Sunday 30 June 2013

Viven : How we crossed from Guinea to Sierra Leone

Dear Viven,

After the rife corruption of Guinea, especially in the ill-favoured, dusty and dark capital of Conakry, we arrived at the Sierra Leone border where a giant anti-corruption sign was displayed for all visitors and officials to see.  That sign was nearly as welcome as the behaviour: no money or gifts requested, lots of friendly handshakes and salutes, and even some police who actually just wanted to chat.

The information in this letter is accurate at the time we crossed the border on 19 June 2013.  We are one British and one Canadian, driving a 1996 right-hand drive Toyota Hilux Surf from Paris to Tanzania.

Our previous crossing was from Guinea-Bissau to Guinea, and our next crossing will be from Sierra Leone to Liberia.

Visas were required in advance, and obtained online with VSL (Visit Sierra Leone) Travel.  In addition to an online application form, a scanned passport copy and credit card payment (US$100 for Canadians, $110 for British) was supplied.  We submitted the applications on Friday 7 June, and in the promised two working days we received the visas by email (Monday 10 June), and were asked to print both the visa itself, and the receipt of payment.  One application was made for each person.  The gateway website is:

Not only is this service rare for Africa, but we figured that even if it is legitimate (it is), there is the risk that the particular border guard on the day won’t accept something that is not in the actual passport.  We thoroughly researched the process, and found that the printed-off visas are indeed valid and commonly accepted for land crossings – even though the printout states “Freetown International Airport” as the point of entry.  At the border crossing, there was no trouble, and no questions asked.  We did make sure to enter at a major crossing point (the Conakry-Freetown Highway), and despite reassurances from VSL Travel, I would think twice about getting the Sierra Leone visa this way if entering at a remote location, where the police officers might either be unfamiliar, or have the chance to gouge you with a second visa.

Insurance and Carnet
Both our Brown Card insurance and carnet de passages were necessary to drive through Sierra Leone from Guinea. 

At Sierra Leone we reentered English-speaking Africa, where the accents are thick, the vowels deep, and the common language, Creole, still borrows heavily from English.

Sierra Leone has its own currency, the Leone, which is valued at €1 = SLL 5,656.  We exchanged our remaining Guinean francs for Leones with a money-changer walking by at the border, for a rate of GNF 8,250 = SLL 5,000.  After this, Leones are hard to find.  Only ATMs in central Freetown offer services for Visa cards, and these are often out of commission.

The Route
From Conakry we visited the Fouta Djallon Plateau and returned to the city for our Ivory Coast visas, and then drove to Sierra Leone direct via the Conakry-Freetown highway, crossing the border at Gbalamuya-Kambia.  Roads all across Guinea are in a bad state with countless potholes, and it often deteriorates suddenly from paved highway to rough sections of dirt track.  Because of the negilgence and poor design (dangerous unmarked turns), there are a lot of accidents: typically freight trucks driven off into ditches or overturned right on the road.  This state of affairs changes out of the blue not far from the Sierra Leone border, into a very new, very straight, EU-sponsored highway with lines visible and speed limits possible.  This highway continues all the way to Freetown.

The Border
We arrived at the border at 7:45am and were on our way in Sierra Leone by 10.  The delay was caused equally by the Guinean and Sierra Leone sides: at the former, a relatively fresh-out-of-school immigration officer didn’t know what to do with our passports and had to call his boss.  On the Sierra Leone side, we were passed from pillar to post in the large single building where everything is processed (customs, passports, security checks, etc.), visiting probably seven different spots which referred us to the next one.  Aside from a legitimate SLL 100,000 road tax, no money was asked for (there is a big anti-corruption side right before the actual border line), though the Guinean trainee would probably have asked for a ‘fee’ if he didn’t have to get his superior.

A few things to note: the Guinean Douane office where we needed our carnet de passages processed is located in the actual town of Gbalamuya, a few hundred meters from the police office at the border line, where passports are stamped.  The Douane-labeled office adjacent to the police building, meanwhile, is loaded with men who don’t seem to do anything.  Also, there is a grand new border station being developed on a section of road parallel to the current border; the building has been constructed.  When this is open, it looks like all the border services of both sides will take place in the one spot. 

What We Needed

  • US$210 visa fees, paid by credit card
  • Digital copy of main passport page
  • Filled online application form
  • Two working days
At the border
  • ECOWAS road circulation tax: SLL 100,000 (about €18)
  • Passports
  • Carnet de passages
  • Name of hotels in both Guinea and Sierra Leone
  • Printouts of Sierra Leone visas and receipts of payment
  • White forms, for both Guinea and Sierra Leone, filled out with basic information on the spot
  • About two and a quarter hours

Sierra Leone deserves more visitors, and if you're coming from Guinea, it's a welcome relief.

Happy trails,


The last barrier before Sierra Leone
A nice sign
Entering Sierra Leone