Is bribery illegal? You bet it is.
Do officials stash bribes into their pockets all over the world—including in western countries? You better believe it.
Bribery is not something exclusively regulated to developing nations. Money greases wheels in every country—in terms of big money (think NRA) and small money (think official willing to look the other way at a South American border crossing).
However, as a world traveler who mostly keeps your nose clean when at home, developing nations are the place that you’re most likely to find yourself in a position of needing to grease those wheels, or as they say in Thailand, give a little “tea money,” to help things move along smoothly.
Before we dive in too deep, it’s important to clarify: there is a difference between paying a bribe and being extorted.
If you’re paying a bribe, you are asking a police officer or some other government official, such as an immigration officer, to bend (I say bend because it sounds better than break, but I mean break) a law or rule for you.
So, when I arrived at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, with a $1,500 drone that was apparently not allowed into the country without two letters of permission—which I did not have—the customs officer and I came to a “special arrangement.”
This arrangement consisted of him keeping a $100 bill for the kindness of tossing my jacket over the drone and looking the other way.
That was a bribe. So, is bribery illegal? Yes, yes it is. Is it the best way to get things done sometimes? Yes.
Extortion, however, is a different and much more unpleasant beast. Even if you don’t end up coughing up cash or goods when slipping through the fingers of officials attempting to extort you, you’re going to end up with the unpleasant taste of harassment.
Extortion is when you’ve done nothing wrong and you are not trying to receive any special treatment but are still being hit up for cash.
This can be Tanzanian police pulling your car over and seizing all the soccer balls you brought into the country for an orphanage—true story—in exchange for them not finding something to hold you in jail for any number of days simply, because they’ve identified you as an easy target.
Is extortion illegal? Yes. And, sometimes, you can keep a smile, play dumb, remain pleasantly stubborn about the whole situation and escape with all your cash. Other times, it’s easiest to cough up a few dollars and be on your way. However, remember: once a target, always a target.
The line can get pretty blurry between bribes and extortion fast enough that we’re just lumping them into the same category of forking money over to officials who are padding their own pockets.
As LifeHacker points out: “Some ‘fines’ aren’t exactly what they seem, though. If you’re in an area known to have corruption problems—Mexico, Russia, parts of Africa, parts of Southeast Asia—any fines you’re asked to pay might just be them asking for a bribe.”
In this case, if there was a real infarction, such as riding a motorcycle without a helmet or not having a valid driver’s license, then you are paying a bribe to avoid the hassle of going through the legal system.
Sure, you can get on a moral high horse about where you think your fine money should end up, but the bottom line is that it’s going to go either to the officer collecting the “fine” or to the government. Either way, you’ve already invested way too much time, money, and energy into enjoying your time abroad.
Why sell that happiness for the cost of a bribe?
Tips to Avoid Paying Bribes
The first trick to avoid paying bribes, or being extorted, is to avoid giving an officer anything you can’t leave behind.
This usually boils down to your passport, though it can also include vehicle keys and other documents. By carrying either high-quality copies (check whether or not a country requires you to carry your passport with you at all times) of identification, you can often explain that your passport is locked in your hotel’s safe—or some such story. The key here is to minimize any leverage an officer can have over you.
Second, don’t take their threats too seriously.
If they start proclaiming that they are going to take you to the police station, or whatever hassle their greedy minds can invent, don’t sweat it. The more people an officer is forced to involve in shaking you down, the less his or her cut will be.
They know that if they take you to the station, they either have to process you—which does nothing for their bank account—or they are going to have to give a slice of the pie to their boss, if not their boss’s boss, as well. So, if it looks like they’re getting theatrical about the situation, stay calm and tell them you’re willing to comply.
During the entire situation, you want to remain relaxed, polite, and persistent. It doesn’t necessarily have to be intense, so help to defuse it by being courteous and charming. Eventually, if you remain persistent without escalating the situation, your money might not be worth their effort.
Finally, try playing dumb. Outside of being polite and persistent, being dumb is going to be your best friend. When you’re the village idiot, it’s amazing what you can get away with.
Tips for Paying Bribes
Perhaps it’s just one of those situations where a little grease on the wheel is worth every cent of it—and to hell with the high road.
There are a number of generic phrases that you can work into a conversation to move an official toward your way of seeing things—assuming a bribe is the right direction. The key is to hint at being willing to pay a bribe while doing absolutely nothing to incriminate yourself.
You might ask:
- “There’s got to be another way we can work this out, right?”
- “Is there just some sort of fine or fee I can pay?”
- “Is there any way you can just take care of this?”
- “Do you think you could help me with this?”
It’s important to be careful with how you communicate this, because if it doesn’t work, you don’t want to be thrown in jail for attempting to bribe an officer, which is a crime. Remember—like with dating—if they’re not getting your hint, they’re probably not going to take you up on the offer.
It’s not unusual to see an officer take a fleeting glance in your wallet to determine how much he or she expects you to pay. So, if you’re moving into a situation where there is a higher chance of paying a bribe or be extorted, you want to manage your money appropriately.
Keep no more than you’re planning on paying in bribes in your wallet. If you also have a travel belt with cash in it, put an extra five bucks in there and stash the rest of your money somewhere out of sight.
Finally, it’s important to remember that managing an extortion situation (as a western traveler) or attempting to pay a bribe has a lot to do with theatrics. Officers who are used to a system that pays tea money know their roles and lines. So, get comfortable and prepare to play along.
Final Thoughts: Traveler’s Worry: Is Bribery Illegal?
If you travel enough, you will eventually encounter a situation where you are either willing to pay a bribe or you will be extorted.
It can be easy to be caught up in the drama of the moment and lose perspective. Stay calm, stubborn, and courteous. Then, balance the financial costs with the costs to your happiness, and do what’s going to be best for you.
Either way, remember that at the end of the day, these shady encounters with officers in strange, wonderful countries nearly always end up making the best travel stories.
Oh, and there’s no better way to bring up a “remember that time I bribed a Thai official so we could stay an extra month in Phuket” story than with some sweet swag.
Like the “F*ck It” Phuket Unisex / Men’s Tank Top:
Isaac, previously the managing editor of an expat newspaper in Thailand, is a freelance writer, photographer drone pilot, adventurer, and all-in-all swell fella. Though currently based in Fairbanks, Alaska, he has traveled extensively in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Read his articles on TTGA, but also check out his wild travels at www.dicetravels.com.