Common Overseas Situations In Which There May Be The Expectation Of A Bribe

So what do these situations look like? Here are some I have faced.

In developing countries the expectation of a bribe, payment of an extra fee, etc. can arise anywhere at any time. But there are some common areas or situations. Some of the more common ones are:

  • Whenever you have to deal with a governmental office such as immigration, drivers licenses, various permits, obtaining utility services or phones, traffic tickets, etc.
  • When the police are involved and at police and military check points,
  • At border crossings and at customs.

The amount of the “fee” you will pay is usually “negotiated”. They may give you a “set” amount, but most people “explain” their situation and get a reduced amount.

I assume you are already aware that your foreign face and “tourist” look will raise the cost of all the items in the town markets and most stores since nothing has a price tag on it. That is another great opportunity to practice your language skills and expand your vocabulary!

Here are ten examples of situations where I have had to deal with the expectation of fees, bribes, extra payments, extortion, etc. and how I handled them. Everyone’s situation will be different and it takes a while to develop some patterns for how you will respond.

The Traffic Circle

As I came around a traffic circle a police officer standing in the street signaled me over. He asked for my passport which he opened and looked at – upside-down! Then he asked questions about where I was going, etc. in a real official looking sort of way. I don’t recall exactly what he said, but he then he informed me that my paperwork was not correct; my entry visa or something. Having just been in that government office a couple days earlier I knew that wasn’t true, besides the fact that he was reading it upside down.


So I played the ignorance game. I asked what was incorrect. He told me it was something about my immigration stamp and signature. I asked what was wrong with that particular item – the wording, the signature, a missing stamp, etc. He didn’t have an answer but insisted it was not correct. So I calmly told him that I had been in that office a couple of days earlier but would be very glad to take my passport back and have them do it correctly. But I mentioned that they would ask me what is wrong and who said it was wrong, and I didn’t know what to tell them. I gave the appearance of looking for his name tag (non-existent) as I said this.


Having taken up several minutes of his time, thereby decreasing his revenue intake, I was finally sent on my way as he told me to be sure and have them take a look at the problem.

I made a left turn on a signal and immediately had an officer on my tail. He asked for my license and told me I had made an illegal left turn. I was puzzled because the signage and lights had appeared normal and I thought I had done it correctly. He simply informed me that he would be turning my license in to the police station and I would need to go there and pay the fine to get my license back. There wasn’t any back and forth conversation on this one.


Of course, the office closed in a half hour! But I got directions and headed over. I walked in and struck up a conversation with the officer casually sitting there, mentioning the beauty of their city, and some travel observations. We finally got around to my license and the left turn, but by then we had visited and we were no longer strangers and he knew I lived in Guatemala and that I spoke Spanish okay and knew the “games”. I ended up paying a minimal “fine”.


I can’t recall getting a receipt but I almost always asked for one just to prod their conscience. They would usually take a blank piece of paper and scribble something on it and stamp it, totally unofficial and unusable but that was okay. In this case he then asked me “Why don’t your fellow countrymen come in to pick up their driver’s licenses which were being held?” I pretended ignorance, visited a bit more and left.

Made A Left Turn

A Stop Light 20′ Up

Another time I drove through a town with 3 to 5 story buildings on each side of the street. What I didn’t notice was the stoplight that was 20 feet up in the air. It was a simple single stop light flashing red. There were stop signs on the side streets, but none on the main street which I was on. I didn’t see the flashing red light way up high. It was an obvious set up.


He gave me a ticket and told me I would need to pay it at the City Hall. I asked him where that was. After hearing his directions, I asked if he could show me, so he hopped in the car and we drove over there. That ended up being awkward, but I found out where it was. I actually came back another day to pay the fine. The lady took my ticket to an official and he looked me over and decided I must be rich so he charged me the high end of the range. I felt robbed on that one.

Border crossings – These are wonderful opportunities for the officials to have you fill out a couple forms and then have you take them to several offices for the appropriate signature and stamp with the necessary fees. Of course, you will need to wait in line at each office. I would take my cheerful teenage daughter in with me and we would play tourist and talk with the officials and ask questions about where we were, their families, the weather, good restaurants, and eventually get around to asking what we needed to do since we were here. We found that the longer we talked the less we paid, and we had a pleasant conversation and found out things we didn’t know.


Oh, yes, what about stuff? If we were hauling a bunch of stuff for our office or home, something would have to be “left” behind. I always made sure there was nothing new looking. Everything was used and worn. But it pays to be carrying something you wouldn’t mind leaving behind! Something that has the appearance of value, but which you wouldn’t miss.


I learned a lot about how the border “functions” one day as I “gave up” a donated computer that had a German version of DOS loaded on it. (I had 4 other computers in parts.) There was a border agent who actually looked at the cars and stuff. But there was another official who obviously didn’t rank who was helping. The said German speaking computer was entrusted to him and he disappeared with it, and everyone was smiles, including me since I didn’t speak German.


By asking questions I learned that you have to be “corrupt” in order to rise through the ranks at the border. As a new border agent you had to solicit “fees and/or goods” and pass a part of them upwards. If you did not, you never moved up. You would simply carry things for other agents. And of course, if you solicited bribes and passed part of them up, you would never report on another official who did so as well. Quite the system. The bottom man on the totem pole was actually rather honest and open, and poorly paid.

Border Crossing


One time that I considered extortion was when we were stopped as we crossed a country where the federal police had an especially nasty reputation. I stopped with my window down and the officer walked up to the window. He had a bullet between his fingers.


He simply said “You can pay me $20 or you can pull over to the side of the road and wait for my buddy and I to search your car for contraband. (There was another car from Guatemala sitting there.) Of course, if we find any ammunition such as this bullet, we will confiscate your vehicle and you all will go to jail (wife and 3 kids included).” That was pretty straight forward threat since his hand and the bullet were inside of my car as he said that. He wasn’t looking at paperwork or anything. I paid the $20. And I didn’t ask for a receipt.

One time as I was crossing over the Southern Peninsula at the south end of Mexico during a time when the guerrillas were occasionally stopping cars to ask for a “war tax”, I came to a police check point. There was a police officer there stopping all the cars, looking at their passports and “asking” for his “fee”. I watched everyone ahead of me pay him and as I pulled forward and he came to my car, I stuck my passport out the window. He smiled and with his index finger waved off my passport and rubbed his fingers together which was a way of saying he expected some money. I had also noticed him looking at my Guatemala license plate as he approached the car.


Did I mention that he had obviously already had a couple drinks that afternoon and that his machine gun was swinging back and forth across my face?


For whatever reason, as I reached for a 20 peso coin, I said, “May I ask you a question?” With a smile he said “yes”. So as I handed him the coin I asked “What is the difference between paying you 20 pesos and paying the guerillas down the road 20 pesos?” He felt a bit on the spot and said “I don’t know” to which I simply replied “I don’t know either.”


He turned and stumbled over to his chair beside the road to sit for a moment as I left, and in my rear view mirror I saw a line of 10 other vehicles drive right on through the check point without stopping.


About then I thought to myself “Are you crazy?” I guess it was my urge to prick people’s consciences.

Pricking Their Conscience

Border Crossing with Short-Term Team

At one border crossing with a group of short-termers in two vans, the border officials said that we would have to pay a fine because all of the food and luggage was in one van instead of split out according to the number of people in each van. An obvious pretext. So I apologized and confirmed how it needed to be split up and told them we would be very glad to go back across the border and sort it out properly before coming back in again. They weren’t expecting that answer and that obviously wasn’t what they had in mind! So again, I apologized for our error and expressed that I wanted to do it all correctly for them.


About that time, unknown to me one of the other leaders handed the officials US$20 and all of a sudden, they waved us through. Imagine that! Of course, that short circuited my efforts.

Sometimes talking with the officials has the effect of depriving them of other opportunities to collect fees; e.g. if we talked on about how we could correctly obey the “laws” in the future, and the present, they finally waved us on because they were losing money.

Friendly Visiting May Reduce Costs

Incorrect Address

At the immigration office one day I discovered that our old address was still on their records. I gave the new one and got everything straightened out. At that point he asked how long ago we had moved. I told him about 90 days ago. He said “Oh, there will be a fine for that. You have to report a change of address within 30 days.” I said “Oh. Is there a booklet with the rules like that which I should be aware of?” He said “Yes, but it is out of print.” I asked how I was to know what the rules were if they didn’t have them published. He shrugged his shoulders.


I was left with the distinct impression that most people lied in situations like that and/or negotiated with a story to reduce the fee. He and his boss were surprised when I paid the “stated amount”. Of course, they didn’t refuse it. To add insult to my injury, when I got back to our team office, my boss who was a national thought it was hilarious that I had paid that much. That didn’t help my ego any.

Another setting in which extra “fees” are expected is when you ship household goods into a country; for example, if you have a container brought in or crates of goods sent to you. The normal shipping fees all apply, but in addition there will be “import duties”. The amount of those fees will depend on who goes to arrange for getting the goods out of customs (you or a national), whether the goods are used or new, how soon you want them, etc. You could find yourself paying as much in “import fees” as you spent to buy the goods originally.

Picking Up Household Shipments

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