I handed my passport to the Serbian police officer. He scowled, not from the encroaching cold, but because I was American and had Kosovo visa stamps. Thankfully, I also had a Serbian entry stamp so there was nothing he could do but waive me through. A few kilometers down a windy country road I reached the Kosovar border checkpoint.
Normally when you cross borders you only have to worry about a valid passport (don’t forget it needs to be good for at least 6 months), and your visa. With Kosovo and Serbia things get a bit more complicated. There is an ambiguous international legal rational for Kosovo; a battle in the Security Council between the US, Russia and China over sovereignty and self-determination; a unilateral declaration of Independence by the Kosovar Government (supported by 65 countries in the world, but not the UN); and the blanket denial of that independence by Serbia, which maintains parallel government functions in parts of Kosovo. By now you may be wondering if there is a border or not…there is…depending on who you ask.
Kosovo and Serbia are both great countries to visit and explore, but if you are planning to experience both on the same trip you need to plan carefully or you may find yourself stranded at the border. I live in Kosovo and recently crossed the boarder so here is what you need to know (at the time of publishing).
Visit Serbia first
Kosovo maintains a border station into Serbia, while Serbia maintains a police checkpoint a few kilometers later to catch visa violators. If you entered Kosovo first, received a Kosovar entry and exit stamp, and then try to enter Serbia you will be denied access. Good luck finding your way back to Pristina. Serbia considers Kosovo a part of Serbian territory and if you enter it without a Serbian entry visa you are technically without a valid visa. As a matter of principle, Serbian visa stamps are not available along the Kosovar/Serbian border as there are only police checkpoints to make sure you have one.
Visit Serbia first. Fly into Belgrade, explore the country and then move on to Kosovo where you can obtain an entry visa at the Kosovo border checkpoint. Just remember you won’t be able to return to Serbia the same way if you get a Kosovo entry stamp, so plan your flights carefully (e.g. fly into Belgrade and out from Pristina). Or you can ask the Kosovar boarder control not to stamp your passport…not technically legal but it works for a lot of people (including me just last week).
I’m in Kosovo now! What do I do?
Don’t panic, go to your nearest cafe (they’re everywhere) and have one of the best inexpensive machiatos anywhere in the world. Feeling better? Good. Now, all you need to do is plan your exit from Kosovo by either flight or overland through another country (there are no flights direct from Pristina to Belgrade but you can fly from Skopje, Macedonia). If you want to get back into Serbia overland your best bet is to cross into Macedonia and then into Serbia by bus, or a nine hour train ride form Skopje.
Don’t forget that Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro all border Kosovo, have recognized it and there are no problems with visas (assuming you are able to get visas on arrival per your nationality).
Does this seem overly complicated? Maybe, but with a bit of planning you can ensure a smooth trip (personally I like unexpected difficulties, they lead to better travel stories).
Have you crossed the border recently? Leave a comment and share your experiences.