A customs post

One thing that made us slightly apprehensive in the run-up to arrival in Tunis was a lack of information on what hurdles you’d actually face at the port. We’ve taken a car across a couple of North African borders before, and found them bewildering, disorientating and expensive experiences – and that was arriving by day. We also heard of one couple, doing the same crossing only a few weeks ago, who accepted “help” from a “friendly” local to navigate the docks – then found their new friend turning threatening when they didn’t give him “enough” cash…

So – this post is intended as a “What am I likely to face?” for anybody who might be thinking of getting the boat to La Goulette. If you want to know more of our thoughts on the trip and the change of cultures, have a look at Ellie’s post here.

We left on GNV from Palermo, but I suspect most lines and most Italian and probably other EU ports are similar. We had booked online, so only had a reference number to hand. I’ve explicitly said where people were uniformed or plain-clothes, because I don’t think it likely that scammers would have fake uniforms, but some real officials were plain-clothes. The one potential scammer (plain-clothes but with an official-looking badge clipped to his jacket) who tried to “help” me disappeared as soon as I asked if he was customs…

Leaving Italy
Our boat was scheduled to leave Palermo at 10am, so we arrived at the port at about 8am.

On arrival at the docks, we took the entrance signed for car embarkation. Security promptly told us that was the wrong entrance – we needed the next one, signed for Livorno and Genova ferries. There was already a queue of vehicles lined up along the kerb, so we joined the back, and Ellie walked forwards to check with security that it was the right entrance.

It was – but the queue was mostly parked and empty, so we drove around it and in to the port. Security had also told us that we needed to go to the GNV ticket office to check in and get our actual tickets.

The entrance to the GNV ticket office was a scrum. Cars parked (and double-parked) everywhere, and people apparently mobbing the office. I joined the double-parking, and sent Ellie to do battle with the queue, ready to phone me if we were both required for passport control. This was a superb decision, as she was back in the van in short order. One of the older men at the back of the virtually all-male throng saw Ellie and a couple of other women, and promptly shouted “Women must go to the front of the line” – and everybody in front parted to make way…

With three boarding cards (one each, and one for the vehicle) in hand, we then headed for the passport control queue, on the quay next to where the boat was already docked and unloading. At 8.30am, we were about the third or fourth vehicle in line, and it was about half an hour before they opened. As they started to do so, uniformed police walked the queue, checking vehicle registration documents and insurance certificates, passports, driving licences and boarding cards, together with their passenger manifest, then writing on the back of the car’s boarding card. Once passport control was (slowly) cleared, we joined the line to board the boat, and waited. And waited. We boarded at about 10.15 – for a 10.00 departure…

At noon, the last cars were just being loaded, and we set off about two and a quarter hours late. Virtually every single vehicle on the boat was Italian registered, bar a couple of Mercs on German export plates. We were the only motorhome, and about the only “non-local”.

On the boat
You will need to collect one (black) disembarkation card per person, one (black) card per car, and one (blue) customs form per car. On our boat, they were dumped in a rough pile on an otherwise abandoned information desk on the main deck. Fill them in now. You will not be popular if you wait until they’re required. The only pieces of information you are likely to need that you won’t already know or are in your passport are on the vehicle registration document – VIN, engine size, first registration date – so it’s as well to have that with you on the boat.

Arrival in Tunisia
Having set off so late, we were very surprised to arrive only about ten minutes after our scheduled 8pm. We were parked near the front of the exit lines from the boat, but had not joined the scrum which formed around the top of the stairs to the car deck about an hour before landing. Instead, we joined the back of the pack when the stairs were actually opened. By the time we got to the car deck, everything in front of us was already unloaded…

We followed the directions of umpteen people with whistles – mostly uniformed, but not all – into the passport control lines. There were several plain clothes guys milling around, but we were not approached by any. The plain-clothes guy in the kiosk required the three black cards and our passports, kept half of the two individual disembarkation cards and tucked the other half in our passports, then waved us on. On exit from this shed, there was a cash machine off to one side – cash can’t be exchanged into Tunisian Dinars outside the country. We took advantage of it, but didn’t need any cash at all in the port.

We headed towards the customs sheds, where uniformed customs guys waved us and a few other vehicles (mostly “better” ones – there were none of the very heavily laden and scruffier cars) left whilst most others were waved right. I _think_ both halves are similar in requirements, but left seemed to be much less chaotic. We parked up, and got accosted by the “helper” mentioned above. After a minute or three, I grabbed one of the uniformed customs guys wandering around, and he promptly started to have a quick check over the van. His main intent seemed to be to check that we’d got personal possessions aboard – as soon as I opened up cupboards etc he was happy. He quickly checked the various forms, signed the back of the blue customs form, and pointed me to a doorway in the main wall, with a small scrum around it. Inside were two plain-clothes customs guys, who checked everything, asked a few questions – we’d left our address in Tunisia and leaving date blank on the forms, but when I said we were travelling around in a camper van, he was happy. He stamped the blue form and black car form, stamped my passport and wrote the registration in. Ellie’s passport wasn’t even looked at.

After that, I headed back to the van – but got whistled at by a fellow passenger and pointed to the glass customs kiosks between car lanes. Details from the registration document, my passport and blue form were all entered onto computer, then the black car form kept. In return, I was given a print-out of the entry. From there, it was a double-back through some of the empty lanes in the same shed, around the back of the other customs shed (the one most other cars had been waved to – the heavily laden vehicles were mostly in various stages of being unloaded everywhere), and down between the side of those lanes and a few fast-food outlets and closed offices, towards the port exit. Final uniformed check of our passports and collection of the blue form, and we were out of the gates into Tunisia itself. In all, it took about an hour – but we were one of the first off the boat. The queue in the second customs shed looked like it was going to take a fair while to complete…

The one remaining thing we needed to sort was insurance. Our UK insurer won’t cover Tunisia at all – not even for an extra premium – so we needed to buy something locally. We were expecting to find an insurance office open at the port – but didn’t. So we’ve been doing a bit of digging on the web and locally in the middle of Tunis. We couldn’t find anybody on the web seeming to offer short-term car insurance for Tunisia, but did find lots of forum questions from other European overland travellers asking the same question – with a seemingly unanimous answer of “Your usual insurer should cover it – change your insurer if they won’t.” Hmm. Not helpful for us.

Fortunately, we found a couple of small insurance offices in the streets around Ave Bourgiba in the centre of town. After some initial minor confusion (the customs print-out was referred to as the “Diptych”, and we needed the “puissance fiscal” or “cheval vapeur” for the van – the French tax rating, which isn’t on a UK registration document), both gave us almost identical quotes, so we took one for no better reason than that was the office we were stood in when we decided it was clearly the going rate. Nowhere near the kind of price we were expecting – shrapnel over £100 (235TD) for three months. But we’re covered now – and at least we know the policy is from a “proper insurer”, whereas when on a previous trip we bought insurance at the border in Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal there was always a big doubt.

And back again…
The return trip was very similar in terms of formalities. Passport check, quick vehicle inspection (and sign-off on the back of the embarkation card), then over to the vehicle office where the Tunisian diptych vehicle document was taken and binned. Pity – I’d have loved to have kept it as a souvenir.

At Palermo, Italian entry formalities are done on the boat – they announce that all green passport holders should go to one end of the boat, all red (by which they officially mean EU, but really mean “easy countries”, regardless of colour) passport holders to the other. Once off the boat, there’s a final very quick vehicle check, then out into the streets. If you’re travelling via Palermo to Civitavecchia or other Italian destination, you still have to do the paperwork at Palermo.

This entry was posted in By Country - Tunisia, Officialdom stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A customs post

  1. Pingback: Palermo to Tunis | Wherever the road goes…

  2. Pingback: An ongoing Balkan border post | Wherever the road goes…

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