Heavy-eyed and over-tired from just three hours of poor sleep, we spent the 30 minute taxi ride reassuring each other everything would be fine, that despite my girlfriend’s multiple entries into Ukraine and living here for five months now customs officers would simply look the other way and let us pass through security to the gate where our plane to Poland would be waiting.
The law in Ukraine states travelers are allowed in the country for 90 days total during a 180-day period, but must spend 90 days out of the country before allowed another 90 days in it. The law is fairly new and until recently has rarely been enforced. But with Euro 2012 approaching, Ukraine’s trying to clamp down and show the west it’s moving away from Soviet-era lawlessness and toward European conduct.
It’s well known that corruption and bribery has played a prominent role in Ukrainian culture. In the country’s defense, with a bureaucracy as thick as the ice that forms on the Dnieper in winter, paying someone off is often times the only way to ensure something gets done here.
Approaching the airport customs booth, I went over every possible scenario in my head. Everything from nothing happening to detention and deportation. A check of my passport proceeded as usual. With a working visa and government approval, I rarely get asked many questions at customs. Then came the check of my girlfriend’s passport. Multiple entry stamps showed more than five months residing in country. The guard’s eyes widened as he studied this. And then he spoke – in Russian.
“Do you not have a visa or registration to be in Ukraine?” he asked my girlfriend.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “She doesn’t speak Russian. And no, she doesn’t have a visa.”
He went on to explain the law – 90 days in, 90 days out. Did we not know about this? No, of course we didn’t know, I explained. Our bad. We apologize. What do we need to do now?
He didn’t ponder this question long.
“You must pay a fine. Today. You can pay 850 hryvnia, and I can let you pass.”
I turned to my girlfriend to explain the situation. She had 800 hryvnia on her, not a kopek more. When I explained this to the guard he said it would be enough, and then he motioned me around to the side door of the booth.
“Put the money in here,” he said, holding open my girlfriend’s passport.
A minute later, after some pecking at the keyboard, we got the stamp we needed to get through. Thirty minutes later we boarded the plane to Poland.
Returning would be another challenge, of course. Would we run into the same customs officer? Would my girlfriend be allowed back in the country? Again, thoughts of questioning, detention and deportation entered my mind. Always prepare for the worst, but expect the best.
Turned out it was easier getting in than going out. The female customs officer said hello and smiled. She didn’t ask a single question, but stamped the passports and handed them back to us. “Have a nice stay” was all she said.
Outside the terminal we embraced for a moment, relieved that we’d been allowed back in without any trouble. But we were interrupted a moment later by a taxi driver asking if we needed a lift.
“Yes, please,” I said.
We didn’t haggle over the price – 150 hryvnia – which my girlfriend agreed was probably twice as much as it should have been. At that point, though, we just wanted to be home.