Being an EU citizen certainly has its benefits; there are not really any borders of which to speak of as you drive from country to country. The roads in the Schengen region are also, for the most part, perfectly serviceable (Belgium, you have some catching up to do!). So when talking to the locals, at a bar in Katowice, Poland, I was surprised to learn that this particular border crossing was surprisingly slow and arduous. We were told that we should expect a wait for an hour or two as both the Polish and Ukrainian Customs had to complete some administration, and there would probably be a fair number of people as it was the main route Into the Ukraine. So the next morning we set off from Katowice in search of Ukraine!
Google suggested that the route might take 5 hours, which we didn’t think was too bad. We’d already been warned about the state of the roads in Ukraine, which we assumed would account for the extra time. We also planned a quick visit to Auschwitz as it was on the way.
The detour added about two hours onto the journey due to touristic traffic int he Auschwitz area and an unduly long wait at the KFC drive-thru for our lunch. But what we were surprised to find was that the main road from Western Europe to Ukraine just vanished. We were pulled off a nice, pristine motorway and sent meandering through the polish countryside by countless diversion signs. A few hours later and the winter sun had set, leaving us lost in Rural Poland. We were beginning to get very hungry as we’d been driving for a few hours and we thought it would be a good idea to eat something before we got to the border. Foolishly we’d not stocked up on road snacks. So, as we were just getting back to what was previously the motorway, now a two lane road, we found a small restaurant.
We stopped inside and found that none of the locals spoke English, or my backup language of German (both of which had fared us well in the larger Polish conurbations). After several minutes of confusion by both us and the waitress / owner / chef, we managed, with the help of some other patrons, to work out that the menu was out, they had nothing on it, only Pierogie. So our dreams of the nice steak dinner on the menu were quickly shattered and we settled for the Polish classic. It arrived promptly, was cheap and edible (there were no sides or sauces, it was rather plain) and lined our stomachs ready for the onwards journey. We had seen signs for the border as just a few kilometers ahead.
Then, as we had been told, we found the end of the queue. There are three lanes on that stretch of road, one for trucks, one for cars and one that seemed to be kept free, but had several people zooming down it, receiving many angry scowls from people in the queue as they went. Most of the cars that went down this lane, we noticed, went immediately back along the other carriageway, there were a few notable exceptions (British plated brand new Range Rover with blacked out windows, a couple of Russian registered Audis, and a Ukrainian coach). We joined the back and waited…
After about an hour of not moving at all, we got out and spoke to some of the other people in the queue (there were several Germans with whom we could communicate). They told us that they’d been there for two hours and had not moved at all. Disheartened, we decided to walk to the front to see how long it was and what was causing the hold up.
At the front of the queue we were more disheartened to find that there was another queue, which lead to the Polish border control point. We’d left Dilan with the car, and when we got back we’d found that the queue had actually moved!! (Albeit just one car length). With the temperature plummeting into the negatives, we had to keep the engine running from time to time to warm the car up.
After some four hours and a lot of form filling, inspections, more form filling, passport checks, document checks, license checks and more inspections by the Polish police, we were free to join the next queue. We spent another hour or so in the no-mans-land between the two border control points. By this point we’d already watched countless episodes of the Simpsons and played a lot of cards to entertain ourselves and we were becoming a little grouchy. Nonetheless, we sucked it in and thought of how tantalisingly close we were to Ukraine!
At this border there were two separated stations for checking passports and car documents, and another for searching the car and completing more paperwork. Most of the paperwork, thankfully, was completed by the officers, who (including the Polish officers) all spoke English. And finally, after five and a half hours of queuing, we were through, into Ukraine, with ~120Km to drive to get to our hotel. We’d also gained another hour due to the time difference. This meant that we arrived at the hotel at half past one in the morning, to find it locked and no staff around. But that’s another story for another post!
Border Crossing Checklist
In order to successfully and comfortably cross the border from Poland into Ukraine on the E40 Highway, you will need:
- Patience, it is a long wait, and there is no clear cut way of knowing how long you will have to wait!
- Passports (many passports can enter visa free into Ukraine, however it is worth checking whether you do, there is no visa on entry (you can only get a Visa-on-entry at Kyiv / Kiev Borispol Airport).
- All documents for the car: ORIGINALS! Copies will not suffice. You need the documents proving the car is registered to you, or sufficient written evidence that you have permission to drive the car and to take it out of the EU and to take it into Ukraine. Ideally you should have these in English, I had to translate our documents from German to English for the officers. If it is a rental agreement, ensure that it has the name of the owner of the car on the signed document, otherwise you may be declined entry.
- Food and Drink: There were no obvious vending machines and certainly no catering facilities during the wait, so you would be advised to bring your own sustenance.
- Entertainment: you’ll probably get bored if you’re waiting for several hours, so best plan is to bring company to talk to, and either a film to watch or a game to play.
- Plenty of fuel: If it gets very cold (or very hot as it does in the summer) you’ll need to keep your car hot (or cold as it may be) and that can require leaving the engine running. While there are petrol stations just over the border (and oh boy are they cheap!!) you’ll want to make sure you’ve got enough to keep the engine idling for a few hours.
- Charm: if you’re friendly, the guards will be friendly. We saw others who were not so getting a much harder treatment than we did (far more invasive car searches, for one!)
- International Driving Licence / Permit: as the official script of Ukraine is cyrillic, you are required to have an international driver’s licence with you, as well as the original driver’s licence. For more information see my blog post on IDPs.
Furthermore, in order to cross the border you should not bring any of the following:
- Bribes: there is no need to bribe any officials with cash or other items, a smile and hello in their language will suffice.
- Tobacco: While you’d be a fool to bring tobacco into Ukraine, as its far, far cheaper there, it is something they told us they were looking for. (Alcohol they didn’t care, we had a crate of german beer in the boot and they were not bothered at all by it).
- High value goods / Large sums of cash: anything that might be seen as trying to avoid an import / export duty, even if it is for personal use, may be subject to confiscation or taxation, so be careful.