Today fellas, I’m going to teach you a skill that’s gotten me out of more sh!t than a chain-gang could shovel in a week.

That’s right. I’m going to teach you how to bribe the police, border patrol, customs & immigration or anyone else who just doesn’t seem to understand how important you are or how desperately you need to get the heck out of Asscrackistan in time for Canadian Thanksgiving.

Lame disclaimers aside (I never was much of a lawyer), let’s dive into this.

Guys who regularly listen to the show over at PickUp Podcast know that I’ve spent several years abroad, most of the time in developing countries, and often got myself into some sticky situations while on the road. It’s not that I purposely seek out potentially dangerous places and situations, it’s just -oh, wait, nope, that’s exactly what I do, because to me, a vacation without unmarked minefields just ain’t a vacation.

In other words, I’ve got plenty of experience to back up what I’m writing here, and I invite discussion and opinions from travelers everywhere on this topic and others. That reminds me: if you like this article, make sure to comment and let me know. I’ve got PLENTY more, just like this, in my travel journal ready to post.

‘Baksheesh’, ‘Mordida’, ‘Tea Money’, ‘Fines’ & ‘Gifts’

Whatever the euphemism, the bribe is a regular part of travel, especially in the developing world. More often than not, the police, border control, immigration and even the military (okay, especially the military) expect a little palm grease in exchange for safe passage, as retribution for some arbitrary regulatory infraction, or even to issue a travel visa. Usually, these exchanges are friendly, but sometimes, it’s your money or your life. You’ll find out which type of exchange you’re in pretty fast, so let’s not spend too much time on this.

Not all bribes are to government officials. Often enough, spreading the wealth is expected anywhere from the taxi driver to the porter. The key here (and this is important -notice I said ‘key’, so listen up) is that there’s a HUGE difference between hooking up the guy who delivered three suitcases full of hair gel to your hotel room and bribing a police officer.

A taxi driver may call it a ‘commission’, and the police may call it a ‘fine’. It’s essentially the same thing once you get past the euphemisms, but be warned: although it may seem similar (after all, in both scenarios, you’re paying someone for a service they’re supposed to do as part of their job), it’s all about appearances. You can be completely open and public when tipping your bellhop, but even the appearance of impropriety can offend an official (even one that’s on the take), and can land you in hot water.

It’s important to mention that most travelers who end up in the clink are involved in something shady like drugs or something mundane and small-time like a traffic violation or accident. Fortunately for those of us in that position, the law enforcement in many places has created a very efficient way of dealing with these sorts of infractions. It’s expensive to keep someone in the slammer, it’s bad press, and the paperwork is a real drag. So, why not just teach you a lesson right on the spot?

…not so fast there sport. How do you know if it’s cool to bribe your way out of that steaming pile of a situation you find yourself in?

I’m glad you asked.

How To Tell If The Cops Want A Bribe

This is where your acute sense of social calibration comes in. If you don’t have a razor sharp one of those (and, even if you think you do), you might consider some of my coaching.

So you’re standing on the corner, wondering how you managed to run that invisible ‘Stop’ sign, and the police materialize out of nowhere. The first thing to look for is whether the officer(s) try to resolve the problem with you, or if they simply arrest you/write you up right off the bat. If there seems to be some dialog taking shape, then it’s time to kick off negotiation.

Tread lightly here. Language-barriers, cultural differences and, well, the fact that you may not be super experienced bribing law enforcement agents can all weigh against you here. Read on.

The first thing you need to do is calm the heck down, and realize you’re going to find a solution that works for the both of you. This is a business transaction, just like buying fruit for breakfast at the local market

Explain to the officer, calmly, that you’re looking to resolve the problem as quickly and efficiently as possible. Remember, neither the police nor you have any desire to schlep back to the police station, do a bunch of paperwork, and try to explain to the commander why there’s a gringo hippie crying himself to sleep in a holding cell full of real criminals too poor to buy their own way out of jail.

If the officer agrees to let you pay the fine on the spot (or, my favorite, he offers to take the fine back to the police station for you so you don’t have to travel there yourself), you’re in business.

Delivering the Bribe

First off, never, ever (ever, ever, ever) discuss money, the amount or even the reason for the bribe. In fact, let’s stop calling it a bribe. It’s a ‘fine’ or a ‘gift’ from now on, and you should think of it that way moving forward. Essentially, you’re being presented with a problem only several dead presidents can solve.

If it’s a situation that involves time, ask if there’s any fee that might expedite the process.

If it’s a regulatory infraction, feel free to use the old cliche of presenting your passport and documents with currency folded inside. This at least gives you plausible deniability.   Obviously, the simpler the infraction, the simpler the solution.

“Oops, I did it again”

When I lived in Panama, missing a stop sign cost about $5, sometimes $10 (depending on how nice your car is). True story: Panama has more invisible stop signs than nearly any country in the world and it’s only illegal to roll through them right before lunch and dinner time, when traffic police are getting hungry.

Non-Cash Bribes

Especially popular with immigration, border patrol and customs officials, the non-cash bribe is an animal all its own. Perceived value and level of desire of certain items in your backpack or luggage will astound and entertain you, and these situations almost always make for great stories.

Beer Goggles

When I was in Ukraine, the airport police, who were absolutely hammered by 7:30am, ended up shaking me down for, wait for it, $20, several pens, a cheap pair of shades, cigarettes and a lighter, leaving me with everything else, including several dozen war medals (which were actually illegal to take out of the country) my palm pilot, and thousands of dollars in foreign currency which I had stashed all over my pack and person.

In these situations, the bribe depends entirely on your level of engagement with the officers. If you’re just passing over a border, a pack of smokes may do the trick. If you’re in the police holding area of an airport, trying to get into (or out of) a conflict area, it’s Christma-Hanna-Kwanza-Kah for whichever officers happen to be rifling through your stuff.

Don’t worry though, because:

1) There’s absolutely nothing you can do about it, and;

2) They know if they leave you with nothing, they’ll be stuck with a really pissed off, broke Westerner who can’t wait to tell everyone who’ll listen about what happened. They’d rather get your ass back on a plane and never see you again so they can listen to your Neil Diamond mp3s in peace.

In non-cash bribe situations, it’s much easier to simply offer an item as a gift to the officer inspecting your stuff. Cigarettes and booze are some of my favorites, and I often carry a couple small bottles of Jack Daniels in my luggage in a box for exactly these occasions. Why Jack? It’s an internationally-recognized brand, can be hard to come by overseas, especially in the developing world, and, if you end up NOT getting shaken down, it goes down pretty smooth.

I Swear, I Have No Idea How That Got In There

If you find yourself locked up abroad with good cause (in other words, you were doing something shady and got busted), then you WILL need to hire a good lawyer. Not because he’ll plead your case, formulate a reasonable argument, and prevail on the merits, but because he’ll know the police, the judge, and exactly what it’ll take to get you the hell out of there.

In order to find an appropriately connected attorney, simply ask the police for their recommendation. Whoever shows up will negotiate fees for his services, which will include the implicit cooperation of law enforcement and the judge in charge of your case. Think of it like hiring a maid to clean up a really, really big mess.

Last but not least, before you get on the airplane, put this phone number into your phone, write it on an index card and pack it in your luggage, email it to yourself, and tattoo it on your freaking thigh, because when you need it, you’ll REALLY need it.

Dick Atkins: +1 215 977 9982 …aka ‘The Houdini of Hard Times’, Dick has gotten more hippies out of jail that the cannabis lobby, and he’s pretty much the only person who will have a clue how to help you once you’re behind bars overseas. Even Amnesty International has referred clients to this guy. If he can’t get you out, well then, you’d make yourself at home.

Fame & Fortune

When I was in the former Yugoslavia, a friend and I were nabbed by Serbian State Security after a concert. After a long, painful and ridiculous ordeal, we were able to get help from some friends of ours in government and diplomatic circles, including the US Embassy. Everything seemed like it would work out, that is, until we made the front page of Politika, Serbia’s national newspaper. Drastic measures had to be taken at that point, including arranging some documents proving that I was a Serbian-born American and a distant cousin to one of my buddies in Belgrade.

Sidenote: If you do find yourself in really hot water overseas, the US Embassy will literally do nothing for you other than notify your family and, maybe, if you’re lucky, help them communicate with you. In my experience, not only do embassy workers not care about your situation, they’re powerless to do anything about it even if they did.

The real use for Embassies abroad is to ask the staff regarding the proper procedure for bribes in the host country. That information is also best discovered by talking to local journalists on the ground, as well as local lawyers and, if you can make nice with the them and get them to open up to you, the police themselves.

The Moral of the Story

Many people (possibly even you), find bribery morally reprehensible, unjust, and indicative of all that’s wrong with the world. These people have obviously never lived in a developing nation, alongside the local populace, for an extended period of time. I personally look at bribes and greased palms just as I do tipping at a bar. When countries pay their police and government officials poverty wages and stick them in the middle of the desert with nothing but a sun hat and a cassette player, these guys look to you to make ends meet.

Keep in mind that small ‘gratuities’ can be used to facilitate services and can save you a lot of time and hassle. You’re free to assert your moral right not to bribe the border patrol, for example, but you may end up at the back of a line that keeps getting longer, only to find out that your visa stamp color is blue instead of red, and you need to wait in another, longer line instead. Me? I’m breaking out the whiskey & smokes and I’ll meet you at the beach.

Jordan Harbinger has spent several years abroad in Europe and the developing world, including South America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and speaks several languages.  He has also worked for various governments and NGOs overseas, traveled through war-zones and been kidnapped -twice.  He’ll tell you; the only reason he’s still kicking is because of his ability to talk his way into (and out of), just about any type of situation. Jordan’s business sense, extensive knowledge of the industry and contemporary approach to teaching make him one of the best and most sought after coaches in the world.  Check out his coaching site and podcast for more information!