By the end of this story, you will know:
– At least some of the items to not try to bring to Ethiopia
– What happens when it is confiscated
– The process and expectations of getting it back
– How much you will pay to get it back
– Strangely, items that were similar, but were not confiscated (camera items)
On a recent aid deployment to Ethiopia (Oct 2023), it was required that I cover the media portion of our mission. This entails photography, videography, drone coverage , interviews and more. I also always bring a satellite phone for emergencies as many of the locations outside of Addis Ababa have very poor local cell reception and I always want to stay connected in these areas.
I did a quick internet search research about whether or not drones were legal, but they seemed outdated, and seemed to imply either the drone laws were not established or that they were fully ok to bring. (They are not allowed without explicit permission from INSA, Ethiopia’s Security Agency, which is not easy to get, so suffice it to say NO, they are not allowed.)
Another member of my team, we will call him Mark, was also bringing his drone and his photography gear as well just in case, though we were traveling separately.
I arrived first and waited in the baggage claim, with the rest of team arriving about an hour later. Together we all headed out of customs and I was asked to put all of my bags (2 check ins and a carry on) through the conveyor belt, while my remaining 3 companions, including Mark, his bags and gear, were waived through without being scanned.
Almost immediately I was asked about “a drone?” To which I replied, “yes I have a small drone, a DJI Mini 3 Pro.” To which they asked to see it.
“Do you have a permission letter from INSA?” They asked (Again, INSA is the security division of Ethiopia).
“I do not.”
“You cannot bring a drone into Ethiopia without express permission.” At this point I was separated from my drone.
I was then led to a side room where a customs inspector took my passport, filled out a form and long story short said “We will be holding your drone here in storage (pointing to another room across the exit). When you are ready to depart, come here 2-3 hours before your flight and you can pick up your drone.”
With more waiting and paperwork, I was eventually on my way, reunited with my team members. One of which was carrying the other drone in a dedicated, small pelican case in his hand.
We then proceeded to our Domestic Transfer and had to go through another security check, which included another scanner.
As I picked up my bag, the security agent asked “are you carrying binoculars?”
“No mam I am not” I answered grabbed my bag and went on my way.
The bag next to mine however, did have binoculars. And it was the carry-on of Mark, who then promptly also had them confiscated by the gate security agents, with similar delays and filling out of paperwork.
Mark explained that the agent said “Certain sizes of binoculars are not allowed’ – Unless I am mistaken, Mark had a set of 8 x 42mm, and they were too large, where 8 x 30 are allowed (I need to confirm these numbers with Mark and he is unavailable at this time, suffice it to say any decently sized set of binos will be problematic).
We then proceeded to spend the next several weeks doing our aid work, with my team members leaving before me. Mark left after a week and was not able to get his binoculars (they were about $1000 in value) and one of our other team members had to go pick it up for him.
This other team member reported “It was a nightmare. They had what seemed like hundreds of binoculars in there, but here is the important tip, when you are picking them up, go straight to arrivals, not departures. It is the same place where customs scans people for international flights arriving.”
I started making my way home yesterday, with Marks drone in my bag. That back up drone played a critical role in our mission, but now it was time to get it home, meaning I had to go through security again at the regional airport, with a drone.
Fortunately, I was able to get it checked in all the way from the regional airport, all the way through Addis to my home in Hawaii, so there wouldn’t be any more issues with that drone once it was in the airlines baggage system.
However, as we went through security to get on this first plane, low and behold the security agent asked “Please open your bag” and she immediately went for the Satellite Phone I always have with me.
She called over 3 more agents who then scrutinized it, asking for my passport and taking pictures of everything.
Luckily, the project we had been supporting was in partnership with INSA, so I referred the gate security agents to my contact at the agency, who then explained the situation. After a few moments my satellite phone was returned. My friend at INSA explained, “I had to vouch for you for them to give it back.” So, I just got lucky in this instance. Had we not been working on this project, that $1200 phone would have also been confiscated.
I was left wondering “Why didn’t they stop me all the other times I was putting this through the scanner machine?” In fact, I bring 2 sat phones. One in my check in and one in my carry on.
So yes, it appears there are many ways you may or might not get lucky getting through security if they don’t see it, but this doesn’t mean these items are allowed in Ethiopia, and if you go through security enough, they WILL find It eventually.
You might be wondering if/how I got my drone back. This is how it happened, and you should know these things if you are unfortunate enough to have to go through recovering your confiscated items.
I was back in Addis around 2:30pm. My flight to London would board at midnight and leave at 1245am. When I tried to pick up my drone early, there were several long lines at windows that said “Document Inspector” but in reality there was a “boss man” walking around who had final say or approval on anything being released. There is no formal line to speak to this man, as he is mostly walking around and you have to get his attention.
If you are not an assertive person, expect many others to try to jump in front of you, pleading their cases to this gentleman, who is clearly the most busy guy in the airport. I felt bad for him, there was a woman from Europe screaming at him about a bag and a young many from South America going on and on about “Good samples and medium quality samples!”. It was like something out of a movie.
By the time I got his attention, he looked at my paperwork and asked when my flight was. I answered “Midnight”.
To which he replied “You are too early. Come back at 10pm”. The time now was 3pm.
Being that I had the same sat phone in my bag as I did earlier in the day, I didn’t want to take the chance of leaving a secure part of the airport and having to go through that hassle again. So, I opted to hang out for 7 hours.
When it came time, it was actually 945pm, not 10pm and the same gentleman was there. (Its possible this place is open all night, every day.)
He mentioned I was early, but I explained that boarding was in about 2 hours. He finally signed the paper and I took it to the storage location, whose employees were kind and engaging.
The storage facility will charge a storage fee, which is:
– 10 Birr, Per Kilo, Per Day
– There is a 300 birr handling fee.
My total storage fee was about 650 Birr, or $11 US Dollars
A few minutes after paying the bill, a young man emerged with my DJI Mini 3 Pro in hand. But he wouldn’t give it to me.
We literally walked together to the security / customs gate, where only then, when I was the next in line, did he hand me my drone.
They wanted to make sure I was actually leaving on my flight before they would let me have it back. I was still a little nervous the sat phone or drone might trigger another search as I made it through international security, followed by airline security (many international flights leaving Africa have their own security immediately before boarding the plane). But I didn’t have any problems.
Why all the fuss about binoculars and drones and sat phones? I felt frustrated, like I was trying to help Ethiopia, so why the hassle? There is a war going on in Northern Ethiopia (We hear nothing about it in mainstream media) and some of these devices could be used by those forces. This explains the why, so I do understand it.
We even brought 4 walkie talkies, to which one of our security friends on the project informed us “these are also not allowed”.
What about professional cameras?
It’s a good question, but here is what I would say: Bring only one camera per person, and it should NOT be in retail packaging. In fact, anything in retail packaging it may appear you are attempting to import it to sell. This is something I read about online, and it did appear to be accurate. I say a gentleman with a few boxes of mentos and apple ear pods having them confiscated, they were all in retail packaging.
As a pro photographer, I always like to have at least 2 camera bodies in case something goes wrong. For this reason, Mark brought a camera, and a third team member also brought a similar camera to mine. We brought 2 drones “just in case” and had we not, wow….we would not have been able to get the shots we needed.
What about Lenses?
They didn’t seem to care about the lenses I brought, including:
– Canon 14-35 f4 RF
– Canon 24-105 f4 RF
– Canon 70-200 2.8 RF
– Canon 100-500 RF
– Edlekrone slider rail
– Edlebrone Motorized unit
– LED light with diffuser
– Multiple Microphones.
Is there a way to get proper permission to bring binoculars and drones into Ethiopia for use without being confiscated?
Apparently, there is a way to get proper permission from INSA for bringing drones and certain types of binoculars in, but I am in still learning that process. When I have more information, I will update you here. Please leave a comment if this interests you.
In any event, I hope this information prepares you for your trip to Ethiopia. Do not risk it without the proper permissions. Best wishes! Michael