65

I'm an American traveling to Central America for the first time this summer. I'll be entering Costa Rica and Panama.

My Spanish is pretty good, but not native, and I wouldn't mind using it, but as a general rule, should I try to address the border officer in their language when I can or should I stick to English?


How it went: I transited Costa Rica without being asked any questions at all, but I entered remote Bocas del Toro using only Spanish (and let me tell you, it was much smoother for me than for my English-only traveling companions) and exited Bocas in English (different officer).

All in all, I followed the advice here, and answered in the language I was addressed in.

  • 6
    I think the rule generally is "only if necessary", and it's almost always not necessary. – Urbana Jun 28 '16 at 4:42
  • 41
    A couple of colleagues were crossing the US border and one was at the phone with his wife. When the immigration officer ask the other one who his colleague was speaking with, he replied, in approximate english: "He is calling your wife". Let's just say a very thorough search process followed. Conclusion: make sure you master the language well enough under stress before attempting to communicate with customs :) – ereOn Jun 28 '16 at 18:33
  • 11
    @ereOn There are very clear signs at US immigration checkpoints saying that you're not to use mobile phones there. That seems a more likely cause of the extra attention than the language slip-up. – David Richerby Jun 28 '16 at 19:23
  • 2
    I always address customs/immigration in their language when I can. If I can speak their language at all, then either it will be the only language we can communicate in, or it will be because we're compatriots ... – Henning Makholm Jun 28 '16 at 23:16
  • 7
    Wow, a lot of assumptions about me there. You have no idea how I learned Spanish nor where my family's from. – Azor Ahai Jun 29 '16 at 21:50

10 Answers 10

72

Unless you're completely fluent, you risk a miscommunication in a legal context. If you're at all uncertain about communicating to them, you should ask for a translator.

In your case, if you're confident, there's no harm in addressing them, but if they address you first in your language (I'm presuming English), it's best to stick with that rather than changing. Your goal should generally be to only speak when spoken to, and to keep the conversation to a minimum. It's more efficient for them, and prevents confusion overall.

  • 20
    Border guards in many countries have only a basic grasp of English and some level of mishearing and miscommunication is fairly common in my travels. Even in southern USA, CBP agents sometimes struggle to understand my unfortunately distinct English accent. I agree if things are really getting serious a translator may be required, but for the general entry questions it isn't unusual for a bit of repetition or switching between languages before we understand each other. Asking for a translator "if at all uncertain" would surely arouse suspicion and incur unnecessary delay on a lot of entries. – Calchas Jun 28 '16 at 13:11
  • I get what you're saying, but figure when giving this advice it's easiest to err on the side of caution. – Mark Mayo Supports Monica Jun 28 '16 at 13:13
  • 17
    I suppose my view is, I do not think it is cautious to seek to draw attention to yourself in this way at an international border. Have you ever asked for a translator? It makes it sound like you are preparing to seek asylum or something. – Calchas Jun 28 '16 at 14:27
  • 1
    @MarkMayo Oh sorry, I thought you meant that whenever they didn't speak English, they got a translator, rather than you completing the whole entry process in French without assistance. – Azor Ahai Jun 28 '16 at 16:50
  • 2
    Also keep in mind that English isn't the first language for many travellers, so miscommunication could easily happen in English as well (when two non-natives speak it) and might even be more likely than if only one person speaks a foreign language. of course, this dependents heavily on your language level. But for more, it absolutely does not make sense to speak my native language to a customs officer as it is very unlikely he/she can understand me. – Reinstate Monica - dirkk Jun 29 '16 at 9:34
31

The answer to the general question is: It depends. The general options are as follows:

  1. I always address U.S. and U.K. border guards in their language, because I don't expect them to understand any other I can speak nearly as fluently.
  2. I will always try to address French border police in their language, although I can't really speak it, because they are proud of anyone at least trying, but I will make sure that they know that I am not fluent.
  3. I would never address Dutch or Swedish police in Dutch or Swedish, even though I possibly could. They can speak English, and I want them to know that I am a foreigner who intends to move back to his country. Some days ago we had a Russian guy who was nearly deported for just greeting a Finnish border guard in Finnish ("You learned Finnish because you intend to blend in and stay over your visa").

With special regard to Central America, if I were you, I would take option 2 and greet a border guard there with "Buenos dias, señor. ¿Habla inglés?"

  • 21
    @Azor-Ahai People stay illegally in a country because of their personal circumstances, not because of the kinds of generalities you're thinking about. – David Richerby Jun 28 '16 at 17:28
  • How do you address German police? – Henning Makholm Jun 29 '16 at 0:35
  • @HenningMakholm In German, since most of them are unable to communicate in English fluently... ;-) – Alexander Jun 29 '16 at 6:57
  • German police: anyway you like. They are definetly (despite how people think about them) very relaxed and veeeery restricted in what they can actually do. Some of them don`t speak proper english though – Marc Wittmann Jun 29 '16 at 9:32
  • 3
    @HenningMakholm police isn't the same as customs agents. In Germany there is a special police force (Bundespolizei) for border checks and similar stuff, which is not the same as your regular policemen. People at the Bundespolizei, especially the ones working at major entry points like Frankfurt Airport, should normally be able to speak English fluently. – Reinstate Monica - dirkk Jun 29 '16 at 9:40
30

Your best bet is to not speak at all. If they ask you to do anything (take your hat off, look into the camera), just do it without a word.

Once you get everything stamped and taken care, they will usually say something, and usually in English. At that point, it would be polite to thank them in their native language.

  • 15
    I've always been asked questions whenever I cross a border, is that not normal? – Azor Ahai Jun 28 '16 at 6:27
  • 8
    Depends on the country you're visiting and the country you're from. – Stephan Bijzitter Jun 28 '16 at 11:00
  • 50
    I find it hard to believe that stony-faced silence is better than "hello". – David Richerby Jun 28 '16 at 12:44
  • 3
    In most of my border crossings, I've been asked about the reason for my visit and the intended duration of stay. I think, the only exception to that was when I arrived into the country on a cruise liner - and they knew pretty well why I was there (tourism) and when I was going to leave (evening of the same day, or the next day). – Aleks G Jun 28 '16 at 21:09
  • 9
    Maybe you are just going into countries where the border guards speak better English. In any case, the guard is judged by how many entrants he processes in a shift. If he asks, "Reason for your visit?", do not say, "Well, I've always heard good things and then my room-mate from college was going to go and we decided to go together, but then he couldn't go, so I am meeting this guy I know from ThornTree..." Say: "tourism". This will enable the guard to press the button marked "tourism" on his screen and go on to the next guy. – Malvolio Jun 29 '16 at 19:23
21

As a European living in a part of South Asia where I speak the language:

I speak to the natives here in their own language pretty much always. One of the very few exceptions to this is when I go through immigration at the airport here. Why? Because that's the one place where I don't want to get stuck! I just want to go through quickly! Why would I want to complicate things? I have a visa, they're just gonna stamp it and let me through. Speaking the local language probably wouldn't cause a problem, but why would I risk it? They may start to ask me all kinds of questions (if out of curiosity, if nothing else.) Where did I learn it? How? When? What am I doing here? How many times have I been here? (Even civilians ask me that, out of curiosity.) While I have perfectly fine answers to all that, I just don't want to have that conversation with the immigration officer, I just want to go through. So if asked anything, I answer in English.

If, in a very unlikely scenario, the officer didn't speak English and there was a serious communication problem, I would probably switch. But that seems like it's only going to happen like 0.01% of the time.

I'd advise you to stick to English, leaving the Spanish for after you've gone through immigration.

13

The entire purpose of forcing people to interact with custom agents is so the custom agent can intuitive evaluate the individual as some kind of potential threat.

Nobody ends up in the backroom with the one-way mirror because they blurt out some crime or have a carry-on stuff with cocaine, bioweapons and 1960s vintage Warsaw-pact plastic explosives. They end up in the backroom because they set off the custom agent's intuition.

They don't care whether you answer "business" or "pleasure" they care how you answer e.g. shifts in verbal tone or, general body language, leaning away or toward the agent as you answer, breaking eye contact, turning to talk to a companion before answering the agent etc. That's why they ask seemingly inane questions and/or make you dump out a suitcase that's already been X-rayed 16 times that day. They just want to put you under an lens, poke at you a bit and see how you jump.

As a general rule, its safest to avoid attention and limit interaction time with custom agents since you don't know what might you might do or say that will trigger their intuition or their venality. The less information they can intuitively pull out of you the better.

In the 3rd world, the biggest risk is being falsely accused as part of shakedown because the custom agents haven't been paid for six months. In the 3rd world everything runs on personal connections so a corrupt agent will be looking for someone with money but no protective connections.

I know a lot of people who traveled for decades in the oil industry and, since they had wear expensive business suits and looked well off, they could be targeted so they learned to always mention the name of the company they work for and that they would soon be meeting other company employees. If possible, mentioning the name of local grandee was also a good idea. You didn't want to convey the impression that you were someone who could drop off the map for days or weeks and no one would notice.

In your particular case, assuming your not actually breaking a law or can't handle speaking with authorities, I doubt it matters what language you speak.

Costa Rica airports are safe and well run for the third world partially because Costa Rica disbanded its army after WWII and the US assures its territorial integrity which these days means transportation security as well. Besides, Costa Rican's are just generally nice, kinda the Canadians of Central America.

Panama I'm pretty sure is still an American protectorate, at least for areas related to the canal. I assume the airports and other entry points are under American supervision.

11

I travel to asia often (China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong), and in all cases, they assume you can't speak their language if you look non-asian. So if you do speak their language, it generally catches them off-guard and they may ask you more questions.

Only issue I ever had, was in Japan of all places. They asked me why I traveled there so often and asked me in Japanese if I spoke Japanese (which I could understand barely), but I responded in english (I'm from US). They thought I might be transporting drugs into/out of Japan. As a business traveler I flew in/out of Japan quite often and often had short trips there for my company. So after answering a few questions and telling them what company I was visiting and what company I work for, they sent me on my way.

So generally they profile people and ask pointed questions directed towards those kinds of people. Basically like if you are from such and such countries they would assume they are coming there to buy lots of foreign goods -- which are not allowed to be greater than a certain value -- so they ask about that.

Basically they have a long list either in their head or on paper that probably says stuff like, "Koreans ask about blah, Filipinos ask about blah, main land chinese ask about blah, japanese ask about blah, etc...".. So in their case, I would also advise like others, just stick to english and keep your answers really really short and succinct.

7

Going through immigration or customs is a completely subjective process:

It depends on where you are, where you are from, where you're coming from, where you're going, who you are with, what you're wearing, who the customer officer is, and if he had a bad day...

Therefore I would recommend to stick to:

  • Greetings: be polite, and say hello. Unless you're in transit, I would hope you spent the 3 minutes it takes to learn to say 'Hello' in the country you're visiting.

  • Questions: let the officer speak first: s/he will never expect you to be fluent, but if his/her English is poor you might be asked in the local language. Try to answer in the language and get in the officer's good grace. If you're not sure you understood the question, or don't feel confident about answering in the local language, politely ask 'Do you speak English?' or rather say something like 'My spanish/chinese/croatian is not very good, do you speak English?'

  • If you're in trouble and the language is an issue they'll likely fetch someone who speaks better English; In my experience, if there is nothing major and the language is an issue, they usually give up asking questions and tell you to move on...

Finally I would add: be mindful of the local culture. Do your research to avoid making a derogatory comment and offend anyone.

7

I am Swedish but live in Switzerland and speak fluent German. When showing my ID Card to border guards at Zurich Airport, they often ask me in English where I'm flying from/to, and in rare cases how long I'll stay in Switzerland. I then simply answer in German, without making a fuss about it.

I'd say if the border guards seem to speak English better than you speak the local tongue, stick to English. However, I've had several occasions (mainly in the former Yugoslavia and Albania, but also Turkey) where the border guards didn't know a word of English (or any foreign language), and the fact that I didn't understand the questions they were asking (the times that they did) severely delayed my entry/Exit.

Moldovan border guards do not normally speak any English either (particularly at land borders), but as I speak Romanian pretty well it's not an issue there

I'm soon going to Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Georgia - going to be pretty interesting :)

  • I suppose Swiss border guards are probably among the most multilingual in the world. I suppose that they all have to speak at least two of the country's official languages, and a good number of them must also speak English (if it's not a universal requirement). – phoog Jun 30 '16 at 21:35
  • @phoog Not really, the Swiss multilingualism is a myth. It's a country where "monolingual meets monolingual" most of the time (though linguistic border areas have more bilingual individuals). – Crazydre Nov 9 '17 at 19:06
2

Stick to English, Unless the officer does not understand English at all in which case you should talk in Spanish but lead with "mi español no es avanzado, pero que podría tratar de explicar".

  • 1
    Thanks for your answer Hamza. Could you edit your answer to add the translation for that too, for those of us who don't speak Spanish? Just so we know what we're saying... :) – Tim Malone Jun 30 '16 at 2:27
  • 2
    "My Spanish is not advanced, but you can try to explain" – Crazydre Jun 30 '16 at 9:14
  • You probably don't want to say that if you truly speak no Spanish, as "not advanced" implies at least basic knowledge of the language. – Zach Lipton Jun 30 '16 at 17:34
  • @TimMalone you're welcome I am glad I could help. – Hamza Bensaid Jun 30 '16 at 23:55
  • @Crazydre Thanks for helping out with the translation, I wasn't able to see this until now, really. – Hamza Bensaid Jun 30 '16 at 23:55
1

I would say, it depends. If the passport you present is stamped with many stamps of a spanish-speaking country, or if you're carrying a spanish-written newspaper/book under your arm, I would tell you to speak spanish.

That being said, be aware that speaking spanish could put you in an entirely different category.

If you speak spanish fluently, then it may be that you're an expat wishing to live in the country, or have family in that country, and so you'd start getting questions about your laptop and any expensive electronics you're carrying. Because for all they know, you could be bringing that DSLR in and that laptop in as gifts for local friends or family (that you don't want to pay VAT or import taxes on), or perhaps, your language skill level could be an indicator that you may wish to overstay your visa.

In general, custom and border officials are not your friends. It wouldn't hurt to say a couple of words to them in spanish, but trying to make them feel at ease or impress them with your level of spanish would seem to me counter-productive, if your objective is to go through customs as smoothly as possible.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.