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How to handle bribes

How to handle bribes

Handling Bribes Abroad

Hidden money bribe


I find that most American and western European people such as myself, are quite dumbfounded by the idea of bribery in everyday life.  Sure we know of corruption scandals and under the table deals or shady deals, but rarely do we ever really encounter situations where people expect a pay out.

It may come as a shock to some folks, but bribery is common practice in many places in the world.  It is unfortunate, but there are some places where you just have to go in knowing that you may have to pull out a few bucks or quid to get what you want.

As with most things in life, things are much more easily handled if they are understood.  Therefore, I am going to attempt to break down bribes and leave you with some tips for successfully working through them or avoiding them altogether.

What is a bribe?

Well, I know you already know what a bribe is, but I am going to go into a bit different of a definition then what you might find in the dictionary.  A bribe is an illegal exchange of goods in the expectation of granting favor.  The goods exchanged through money are typically in the form of dollars and cents, pounds and pence.

Why people expect bribes?

An under the table deal.

In order to understand a bribe and why someone would consider it, I think we have to distinguish a few things.  First, there is a difference between big-time bribes and what I will call petty-bribes.  Big-time are corrupt government or mafia dealings, while petty-bribes are likely what you could encounter traveling.  Second, bribes that you will encounter on the road are not always bribes.  At times, they may be grease payments.  Grease payments are more like paying someone a sum of money so that they will do their job faster.  Thus, you are paying them for something that they are already paid to do.  Other times, you will be asked to pay just to be left alone.  Lastly, to define why someone would bribe, we have to look to economics.  A friend once told me that almost everything was about economics, or at least somewhat connected to it.  It took me some time to realize what he was saying, but I understand it more clearly now.

Bribes are in many ways an economic matter.  People either see it as a means to an end, or a way of fixing social injustices.  Should you ever encounter a situation where you are asked for a bribe, it will likely be connected to one of those two points.  Petty-bribing is quite rampant in the developing world.  It is typically from an authority position such as police, border agents, or the like to a foreigner.

If people think that you have more money than them, then they may wish to see what you are willing to give.

How to negotiate a bribe? Should you at all?

In this section, you must realize that this post is completely my opinion.  I do not in any way advocate negotiating with criminals or dishing out money to them.  I write articles like this or my article on how to avoid pickpockets because I like to help people think about what they would do in different situations when traveling.  Bribes are illegal and corrupt, and should be avoided. The way I wrote the section below is as if I were asked to bribe.  

Before all: Before going anywhere when you are traveling: you should always know that you shouldn’t keep many valuables with you.  You don’t need them.  Carry as little cash as possible. If you have cash, separate it and hide it either on you or in your bag(s).

Handing money

There is not one specific way to negotiate a bribe.  The best way to handle a bribe, is to be mentally prepared for what you will do if you are asked for one.  Unless it is an understood local practice, I would not automatically assume that someone will accept a bribe.  Let them ask for it, before you ever bring it up, then you can make the decision for yourself.  In a bribe-type situation you obviously have only two main choices 1.) Pay it 2.) Don’t. If you choose to pay, you may pass, or get what you want. Others may also seek to gain more from you.  If you choose not to pay or deny that you have any funds, you may eventually be left alone, but you might also encounter more problems.

I have been close to ‘bribe-like’ situations in my travels, but I’ve been fortunate to not have to make that decision.  I realize that every time I travel, it is a possibility though.  If I were placed in the situation, I’m not sure if I’d pay, but that is just me.  Corruption is a huge pet peeve of mine. I guess it depends on the situation and severity.  However, I’d likely not carry much cash with me. Then, I would have a small (relatively speaking) bill set aside if needed.  From there, I would do negotiating and attempt to avoid conflict.

Remember that bribery is illegal, I don’t recommend getting involved if you can help it.

Where you might encounter bribes?

Realistically, corruption exists everywhere.  There is truly no limit to the places you could be asked for a bribe.  I’ve heard of cases of bribery ranging from undeveloped, developing, and even developed nations.  There are a few trends though with respect to where one might encounter bribery on an official level.  Be aware in places where the economy is desperate and officials may be disgruntled or feel mistreated, even under-appreciated.  People who seek bribes are usually seeking to correct an injustice that they feel they have been dealt.  Any place where you might encounter people like that, is a place where a bribe might occur.

A few stories I’ve heard about

a.) A friend of mine met me in an European country once and we were traveling across a border into a country that he had recently left.  When he had crossed the border, just days before, his bus was held up by the border patrol agent for one hour just because of him.  He had all the proper documents and was completely legal, but because he was from another country the agent assumed that he had money.  He was taken into a room, his bag was removed from the bus and searched.  He was felt up and his wallet was dissected.  The agent kept asking him where his Euros were.  He kept denying that he had any and was eventually allowed to return to the bus.

b.) In a similar story, a girl was traveling by bus through a country.  When the bus stopped for passport inspection, she was taken off of the bus and interrogated for about 45 minutes.  There was no just cause for the interrogation, and she eventually realized that the officials sought a bribe.  They wouldn’t let her return to the bus until she paid.

c.) Another story was of a girl walking around in a large city.  A police officer asked to see her passport.  As he reviewed it he claimed that there was a problem with her documents.  Although, she expressed that there wasn’t he continued to make problems for her until she slipped him some money.

d.) A traveler that I met was riding a scooter through the countryside and they were pulled over for breaking ‘local laws’.  The police officers gave them many hours of trouble until they expressed that a bribe would suffice as payment for the traffic violation.

e.) I heard about a couple taking a road trip through a few countries. They were pulled over for a routine traffic violation.  The police officer gave them two decisions: they could either ride with him to the courthouse or pay him a fee on the spot.  Most people pay the fee.

*I don’t list country names because my goal is not to defame a country based off of one person’s experience.  

Some tips:

  • Never carry cash
  • If you must carry cash, separate/hide it. Keep a small amount in an easily accessible location.  Therefore, you can use it if needed.
  • Be discreet.  If you stand out, you’ll be an easy target and asking for trouble.  Do your best to blend in and keep a low profile.
  • Being discreet also applies to occupation and nationality.  If it isn’t necessary don’t bring it up.  If you work in a job that is perceived as being prestigious, don’t mention that.
  • You may not always be asked for a bribe, but it is sometimes underlying.
  • When applicable, report corruption and bribery to the proper authority.

What do you think?

Have you ever encountered bribery in your life?  What would you do if you were placed into a situation where someone expected a bribe?


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One comment

  1. Good article Andy. After more than 30 years on and off travelling around the world I have yet to pay a bribe, or been forced to. I believe there are ways to avoid such situations, be polite, keep the conversation going and use the tips you mention. On the other hand, I have probably also been lucky…

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