Grenzen | Borders

Eritrea-Ethiopia border reopening: Can foreign travellers pass?

The border between Eritrea and Ethiopia has been a military front line for 20 years. In September 2018, four border crossings have reopened. What does that mean for foreign travellers? Much remains unclear – a summary of the current situation.

Last update: 21 January 20189 – will be updated in case of new information.


From 1998 to 2000, Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a border war. It ended in a ceasefire, both parties agreed to accept a UN ruling which should determine the border. In 2002, the UN ruling was passed. Eritrea accepted it, Ethiopia didn’t. Instead, it kept disputed territories assigned to Eritrea under its control and demanded renegotiations. For almost two decades, the border remained tense, a frontline. All crossings were closed.

2018 finally brought peace: After a change in power, Ethiopia declared unconditional acceptance of the 2002 UN ruling. Bilateral meetings and the exchange of ambassadors paved the way to a formal peace agreement, and on 11 September 2018, the border crossings opened again. Eritreans and Ethiopians euphorically started to rediscover their neighbours, trade links were quickly re-established.

Open border crossings

As of January 2019, the following border crossings are open:

  • Bure (Ethiopia) / Debay Sima (Eritrea) crossing on the road from Ethiopia’s Afar state to the Eritrean port of Assab (officially opened on 11 September 2018);
  • Zalambessa (Ethiopia) / Serha (Eritrea), on the road from Adigrat to Senafe (officially opened on 11 September 2018);
  • Rama (Ethiopia) / Ksadika (Eritrea), on the bridge across river Mereb/Gash, on the road from Adwa to Adi Kuala (opened approx. 15 September 2018).
  • Humera (Ethiopia) / Omhajer (Eritrea), on Tekeze/Setit river near the border tripoint with Sudan (officially opened on 7 January 2019)

Eritrea 2

The main issue of the border conflict, however, remains unresolved: Ethiopia has not pulled out of the disputed areas (see map above), whose future seems to be still unclear. Apparently, troops have moved away from the border, but no territory has been handed over so far.

Crossing the border as a local

Ethiopia and Eritrea literally went overnight from a firmly closed military frontline to a Schengen Area situation on 11 September 2018. Since then, Eritreans and Ethiopians are able to cross the border at the above-mentioned crossings. Initially, there were no controls at all. Meanwhile, the Eritrean side has set up military checkpoints, where ID papers are checked. According to a tweet, personal data are also noted at Serha crossing. So far, Eritreans and Ethiopians do not need passports, visa or other travel documents to cross. Also, goods pass without control or taxation. This brought down prices in Eritrea massively.

Reportedly, border crossings are sometimes closed from 6pm to 6am, officially due to “security concerns”. Furthermore, Eritrea has started registering the names of everybody who crosses into big books (no digital registration yet).

On 26 December 2018, media reported that the border crossings at Zalambessa/Serha and Rama/Ksadika were „closed“. A closer look revealed that there had been no actual closure, but Eritrea had unilaterally introduced new regulations which initially made it difficult for Ethiopians to cross. Eritrea apparently demanded a „support letter of the federal government“ or other documents which were difficult to obtain. This new situation diminished the number of border crossers, but there was no full closure. In Ethiopia, the rumour went that it was an Eritrean measure to prevent the arrival of Ethiopian party tourists for New Year’s eve.

Since 26 December 2018, however, Ethiopian cars are not allowed into Eritrea anymore, and restrictions apply on the import of goods. On 16 January 2019, Eritrea and Ethiopia announced the establishment of commercial checkpoints at all four open border crossings.

Crossing the border as a foreigner

De facto, foreigners are still not allowed to cross the land border. There has been no official declaration of that, but that is mainly because so far the border crossings are largely unregulated and there are no proper immigration and custom facilities in place. Regarding the potential crossing of foreigners, so far (as of 21 January 2019) the following information is known:

  • There are no immigration or customs checks at the border. On the Eritrean side, the military is in charge of checks. They are not able to process foreign documents or visa, not even to stamp passports.
  • On the Ethiopian side, there are no systematic checks. Presumably, foreigners would be able to pass unhindered. In any case, however, they would not be able to get exit stamps in their passports – which upon return to Ethiopia could be interpreted as an illegal exit.
  • In Eritrea, foreigners need a travel permit for all trips outside of a 25 km perimeter around the capital, Asmara. These permits are issued exclusively in Asmara. A couple of years ago, tourists have been able to enter Eritrea by land from Sudan and then to travel on without a permit to Asmara. There have been no recent reports about the issue.
  • Travel permits are usually not issued to tourists for the area around Assab, and for the Southeastern border area (Gash-Barka). Therefore, trying to cross at Humera/Omhajer or Bure would be unwise.
  • The Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa and the Ethiopian embassy in Asmara are operative.
  • A group of foreigners who have tried to cross in January 2019 – having visas of both countries – succeeded in leaving Ethiopia, but were pushed back by the Eritrean military.

What we don’t know yet:

  • It is not known whether any procedures regarding the treatment of foreigners at the Eritrean-Ethiopian border crossings are in place – most probably not yet.
  • Theoretically, there is a possibility to legalize the entry into the new country post facto, i.e. by getting the entry stamp in a nearby city or the capital. I did so once in Moldova after entering the country through Transnistria, a de facto state not controlled by the central government. There is no information, however, if such a solution is possible in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
  • It is unclear whether it is possible to travel from the border to Asmara without a travel permit, or if such a permit can be obtained somehow from abroad.
  • It is unclear whether the above-mentioned embassies issue visas to foreigners.

Any information on these open questions is much appreciated.

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