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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.