the bank, shop and subway lines are not honoured. If you say something many are quick to apologize in English. Overall though when we are lost in translation many have stopped to help us.
        Sorry your experience was not a good one. If you and your wife want to try again come and stop by Shanghai 🙂 My husband and I are finishing off a contract and here til summer.

        October 17, 2014
        • Agri @ Travel-Stained #

          Oh, thank you for the offer, and likewise, if you ever want to come to Seoul, I’d love to show you around. But yeah the disparity in China is crazy, and that brings a lot of social problems and side effects. Shanghai is kind of a bubble, the skyscrapers are gorgeous but there are also so many people living in poverty. And what was all the thousands of pigs floating on the Yangtze all about. Did you actually see that? We did really enjoy the country though, despite the mishaps, especially inner China. Yunan was just magnificent, the mountains are stunning. You got till summer so if you have a chance give it a shot because you’ll be very impressed.

          October 17, 2014
          • Thanks Agri… I hope we can fit in some more travel while things are so close. It is hard though with teaching and we can only travel during holidays. Weekends are not long enough and often catching up on work 😦 I do want to see more and I have heard the mountains are beautiful.
            The pigs… that was a little away from us, but I guess the pigs were sick and then thrown in the river since they didn’t know what to do to dispose of them. I guess they never thought how it may contaminate the water.
            We went to Seoul for 4 or 5 days a few years ago and really loved it. It would be a place I would like to go back and who knows maybe do an international teaching contract there some day???

            October 19, 2014
  7. Wow. What a horrible first impression. Still Africa is fascinating.

    October 19, 2014
    • Agri @ Travel-Stained #

      Can’t disagree with you on that one, a beautiful continent indeed, and the people are so humble and soft.

      October 24, 2014
  8. Wunderschön liebe Grüße von mir und einen guten Tag Gislinde

    October 21, 2014
    • Agri @ Travel-Stained #

      You speaketh a tongue I cannot understand my friend.

      October 24, 2014
  9. Wow.. I don’t know what I’d do. Typically, I have a short temper, and obviously, I doubt that would fly well! But, look what you got in the end, a great story to tell!

    Great Post. Thanks a lot! Cheers,

    Alex

    October 22, 2014
    • Agri @ Travel-Stained #

      Well I’m originally from the Balkans and we have knack for flaring up but this time around had to keep it subdued because an African jail is the las thing I’d want to see in the continent.

      October 24, 2014
  10. Yikes, what a first encounter with Tanzania. It’s horrible that one cannot even trust the authorities. When I travelled to Tanzania it was overland from Kenya, so I walked to the border officials myself and everything was pretty straight forward. Luckily! But with these kinds of situations you never know what kind of people you meet. I’ve read a lot about “tourist taxes” in different countries, but never experienced having to pay such myself.

    October 25, 2014
    • Agri @ Travel-Stained #

      Oh you are very lucky, we haven’t been to Kenya (unfortunately), but in Tanzania it happened a few times and not just to foreigners. In Zanzibar our minibus driver got shaken down by police right in the open acting as if it were the most normal thing in the world. But then again their wages are so miserable that it’s a common understanding where they’ll be collecting their wages from. Still, it sucks when it happens to you. On a different note, I’ve heard mixed reviews about Kenya, especially when you compare the Masai Mara to the Serengeti. Which country did you like best?

      October 29, 2014
  11. I had to read this before I watch Antony Bourdain tonight since his Parts Unknown episode is in Tanzania. Something tells me him and his crew didn’t encounter the same issues. Last night we watched an episode of House Hunters International. A couple from Iowa went to Zambia for his job in agricultural development. No thanks.

    Although a safari is high on my bucket list, I’m thinking it will not occur until our “real” retirement later in life when we can splurge on luxury. Great and informative story. We’re heading to Calgary and Edmonton for the holidays this year and I always love being back in Canada even though I’m the Yank in the relationship !!

    October 26, 2014
    • Agri @ Travel-Stained #

      Oh the safari is expensive alright, really really really expensive, we couldn’t really do it on a shoe string, and it was a big headache when we looked at the credit card bill. Was it worth it though?? Absolutely. There’s something so primal about being in contact with nature. And the wildlife is out of this world, perhaps the only place in the World that beats Canada. Canada is still our sweet spot though no matter how much we travel. Last summer in the rockies we saw so many black bears among other animals. Over the winter though….Brrrrr. I get the shivers every time I think of Canadian winters. But Christmas with the family is the best, the food, the laughter. Family is what we miss most in the far east and I’m sure you can relate. Wish you guys a great holiday season.

      October 29, 2014
      • Agri @ Travel-Stained #

        And there’s no Yanks in Canada, only new Canadians 😉

        October 29, 2014
  12. Wow. Great advice. Desperation and poverty can be so overwhelming and frightening. What did you do, though? I had an experience like this in Nicaragua. We were on a bus going to a hospital when the police stopped us. I didn’t understand any of the conversation, but our mission leader finally asked us to give all of our candy and trinkets to the “policeman.” They were supposed to be for the kids we were visiting, but… I still don’t know how we escaped with our money.

    October 29, 2014
    • Agri @ Travel-Stained #

      Central and South America are notorious for this sort of thing. You know in the Brazilian Amazon the police don’t get paid at all, in fact they have to purchase their own uniforms so once they become police they have to get their “investment” back. You can’t really get away from it, the best you can do is negotiate usually.

      Once on a visa run in Burma, the customs officer was pretending there was an error in my application, and wanted a bribe. They could speak no English so they had an Burmese high school English teacher there negotiating with the foreigners. Obviously they did this sort of thing all the time otherwise they wouldn’t have a full-time English teacher there to negotiate with them. I ended up reducing my bribe from $50 US to about $17 because I haggled hard, told them I was a broke student and so on. If you take too long to pay them, they think of you as a headache and they just want you out of there, it’s bad for business. Still though, taking the candy away? That’s a first one for me. It just shows how much they disregard the law, to go as low as to take candy away from kids. Sorry you had to experience that.

      October 29, 2014
  13. Great read! Getting scammed in foreign countries is so unpleasant, but like you said, it’s always important to not let it spoil your trip.

    October 29, 2014
    • Agri @ Travel-Stained #

      Yes it’s a stressful experience, and it kind of puts you on guard, but more often than not it’s just a question of time and a bit of money, so you can’t let it stress you. It happens to all of us after all.

      November 13, 2014
  14. Thanks for the tips! Scamming the foreigners is a practice pretty much everywhere around the world. You just have to always keep your eyes open in a new place you visit. Great read 🙂

    November 8, 2014
    • Agri @ Travel-Stained #

      You’re absolutely right, it happens to everyone pretty much everywhere, so it’s nothing against you in particular, so no need to make it personal. That said you always have to keep your eyes open.

      November 13, 2014
  15. Ermina #

    Thank you for your warning! I was also scammed in Tanzania, in Zanzibar to be precise. Upon arrival at Zanzibar airport, the lady behind the immigration desk would not accept cash for my visa, and asked me to pay by card. I was stupid enough to do so. Two days later I received a message from my bank indicating that my credit card had been used for several fraudulent transactions, some of which had been made in Tanzania.

    I cannot prove that the fraud was committed by people in the airport, but since this was the only place were I used my card in Tanzania, and since the immigration lady wouldn’t let me pay by cash, I have a strong suspicion.

    When I went to report the fraud at the police station in the airport, the head of the police department did not want to file a report at first. I had to argue with him for an hour to get him to give me a statement that I had reported the fraud. Was this pure laziness or is the police involved in this scam? I can’t tell. The only thing I can say is: please be warned and do NOT use your credit card in Zanzibar.

    October 13, 2015
    • Agri @ Travel-Stained #

      Honestly this thing is so systematic, police officers in Zanzibar stop random cars, get a little grease and then let the drivers go. I came across this many times. Obviously the police are in on it, I’m sure every level of government is, not just for us but for the locals too, that’s just how things run. We didn’t even bother with the authorities but tried to warn other foreigners instead. A long time ago I had to negotiate a bribe with the customs officer in Myanmar but at last he was pretty straight forward about it and we settled for about 20 dollars (being a poor student is a good excuse). Here though they changed our $100 bill for a fake one and it was pretty upsetting. I Hope you don’t across this kind of thing in the future but obviously keeping an eye out is the best solution.

      December 30, 2015

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