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Travelling in Belarus by car: what a foreigner needs to know

General advices to cross Belarusian border and travel through Belarus without problems

BelToll road sign

You are in Europe. You have your car fully serviced, tuned up, fitted with good tires, the works. You’ve gone to the bookstore and bought your maps and guides. You’ve gotten your visa. You are ready to hit the high road, and head for… Belarus.

You won’t be the only foreigner on the roads in this Eastern European country. The State Border Committee of Belarus placed the total number of tourists visiting the land in 2011 at 7.5 million, with 70 percent of these coming in and leaving the country by private vehicle. Granted, most of these tourists come from Belarus’ neighbors – Ukrainian, Russian, Lithuanian, and Polish plates are frequently seen on the roads here. Indeed, 93 percent of all travelers to Belarus come from these countries, and Moldova, neighboring Latvia, and Germany. But foreign cars from more distant lands do get around in the country. Their average stay was about five days during 2011.

There are, of course, procedures to follow, and being ready for them ahead of your arrival at the border will help to make the visit to the country smooth. If your intended stay in the country is under 90 days, you may drive your vehicle using an International Driving License and regular driver license, both issued in your home country. (For longer stays, such as for temporary or permanent residency, you’ll need to obtain a Belarusian driver license – a rather lengthy procedure.) You will also need documents demonstrating your ownership of the vehicle, and (in addition to travel medical insurance – a requirement strictly controlled for all travelers irrespective of the means they enter the country – if bought at the border the cost is usually about 5 Euros for two weeks in country) an International Motor Insurance certificate, also known as a Green Card. In Europe, this card can be obtained through just about any car insurance company (generally under the aegis of the Council of Bureaux). If needed, though, state insurance representatives are usually placed at Belarusian car border crossings in case you require additional insurance (premiums range from 5 to 50 Euro, depending on intended length of stay).

 

The Belarusian Border

You’re ready and you’ve headed out the door. You’ve got your motor running, and you’ve headed out on the highway. You are looking for adventure and whatever comes your way. Then you reach the border.

Most people who cross the border between Poland and Belarus, particularly around Brest, report hit and miss conditions, with wait times varying considerably and, at times, seemingly unpredictably. Some travelers report having to wait more than 8 hours while others report having to wait as little as an hour before they get through formalities on both sides. What this generally means is that the time taken to clear immigration and customs is very dependent on when you go through.

Again, reports vary, but Fridays, in general, are the worst days for crossing. This is the day that most students and people getting off for the weekend get on the road, all at the same time. The volume can be astounding. The best times to cross are either late at night or early in the morning before 8 a.m.

The Belarusian government, meanwhile, has been trying to be responsive to past complaints about border crossing times. The State Border Committee found success in its experiment with advanced booking of border crossing services for those travelers coming to see the International Ice Hockey Federation championships in April. As a result, a month later, electronic border crossing queue systems were installed at both the Kozlovichi-Kukuryki border crossing between the EU state of Poland and Eurasian custom union state of Belarus on the northern bypass road around Brest and Terespol (Belarusian Highway M1/Polish Highway 68) and at the Warsaw Bridge Crossing between the two cities on the E-30 motorway (R17 route on the Belarusian side). Before the system, processing capacity for car visitors crossing at Kozlovichi was estimated at 4,000 cars and 500 buses. The new system should increase the ability of these entry points to allow for more traffic to enter the country along the main motor road between Warsaw and Moscow. Once installed, border crossing times for pre-booked travelers, who are allowed to move to the front of the line if they arrive within a specified timeframe, are expected to drop to 10-20 minutes.

 

Control procedures for human and vehicle… and BelToll

When crossing the border into Belarus, the procedure usually begins with passport control checks. In this stage, the authorities will ensure that you have the proper visa and medical insurance. If you don’t have the proper insurance, you will be directed to a Belgostrakh agent to take care of that expenditure. If you don’t have the correct visa, you will be turned back. At this point you will fill out a piece of paper called a migration card, a form that contains information to be filled out in duplicate. The piece given you must be kept with your passport at all times, and will be surrendered when you leave the country – don’t lose it.

After immigration, your car will be reviewed for the proper paperwork. At this point, you will be required to set up your vehicle for using the nation’s BelToll electronic toll collection (ETC) system. This new system was installed on the nation’s roads on Aug. 1, 2013, with the intention of making collection of fees on designated toll roads more convenient for both road users and the government. Here, you will present your car’s registration and identification (passport or driver’s license) and fill in a contract. Ideally you will have electronically registered at home at www.beltoll.by, but failure to do so should not hamper the procedure. Additional documents recommended to be prepared ahead of time, for those with whom it applies, include: business registration if the vehicle is a commercial asset, power of attorney if the owner isn’t present, and emission class certificate if this information is not on the registration. Most importantly, all documents should have certified translations into Russian or Belarusian.

Once the BelToll paperwork is prepared, you will pay an on-board unit (OBU) deposit of 20 Euros, if your vehicle does not exceed 3.5 tonnes. For larger vehicles, such as the heavier class of recreational vehicles, this rate will be 50 Euros. You will then be required to pre-pay tolls, which will then be extracted as you pass toll stations. The amount in which you may top up at the border is at a minimum 25 EUR; the maximum is 350 EUR. All fees, whether collected in cash or credit card, will be in Belarusian Rubles, meaning an exchange rate difference may apply.

In the same office, you will present your international car insurance Green Card. If you don’t have one, you will be required to pay for insurance while you are in the country. After this, finally, you will get another piece of paper to be kept with your car registration as proof your vehicle has been inspected. This will be reviewed when you leave the country – don’t lose it either.

You will generally be responsible for the correct installation of your BelToll OBU, which is a rather small device produced by Kapisch TrafficCom AG in Germany. This will be the case whether you do the installation personally or someone at the border station does it for you. The device needs to be installed in a spot where the OBU is able to visually register a signal from above-road transmitters at tolling stations. A cleaning cloth is provided to help ensure the front window ahead of the device is clear of interior obstruction (fog, etc.). It is a highly durable item, able to operate at temperatures ranging from -25 to 85 degrees Celsius (-13 to 185 degrees Fahrenheit) and where the air humidity is under 90 percent. But you still must handle it with appropriate care.
The consequences of not installing the device correctly were illustrated in the case of one German driver who came to Belarus to help his brother build a house near Brest. The device was installed on a vehicle with tinted windows by a border station person, as the driver could read neither English nor Russian. He understood that the device would beep when passing a tolling station, but he was not aware that different beeps meant different things. In his case, the device beeped four times, instead of once, which meant that he needed to visit the nearest distribution point to correct a problem (in this case, the tinted windows), rather than the usual one time that showed that a toll transaction had been performed. He had done this something on the order of 92 times, which resulted in a fine of 9,200 Euros. The driver challenged the fine in court, and the fine was upheld.

 

Cruising the highways on the Belarus side

The rules of the road are generally straight forward. As with most of continental Europe, traffic drives on the right. Speed limits are usually posted, and typically are 60 kph (roughly 35 mph) in built-up urban areas, 90 kph (about 55 mph) on backroads outside of built-up areas, and 110 kph (65 mph) on the motorways. You’ll find that the volume of traffic is typically lighter than in Western Europe or the United States. Almost all signs are in Cyrillic script, so motorists are advised to learn some Russian ahead of time. And visitors should be aware of a zero tolerance for drinking and driving. The acceptable blood-alcohol level when driving is 0.0 percent.

Again, not all byways are free to travel upon for motorists with vehicles registered outside the Eurasian Customs Union (Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan). Visitors will get first-hand experience on how their BelToll OBU works when traveling along certain Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) routes, such as on the E30 route (within Belarus, motorway M1) between Brest on the Polish border and Redki on the Russian border. Additionally, tolls will be registered on certain sections of routes M2 (between Minsk city and airport), M3 (between Minsk and Vitsebsk), M4 (between Minsk and Mahilyow), M5 (or E271, between Minsk and Homyel), and M6 (or E28, between Minsk, Hrodna, and the Bruzgi-Kuznica crossing on the Polish border near Bialystok). Charges are typically 0.04 EUR per kilometer for regular passenger vehicle, or 0.12 EUR per kilometer for larger vehicles.

On Aug. 1, BelToll will begin charging ETC fees on additional segments of the M5 and M6, along stretches of the M7 or E28 motorway between Minsk and the busy Kamienny Loh-Medininkai crossing on the Lithuanian border (near Ashmyany), and on a segment of the R1 road between Minsk and Dzerzhinsk. (The latter is the road along which traffic usually enters Minsk when coming from Brest along the M1 motorway.) This will raise the total length of the ETC network from 933 to 1,189 kilometers (or 560 to 713 miles).

Outside of border zones, which typically require special permits and fees to enter legally, just about every road in the country is open for travel. Road crime is generally quite low, though common sense should prevail (don’t leave cars unattended in secluded spots, etc.). Be mindful of the balance on the BelToll OBU, as the fines for “absence of fixed payment” can be quite high.

Also, travelers should be prepared to pull over whenever officers of the State Automobile Inspectorate (GAI, or Gosudarstvennaya Avtomobilnaya Inspektsiya, in Russian, or DAI, Dzyarzhaunayu Autamabilnayu Inspektsiya in Belarusian). These will be dressed in a uniform that has yellow fluorescent stripes, and usually will be waiving a striped wand or showing a red retro-reflector. If pulled over, sometimes at random, be prepared to show your driving license, car registration documents, and proof of insurance documents (Green Card, etc.). In short, cooperate.

 

Time to go

When leaving Belarus, be prepared to present all the documents you were given at the border where you entered. If you lose any of these, you will find problems, and possibly a sizeable fine, when leaving the country. Likewise, the OBU must be returned in good working order. If you find that your documents or the OBU are stolen, you are advised to report the theft to the police and get a copy of the police report to show to the authorities. It is also advisable to visit your national embassy, particularly if your passport is stolen. Carrying a photocopy of your documents is usually helpful in getting them replaced.

If the OBU is stolen, lost, or damaged, drivers are advised to contact the nearest Customer Service Point as soon as possible and provide the following: name of the vehicle owner, license plate number, and contact phone number. The unit will be immediately locked to prevent it from being further used, if it was stolen. Upon payment of a new deposit, a new unit will be given over. If the unit is turned in and in good condition, the deposit will be refunded.

An additional consideration when traveling in Belarus is that if your exit point is different from your entry point, you will be charged a transit fee of 15 EUR. However, in some cases, this might be an advantage. If you are traveling with a child under the age of three, a law allows you to bypass the exit queue on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border and cross ahead of other traffic. Of course, bear in mind that law and order is only being restored to certain areas of Ukraine, particularly in the east, and the international political situation remains unstable.

Lastly, you should also remember that you will be required to pay an environmental tax when leaving Belarus. However, the amount is small, about 1 Euro.

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