What Every American Should Know About Paying Bribes When Traveling Abroad

Travel Bribe at Customs
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

I was 23 years old the first time I paid a bribe. It was on my first assignment for a newspaper association, sent to attend a convention in Rio. The first sign that I was in for a rough trip was when I was checking in for my flight and was asked for my visa. What visa? I’m American...

At the airline counter I learned that Brazil is one of the few countries in the Western Hemisphere that requires US citizens to obtain a visa before arrival. What followed was one of the worst weekends of my young life. First, I was deported to Paraguay. Eventually, I found myself standing at the counter of the Brazilian embassy in Buenos Aires.

I enlisted a local taxi driver to help me navigate the bureaucracy and find out how quickly I could get back into Brazil. When I overheard someone in line say they’d come back in 72 hours for their visa, I nearly lost it.

My fixer reassured me. Then he exchanged some rapid words in Spanish with the clerk behind the window. He told me, in a whisper, to slide $100 in my passport through the window. A few forms later and I was told I should be back in two hours for my visa. I made it back to Rio that evening.

Yeah, long story short: I paid a bribe, and it was worth it. No traveler wants to find himself in that jam. But knowing when and how to negotiate a bribe is a skill you may have to learn on the spot if you're away on an adventure -- or if someone simply pegs you as an easy mark abroad. You might as well consider this an intro course. 

Police in Rio de Janeiro
Police officers in rio de janeiro, brazil | Alexandre Rotenberg/Shutterstock

Bribes often work where government doesn't

One of the fundamental things I learned during my decade overseas as a journalist is that, like it or not, corruption works. In places with weak governance structures, where public servants often aren’t paid a living wage, corruption is what makes things function.

Then again, it’s also a cancer that hinders a society and often rewards the worst people and agendas. So what’s a tourist to do? Accept the world as it is when you have to. Strive to stay out of situations where you might be expected to bribe someone. When you can, use your dollars to support people who are trying to do things the right way.

Don’t be surprised to find yourself in a position where a bribe is your smartest option. When you do, here are some important things to keep in mind to stay safe and make the best of a crap day.

Police officers in Istanbul, Turkey
Police officers in Istanbul, Turkey | thomas koch/shutterstock

Check a country’s corruption ratings before you go

My Argentina bribery story notwithstanding, Transparency International has noted improvements in the country’s corruption ranking in their most recent global index, which rates countries on a corruption scale. The ousting of a populist government is cited as one of the reasons for Argentina’s improvement, and travelers should take note of these types of changes in government to get a feel for their destination before heading out. Traveling in Argentina again last year, more than a decade after paying a bribe there, I can report that I didn’t encounter any shakedowns or shadiness. By contrast, Turkey and Hungary have seen their corruption rankings fall, mirroring the rise of authoritarian governments.

Corruption and security issues are often intertwined. The list of the most corrupt countries is topped by the likes of Somalia, Sudan, and Syria, which aren’t particularly realistic destinations for even the most adventurous travelers. Unsurprisingly, the least corrupt countries -- Denmark, New Zealand, and Finland -- are also three of the safest. These are all fine places to visit, but the security and lack of corruption should not to be taken for granted. Countries like Thailand, the Dominican Republic, and Kenya are on the wrong end of the corruption index, but still reasonably safe for American tourists.

It pays to stop thinking of bribes as a thing you’re somehow above.

“While tourists might get shaken down sometimes, it’s important not to lose sight that it is the poorest members of society who are often forced to pay bribes to access basic public services,” says Alison Taylor, formerly of Transparency International and now a lecturer on ethics and transparency at Fordham University. “There is a lot of data to support this. For instance, it’s understood that the average Kenyan pays eight bribes a day.”

If you’re heading overseas, it pays to stop thinking of bribes as a thing you’re somehow above. You might be called upon to recognize a situation where a well-placed bribe saves the day.

Moscow policewomen
Police officers in Moscow, Russia | Free Wind 2014/shutterstock

Factor bribes into your budget

Let’s say you’re approached by a policeman in Bangkok, where tourists have been increasingly shaken down in recent years (again, mirroring an erosion of good government). He’s strangely bothered by you dropping a cigarette butt in the street. Now you have to weigh whether his request of 2,000 baht (about $60) is worth it to make him go away. He might be bluffing and move on to an easier target if you object, but he also might ruin your night -- nay, your whole vacation -- by introducing you to a Thai jail.

Mark Ames, the co-founder of the legendary eXile newspaper in Moscow, recalls being regularly shaken down by the Russian police because he looks like he’s from the Caucasus region, whose people face deep prejudice in the rest of the country. Once, on the outskirts of Moscow, two cops in a Jeep rolled up on him, pointed guns at him, and asked about his documents. His passport was good; his visa was good. Ames, sick of the routine harassment, decided to play dumb to waste their time.

“I suggested ‘maybe there is a way we can settle this’ and they immediately started becoming friendly.”

“I knew they wanted money,” he tells me. Still they kept threatening him. “Finally I realized that resisting these guys was not worth it. I suggested ‘maybe there is a way we can settle this’ and they immediately started becoming friendly. They wound up saying they wanted two bottles of vodka. After I bought the bottles for them they offered to take me anywhere in the city, so at least I got a free ride home.”

Usually, the worst you’re going to encounter are low-level cops (hopefully without machine guns pointed at you... ) who put you out $20 or $50. My advice? Pay it and be on your way, report it to the embassy or consulate later, tell the local newspaper if you’re sufficiently outraged. But don’t get angry with foreign cops. Do what you can to cool a confrontation and end it as soon as possible.

You are, however, well within your rights to say fuck that noise. Taylor says she, for one, would rather see people put up a fuss in certain situations. “It’s important to make a distinction between inconvenience and safety risk/extortion,” she says. “You should never put your safety in danger. If it’s low-level inconvenience I’d say it’s probably worth challenging.” Her reasoning: The money can be better used elsewhere. “Junior government officials take a cut of your bribe and pass the money up the hierarchy,” she says, “so I’d be wary of going too far in thinking of the bribe you’re paying as a victimless crime.”

Bangkok, Thailand
Red Light District, Bangkok, Thailand | Christopher PB/Shutterstock

... but be prepared to be stopped anyway

If you have any suspicions about the cops, just do what you’d do to keep from getting pickpocketed: Keep money in different places in your clothing so if you have to take out your wallet a cop won’t see all your money and increase his demands. Dress discreetly, in particular in a place like Brazil, where even a decent wristwatch can make you a target.

Daniel Levine, a travel consultant, knew that he should expect to be shaken down when he and another American friend set out to visit the breakaway region of Transnistria, a lawless statelet whose independence from Moldova is unrecognized by just about the entire world. When their bus was pulled over at the “border” and they were singled out as the only two foreigners and escorted off the bus, Levine figured he knew the drill.

“I realized that it was a negotiation. I knew he wanted us to go across the border. He would get nothing if we didn’t.”

Officials demanded their visas -- an absurdity, because Transnistria doesn’t issue visas -- then showed them on a map of Europe where they’d have travel hundreds of miles to if they were turned away. “The guards were waiting for us to ask how to make it possible,” Levine says. The Americans played along and asked how to avoid such delays. Two hundred, came the answer.

“I realized that it was a negotiation because he didn’t say it with conviction,” Levine says. “I knew he wanted us to go across the border; he would get nothing if we didn’t.” They haggled and settled on 50 euros each. The whole thing took 20 minutes. Then they got back on the road and headed to the capital, Tiraspol.

Pick your battles

Being pragmatic is the best advice, but make sure you have a plan in case things go awry. Have the US embassy or consulate number handy in case a policeman’s request is egregious or he is aggressive. It can be a good idea to touch base with the embassy or consulate where you’re visiting to just let them know your plans. Let your friends and family know your itinerary and check in; if your encounter with local law enforcement goes badly you’ll be glad you did.

And before you head out of the country, do double-check the visa thing. You can avoid a lot of headaches and extra expense by making sure your documents are as bulletproof as possible.

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Jeremy Hurewitz is a musician and risk management professional who spent a decade as a journalist in Asia and Europe. He lives in New York City. www.rootlessmusic.com