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My passport has a protective thin transparent case. There's a place to put cards and money on the inner side of the last page. A tiny space. I keep a US$100 bill there. A passport isn't attractive to thieves so that's my rationale for keeping money there. I also keep cash in my wallet and backpack.

Recently I had an unusual interaction with a border agent. I've entered foreign countries in four continents more than a dozen times and never had a rude border agent except this one. This border agent was quite rude. A few moments after getting my passport, they raised their voice and told me to do something in their native language even though they knew I don't speak it. They later spoke in English and told me to take the money out. I did. They used a magnifier of some sort(?) to look at that page.

  1. Was it my fault that I put that money there?

  2. Did I block off something important?

  3. Maybe they thought that bill was a bribe??

  4. What were they looking at with that device? What's on that page?

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  • 55
    "they know you don't speak it" ?? How would they know that? Many people who enter country X speak one of the languages of country X, even if they don't look similar to most of the people who live in country X. Also, they may have wanted all their colleagues to hear and know they were not taking a bribe in case someone said later that they did. Oct 2, 2021 at 17:21
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    How were they being rude? Oct 2, 2021 at 17:23
  • 111
    Your assumption that "Passport isn't attractive to thieves" does not hold up. Passport theft IS a problem. See interpol.int/How-we-work/Border-management/…
    – madsb
    Oct 2, 2021 at 18:30
  • 22
    Not only are passports targets of theft in their own right, now a common thief who spots the $100 you keep there will watch what pocket you put it into, and when they lift it, you'll not only be out $100 but suffer the significant inconvenient and expense of losing your passport.
    – CCTO
    Oct 3, 2021 at 15:52
  • 24
    @Harper-ReinstateMonica it could have gone worse still, far worse. He could have kept the passport and the $100 as evidence that OP was trying to bribe him and order OP arrested for that, which can be at the very least a multi-year travel ban and more likely a lengthy prison sentence followed by a permanent travel ban.
    – jwenting
    Oct 4, 2021 at 7:29

6 Answers 6

136

Was it my fault that I put that money there?

Yes, passports are not meant to be used as wallets. The agent most likely thought you were offering a bribe, it is a common practice in some countries to offer money to officials but not in most. I guess he felt offended.

Did I block off something important?

Perhaps the thin case made the passport harder to scan in the MRZ scanner, rubbing salt into the "bribe" wound.

Maybe they thought this is some sort of bribe??

Most likely, as I said earlier.

What were they looking at with that device? What's on that page?

To check for counterfeit passports, especially since the agent thought you just offered a bribe! Or perhaps the thin case made the ink smear somehow, making it look "fake".

Putting myself in the agent's place, scanning passports all day is a routine job indeed! Probably that's combined with some old slow system that makes the job even less appealing. The last thing I want is some protective case that makes a boring job even more boring and harder.

As a courtesy to the border/customs agents and to avoid any misunderstanding, always make things easier for them, remove the passport protective cases before handing them the documents, remove papers and other stuff you keep inside the passport, give them the luggage with the lock facing them and not upside down, etc.

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    if your passport was fake, you might include a bribe to ensure the agent doesn't look too closely and reject you for a fake passport. That's a pretty obvious reason for bribing. A agent who believes that was your reason for bribing is going to look closely at your passport to rule out that possibility. Oct 2, 2021 at 17:22
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    There's no way for the border agent that you are not offering a bribe when he see cash in a passport when you offered it.
    – Max
    Oct 2, 2021 at 17:29
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    in general, remove everything from the passport that is not passport related, including protective covers.
    – Max
    Oct 2, 2021 at 17:30
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    I would also guess that border agents may have special instructions on handling money in passports (specifically as anti-bribe measures), so this reaction may be not a reaction of a single bored agent, but something required by their instruction.
    – Petr
    Oct 2, 2021 at 17:54
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    Not only the border officer may "feel" offended, he may be annoyed as hell because of the upcoming discussion with his manager about the bank notes appearing in the camera footage of his desk. He may be expected to report any bribery attempt and will have to explain why this is not, in fact, a bribery attempt.
    – fraxinus
    Oct 3, 2021 at 14:14
67

I use a very similar passport case, and like you I keep one or two cards in the back of it - although not money (in my case these cards are only cards that I may need at immigration, such as my US Green Card or my APEC Business Travel Card).

Passport cases, even thin plastic ones, often interfere with the readers that immigration staff use to scan the biographical page on the passport. Many countries I've visited have signage in the immigration area instructing you to remove your passport from its cover before handing it to immigration staff. On more than one occasion when I've failed to do this I've had the officer hand the passport back to me and ask me to remove the case.

Having additional items in the passport cover also leads to the potential that they may be dropped by the agent as they try and remove the passport from the case - in effect your actions are making the officers job more difficult.

Then we come to the money. In general, handing money to an immigration agent is a clear-cut sign that you are attempting to bribe them. This would be the case whether the money was handed to them separately, or within the passport. Having the money "hidden" in the passport doesn't change that fact, it just makes it appear more like you are trying to make the act of bribing the official less obvious.

Once the officer is of the belief that you attempted to bribe them, they will naturally become more suspicious and attempt to determine why you felt the need to bribe them - such as the fact that you may have been using a forged passport.

It doesn't matter whether your intent was to actually bribe the official or not - the fact is that you acted in the exact way that someone that was trying to bribe them would act, so they have to presume that was your intent. I would say that you were very lucky if the only additional action they took was to view your passport with a magnifying glass - it could have ended much worse for you!

17

There are lots of good answers here, but just to add - I would strongly advise against keeping money in your passport. You actually were lucky this time. In some countries, in particular, in Eastern Europe, where the situation with corruption is pretty bad still, the border control office might charge you with an attempt to give a bribe. They even have reminders at the border sometimes to make sure there is no money in your passport before you hand it over.

You don't want to start your trip with a criminal charge, so better find a different place to keep your money.

6

I think the other answers are good, but there's also a possibility that the border agent was being brusque with you to see how you would respond, i.e., s/he was doing behavioral profiling. For instance, if an authority figure asks a pointed question to an innocent person, that might just provoke confusion. But if s/he asks the question of a guilty person, then the person might become visibly nervous and over-explain himself. (That is the theory anyway.) I've had innumerable encounters at borders and airport where the border agent's questions and demeanor made absolutely no sense, aside from its being part of behavioral profiling.

I also had a memorable experience of inadvertently saying something funny to a Canadian border agent, who then had a difficult time maintaining his gruff persona for the rest of the interaction.

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    I had a Canadian agent did very a good impression of hitting on me once (m/m). I was just coy in a "Well, thank you kindly, sir" kind of way. Never sure if they're just bored or if there's deep psychology to it as you suggest in your answer. Oct 4, 2021 at 20:29
3

Travelling to another country can be a fun and exciting experience. However, don't always expect a friendly experience at the border, especially if you are visiting outside the United States, Canada or United Kingdom where people are unusually polite.

Border officers have long and difficult days trying to sift out liars and standard entries all day. It can be frustrating to not speak your native language all day and work with people who don't understand you or anything, or are blatantly breaking immigration law.

As soon as you said, you keep $100 in your passport, I am instantly reminded that many will try to bribe the border guard to let them in. And in many countries where corruption is rampant, guards can lose their jobs for not handling this according to procedure.

Chances are you set off a few red flags and the border guard was required to do some additional checks. We really won't ever know, though.

Also remember, what is rude to you might be just a typical work culture behaviour.

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    The most unfriendly border officials I have ever seen were in the USA, and I have heard that from other people as well. Expect it at all borders.
    – Willeke
    Oct 3, 2021 at 15:45
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    I disagree that United States, Canada and the United Kingdom border agents are unusually polite. I've encountered rude agents at the border of two of those countries, but also polite ones. Much like I've encountered a mix of rude and polite agents at many other countries.
    – TidyDev
    Oct 4, 2021 at 2:35
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    Never been to UK. But I have found American and Canadian border agents and customs officers to be unusually impolite. Oct 4, 2021 at 4:25
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    After decades of travel all over the world, I can state that US border agents are the most impolite. They start with the assumption that you are trying to immigrate illegally, and that everything you say is trying to cover that up, and take it from there. Also (as a Brit) their English is often impossible to understand.
    – RedSonja
    Oct 4, 2021 at 9:45
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    Especially if you are visiting outside the United States, (...) where people are unusually polite. Have you actually entered the US as a non-American? This is a horrible, horrible experience. I entered the US maybe 70 times, both on business travel and on vacation. 70% of the time the experience was horrible - we were treated like cattle. The other country where it was similar is Russia. So no - the US borders are far from friendly, polite, whatever. For the record, I am mid-age, white, French - so not the stereotypical immigrant trying to get through the border.
    – WoJ
    Oct 4, 2021 at 16:55
-3

The other answers talking about a bribe make very good points. But even ignoring that, getting rude service from someone with authority who is under basically no threat of reprimand is incredibly common. There are countless comedians who have made jokes about the BMV (the typical name for the US motor vehicles department) because of this. They have nearly complete control and have a monopoly on the service they are providing and at least some of the people there know that and take full advantage of it. If you have a bad experience you have the option of complaining to another person who also doesn't care about you at all. Border control agents are like BMV employees on steroids, as they have even more power.

There are ones who will treat you nicely, there are ones who act completely indifferent, and there are ones who will be extremely hostile and take pleasure in being rude to you for no reason whatsoever -- it's a completely random draw.

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    It's DMV, not BMV.
    – jcm
    Oct 3, 2021 at 4:41
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    @jcm depends on if you have Department of Motor Vehicles, or a Bureau.
    – Seth R
    Oct 3, 2021 at 5:19
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    Better use the full version once, also for those of us who do not live in a country where a BMV or DMV exist, or where it is called different.
    – Willeke
    Oct 3, 2021 at 6:36
  • While this post is an explanation of why an officer acted as he did, it does not really answer the question. @eps, can you edit so it gets more on topic?
    – Willeke
    Oct 5, 2021 at 20:20
  • @Willeke I think it perfectly answers the question: the border agent was rude b/c he could be rude. It is the same reason that CEOs grant themselves generous compensation packages and dogs lick their own private parts.
    – emory
    Oct 6, 2021 at 0:16

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