How I escaped from being locked up by the Brazilian Federal police [Travel story]

As you can imagine, with over eight years on the road, I have had quite a few things happen to me. Today I’m going to share one of my many (mis)adventures.

It takes place in 2006, in Rio – my first time in the city. I would come back three years later to live there and learn the local dialect of Portuguese (carioquês), but in this visit I just had two things I needed to do: see some touristy sites, and renew my travel visa.

I had already spent three amazing months in Brazil; most of it on the paradise island of Florianópolis (Floripa), and travelling through Porto Alegre, Curitiba and hanging around São Paulo state, going deep into it to a wonderful town called Votuporanga – where I was the first “gringo” (foreigner) most of them had ever met.

For this whole time I had been speaking Portuguese, and this enhanced my experience to an incredible level with the friendships I could make and experiences I could have. To this day, Brazilians remain my favourite people on the planet. Those three months were the happiest I had ever been in my life…

Until I got to Rio.

The “simple” visa renewal procedure

I could have renewed my visa in Curitiba or São Paulo very easily – all you need to do is go into a Federal Police station and go through some bureaucracy and they’ll do it for you. Other travellers assured me that it’s a sinch.

Staying longer was a no-brainer for me. I really wanted to spend three more months in Brazil so that I could experience the World Cup atmosphere there. I had already arranged for accommodation and arranged to meet friends and had many many plans for travels in the Northeast in the coming three months. Renewing a visa just seemed like a minor formality.

Before even looking at the Cristo statue or Sugar Loaf Mountain, I went straight to the Federal Police station. Doing so in the most touristy city in the country was a bad idea, since they are so overworked, but the later I renew the visa, the longer my 3 extra months counts. I went in a few days before my current visa was to expire.

After waiting for several hours, I finally got in only to discover that the fee for renewal had to be paid to a bank and I had to present the payment receipt. They wouldn’t accept cash. Annoyed as hell for all the time wasting, I went to a bank, paid and returned and lost my place in the line and had to wait all over again. I skipped lunch so I could just get this overwith.

Finally it was my turn again, after waiting most of the day in sweat and starting to get hungry. I was very much impatient and just wanted the stamp already.

My run-in with the federal police officer

The same lady saw me again and told me to take a seat. She examined my passport and glanced back up at me suspiciously, as I came in with a disgruntled look and was speaking impatiently to get this overwith. She didn’t even look at my payment receipt. She looked me in the eye and said “I think you want to work illegally in Brazil”.

What?? Of course not, I insisted.

I produced a bank statement I prepared just in case, and showed her my credit card that has a decent limit on it. I had saved up in advance thanks to a convenient well-paid English teaching job in France just before, with plans not to work at all here, and was not spending much on accommodation as usual, so my money was taking me far.

You say you’re a tourist here for the first time – then why are you speaking Portuguese so well??

The exchange was taking place in Portuguese of course. This was one of the few times that speaking a local language has ever worked against me. The real problem was that she was stressed out from talking to impatient tourists all day, and needed to lash out on someone. When you deal with lazy English-only tourists all day as your full time job, my story of having picked up Portuguese in just a few months must have seemed hard-to-swallow.

She didn’t believe my retorts and said that she reckons three months is more than enough time for me in Brazil, and it’s time to go home. She stamped my passport with a one week extension, which meant I couldn’t have gone to another federal police station instead. That was it… I had to leave Brazil and my plans evaporated because I was acting impatient and because of one surely woman.

My mistake: Asking for trouble

Now, what I should have done was to just go back to the hostel and accept this. But I was mighty pissed off. Hungry, thirsty and now being sent away with nothing when I had such wonderful plans.

I went back to the line of people waiting for their visa extensions and vented. I did it a little too enthusiastically though. I cursed this woman as a sexually deprived witch with a stick up her ass, and suggested that they go renew their visas in any other place than this hellhole. I was yelling my curses in a mixture of English and Portuguese.

What I didn’t know was that there was a small window to her office in the wall above me and she heard everything.


She stormed over to me and told me to come to her this instant. Suddenly, I (conveniently) couldn’t understand Portuguese any more and hastened towards the exit instead. Thinking I had gotten away from her, I was amazed to see several police officers running towards me. I didn’t run away – I was just confused about what was happening. They got to me, slammed me on the floor, handcuffed me and threw me into a locked room.

Locked up with time to think

When you are handcuffed in a locked room in a Brazilian Federal police station, while very hungry and thirsty, you start to look at things from a different perspective.

Rather than get scared, I actually got even more angry. But after two hours passed, the anger started to subside.

I started to realise how idiotic what I just did was. Insulting a federal police officer is probably a punishable crime here. I was in deep shit. Maybe they would officially arrest me – with a criminal record I’d never get into so many countries, and I’d have trouble finding work. I may even have to spend more time locked up before they deport me. My life could be ruined by this.

There has to be a way out of this.

I looked around the room scrambling my thoughts trying to remember if I had seen MacGayver escape from a maximum security prison with just a paperclip and a napkin. No use.

Think Benny!!

Some hours later, in comes a very angry looking man with huge muscles and a look in him that told me that the lady I insulted was his sister. You and I are going to have a little talk he said as he threw down some papers including my passport, and some complicated looking forms we were probably going to fill out, onto the table. He then walked out of the room to get something else.

Desperate times call for desperate measures

F&%k!! What’ll I do??

Thinking up my defence, or threatening with something weak like that I’ll get the Irish embassy on you for this outrage! made me realise that it’s precisely what he’ll expect. Another arrogant tourist thinking he can do what he wants.

And then it hit me. I knew precisely what I was going to do to get out of this. It was my only option, but I had to try it. I had to surprise this officer with the last thing he would ever expect.

As pissed off and hungry as I was, I forced myself to imagine all the saddest things I could – when I had to bury my pet turtle Torlinus as a child, when the first girl I asked out turned me down harshly… and everything else I could. Sad thoughts, sad thoughts. And I forced myself to tear up.

By the time he came back I was ready for my Oscar award winning performance. I cried like a little girl.

I’m so sorry!! [sniff] I didn’t mean to say what I did – it was such a stupid thing to do. I’m so scared – I don’t want to go to jail!

Three months in this country and other times in other Latin countries taught me that when you are dealing with macho men of the calibre of what I was looking at, they simply thrive on conflict and pissing competitions. An argument would have been the worst thing to go for, and so, I went for the opposite. It’s possible that he had never even seen a grown man cry right in front of him, especially in the dramatic way that I was doing it. He suddenly started feeling very awkward.

Pull yourself together! Stop this nonsense – we need to talk!

  • [sob] I… I… I’m so sorry! [sob] Waaaah!

He couldn’t get a word in, and then I got the break I was hoping for.

He threw the passport at me, and said Get out of my sight! You’re pathetic! … ignoring all the other forms, and reminding me that I had just over a week to get out of Brazil.

I walked out, still sobbing, and apologised to the lady and continued out, still looking like a wreck until I was a block away and sure nobody from there could see me, and then I laughed out loud. I had “escaped from federal police custody” using tears. Haha!

My consolation prize

I was still pissed off about having to leave Brazil, but at least I got myself out of the hole I had stupidly dug for myself. I got back to my hostel, looking like crap and the receptionist asked me how my day was. When I told her, she exclaimed That was you!? Come here!

It turned out my story was doing the rounds already!

She brought me to the hall where I was greeted with a cheer by one of the people who had also been in the line renewing his visa. He saw my outburst and hand-cuff detainment and had told the whole hostel the story. Luckily he was long gone by the less admirable crying part of the story. I was greeted with a hero’s welcome, and spent the rest of my time in Rio knowing the entire hostel.

I got to see the Cristo statue up close for free because a group going there found a taxi driver who would bring them and explain the history, but he only spoke Portuguese and so they requested the “famous” foreign Portuguese speaker to be an interpreter and covered my share of the taximan’s hefty fee for my troubles. Having the reputation I did in the whole hostel made sure that I had a fantastic time in Rio, before I did finally have to head back to Europe.

And of course I got an important humbling lesson to not push my luck too much and try to avoid getting into trouble in future. Five years later, and lots more travel experience under my belt, you can bet I’d handle the same situation very differently now!

Since I had brought this on myself, I had no hard feelings about Rio and was happy to come back a few years later. I’ve been in a few very different jams since, but whenever something terrible is happening you have to remember that you will be able to look back on it and laugh some day, especially if you can figure out how to get yourself out of it by whatever means necessary.

Even the worst thing in the world could turn out to be a funny story or open a door to something very interesting if you think straight.

If you liked the story of my “escape”, let me know in the comments!



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  • Jeremy Branham

    This is one time where your honest, blunt, outspoken ways got you in trouble!  And to think your “sensitive” side got you out of this!  :)

    • Benny Lewis

      This wasn’t the only time… :-P

  • Abby Fahmi

    This! This is exactly why my Egyptian, fluent-in-Arabic husband speaks only English when we go through Egyptian customs. They speak to him in Arabic, he answers in English-they know he can understand them, but his very American English accent is very helpful when they are asking him ridiculous and pointless questions about why he has an American passport when he was born in Cairo. The last time we went, they held his passport for a few minutes. It was a rather stressful few minutes. What gets me is that he was with me and our two kids, all three of whom have US passports-and my daughter’s passport number is one off of his because they got them at the same time. But they didn’t check that.
    And I probably wouldn’t have to conjure up sad images to make myself cry, that is a pretty scary situation. But they’d probably treat a woman a little differently. 

  • Carlos Silva

    fantastic story…Hope to hear more stories like this… :)Realmente você teve sorte, além de saber resolver maravilhosamente a encrenca em que você mesmo se enfiou. No geral lidar com autoridades no Brasil é necessário paciência.

  • Anonymous

    Great story, Benny! Probably not your most shining moment but you kept your wits about you.   Nice save! How did you get the photo of you behind bars?

    • Benny Lewis

      That’s actually in Alcatraz :P

      Since I wasn’t formally arrested, I was just locked up in a room, not a cell. Like the interrogation rooms you see on cop shows. But, of course, I have this photo in stock to spice up the blog post a bit :D

      • Randybvain

        Hace you escaped like Sean Connery did in “The Rock”:D?

        • Benny Lewis

          Yes – the photo for this post is actually in Alcatraz. I was in a cell as you can see, and then escaped [um… walked right out past the other tourists…]

  • Anonymous

    Love the Story Benny! Made my day. Loved the happy ending too.

  • Dani Riekwel

    Benny, you never would have gotten into the cell if you were a woman, because you would have known to start crying a lot sooner!

    • ASBusinessMagnet

      And suddenly, since I come from things called “fandoms” where it’s common to see characters genderswapped, I picture an entire story about Betty Lewis the Irish polylgot-ess.

  • Rodrigo Corrêa

    Well, actually, to insult any type of state employee is a crime here in Brazil (and, some times this is a idiot way to protect a slow system), but the things with Federal Policy may be a little diferent. The most strange is that there is no serious supervision about “gringos” working illegally here … It’s kind a mess. I really think this specific agent wanted to screw you. You could save your ass talking (it’s the HARD! way), crying realy is the shortest way.

    I’m glad you still loving Brazil after this troubles. =)

    • Benny Lewis

      A lot of people suggested to me afterwards that my real mistake was missing out on the opportunity to offer a bribe at the right time for the extension…

      • Rodrigo Corrêa

        hahahah…. Do it with federal police it’s a little dangerous… If was the military police could be easier ;)

  • Agent 755

    -giggles- Ah, that’s a lovely story. Seems very frightening and wonderful — hahaa, lesson learned. 

  • Michelle Clark

    Excellent story! I wasn’t ever in custody, but I did get stopped long enough at the American border by a “newbie” border agent for my bus driver to leave without me. In the whole hour and a half of me trying to explain that I was just going to visit some friends in the States, my favourite line from the “new guy” was, “How do I know you aren’t just going to stay in America and take advantage of our social systems, huh?” I looked him square in the eye and said, “Because I’m a CANADIAN……..”. Although he didn’t seem to grasp the implications of the statement, I didn’t feel it was the best timing to go into a tirade over the ineptitude of the American system so I just shook my head and resigned myself to more stupid questions. In light of your story Benny, I believe I was correct to hold my tongue! I was eventually “rescued” by his supervisor who I could see was eavesdropping on the conversation the whole time. I’m quite sure I was a teachable moment for him.

    • Björn

      I never really got why Canadians especially thought their social systems were better than America’s. Not that I’m a fan of America’s or anything, but nothing about any Canadian system seems much superior to that of America’s. My favorite example is how Canadians love to wave their “free” healthcare in the faces of the Americans, or anyone else for that matter (and yes, most Canadians I’ve talked to actually do think it is free and forget about a little thing called taxes). Most of them fail to realize not just the “free” thing but also the fact that their system is inadequate (not sure if right word) in many ways. For example, when many Canadians need any kind of serious healthcare, of course they don’t seek help in Canada because they will be sent to the end of a long line. Where do they go instead? America, of all places! Of course though, when giving a lecture on how superior the Canadian system is to anyone else’s, they leave that part out. Whatever though, this is just one example of how your people think they have the best social systems.

      This was just a little perspective (not sure if right word) from an entirely different continent. I don’t live in either country but have been to both extensively. In fact, I’m in North America right now. Peace!

      • courageTOexist

        at Björn: U’r a Swede right? I’m as well last week I read about people been sent to their homeland as their cost f medical care went high and the hospitals wouldn’t take it.

        That’s USA many of these people had more than thirty years living in USA and ona way or another not an insurance that covered the cost – and medic aid had been their support until the cost went up.

        I have saved the articles about this but not at hand for the moment.

        Cheers from Sweden :)

  • Anonymous

    Great story, Benny.

    Nice tactic that I’ll have to remember, though I never was good at crying on demand…

    I find it interesting that your speaking Portuguese well was a disadvantage to you in this situation. Kind of funny, and yet kind of sad.

    • Benny Lewis

      That’s not really true. It was a combination of many things – I was acting a bit arrogantly and impatiently *while* speaking Portuguese. She just used that as an excuse to not extend my visa.

  • Jana Fadness

    Wow, what a story! I really enjoyed reading it, and I think you should post more like this. =)

  • Katie

    I really enjoyed the story. Way to think on your feet!

    The issue of speaking a language well coming back to bite you is really interesting. If you speak really well, you might charm the agents who are so used to dealing with foreigners who barely speak a lick. Or, in your case, you might raise suspicions. If you speak poorly, maybe they’ll get so frustrated they’ll just send you on your way with whatever you want to get rid of you. Alternately, if frustrated they might take it out on you and refuse to give you lenience. I’ve actually thought of pretending to speak poorly to kind of play “the dumb gringo” card about accidentally overstaying a visa. I don’t know if it would work or not. You can always suddenly reveal that you understand more than it initially seemed– it would be pretty difficult to go the other way around! Of course, the jig would be up as soon as they bring out an English-speaking officer :/

  • Fábio Filho

    Hey, Benny! I just saw you on a brazilian tv show called Extrato MTV! :D

    Uma foto sua aparece pouco antes do programa revelar o 1º lugar (Van Morrison, by the way).

    I guess the episode will be soon available on the website. Abraços!

    • Benny Lewis

      huahuahuahua nossssssssssssssssa!! Que bom isso :D Obrigado!

  • Renan Veras

    It’s not such a merit as you think. You should be ashamed for yourself for having said a stupid thing.

    And everybody can realize that you only ‘escaped from the federal police custody’ because the officer wanted and not by your Brilliant Mind.

    • Benny Lewis

      I’m not ashamed at all. She took out her anger on me, and I took mine out on her. I regret it in retrospect, but I’m definitely not ashamed about it. I meant what I said ;)

      And you can think what you want – based on how I read the situation I was far from getting released within a minute when he came in. I changed that. Unless you were there or in a very similar situation your arrogant speculations are worthless compared to my actual experience of what happened.

  • Allen

    Thats an interesting story and could happen to any of us :). Thanks Benny for sharing this ! You showed great presence of mind there :)

  • Allen

    Thats an interesting story and could happen to any of us :). Thanks Benny for sharing this ! You showed great presence of mind there :)

  • Grace

    hahaha I was laughing so hard! What a great story!

    • Benny Lewis


  • Jacob Galon

    You’re really a hero, man! Congratulations! ;)  We Brazilians (yes, I’m Brazilian) know how complicated these things can be here.
    Well, I loved to read this. I know you had a hard time in that office, but the whole thing (and the way you told it) made me laugh. :D

    Adorei o site e também gostei de saber que você já esteve em Curitiba, cidade em que nasci e moro até hoje. Ah! E encontrei seu site quando estava procurando informações sobre irlandês (idioma), que já há muito tempo tenho vontade de aprender.

    Abraços de Curitiba!

    • Benny Lewis

      Adorei Curitiba!!! É como se fosse uma cidade europeia, mas com o povo brasileiro! Ideal :D

  • Murilo

    I love learning languages and I started reading your blog to know about your Brazilian experience. As a Brazilian, I was amazed by your insightful tips and understanding of people´s emotions (including yours own…). 

    As for the Feds, it is the same throughout the world — I am a little bit impatient and had to control myself in several opportunities in places such Italy, USA, Canada, German, China… Thanks God I have never crossed the line! I doubt crying in the North hemisphere would help me much.

    Anyway, I still think that your bad Brazilian experience could have been avoided by simply having lunch before getting in line!

  • Uriel Pineda

    Ya me imagino a un “gringo” llorando por salir de la cárcel. ¡Que cosa tan curiosa!.

    Yo no sabía que también en Brasil, a los extranjeros se les dice “gringos”, en México solo nombramos “gringos” a los ciudadanos estadounidenses. Pero a la gente le parece que todos las personas de piel blanca y ojos color verde son estadounidenses, por eso es que se les suele nombrar así.

    • Benny Lewis

      En Brasil un gringo es cualquier extranjero, hasta ustedes!! Siempre llaman a los argentinos “gringos”. Pero no es peyorativo sino cariñoso.

  • Benny Lewis

    Muito simples! Pode procurar todo mundo que falam espanhol por Couchsurfing! Olha:
    Tem muiiitas oportunidades pra melhorar o seu espanhol nos EUA!

  • Benny Lewis

    Conte sim! :D
    Conheço bem o jeitinho brasileiro ;)
    Saudades de vocês!!!!

  • Ed

    I got nicked in Rio a few years ago for buying cocaine in a pub, my own fault really. But managed to talk my way out of it with some beautiful portuguese lies and a few reais!

  • Tadeu Carabias

    It’s very clear she had a bone to pick with you. It’s pretty easy (read: Practically impossible not to) avoid being detected illegally in Brazil, specially a big city like Rio. You should’ve just not gone to the Federal police, I think you would’ve fared better haha.

  • Herberth Amaral

    hahaha, caramba… não sabia que a polícia federal dava tanto trabalho pra gringos.

    Dê um toque quando quiser vir à Belo Horizonte. We’d love to hangout with you here ;)

  • Iara VPS

    Just like a movie… Ótima história!

  • Marcelo Blunk

    I am sorry to hear that man….I am a brazilian living abroad (Saudi Arabia) and as you may have noticed in your trips Immigration Officers are Immigration Officers and they always like to make their point….I recognize that a jail in Brazil is not the best place to be sent to, but I am happy that you used a very brazilian way to trick on them….

    Boa sorte nessa terra maravilhosa e aproveite…esse país é muito bom !!!!

    Um abraço…


  • Varētu Vuirutzú Kasandrikovich

    That kind of knowing the cultural facts that rounds you is good for this situations. The macho man (and I am from Barcelona) has to be treated like this, letting him to feel he is on the top or something like this…GREAT FOR YOU!! (..and , for sure, seems that the woman needed that advice) Nice history! We want more!

  • Fabien Snauwaert

    That’s hilarious :) Might be your funniest post so far.

  • Lauren @

    Brilliant story! I must learn how to cry on cue for my upcoming travels!

  • Jenny

    Wonderful story Benny, thanks for sharing.

  • Sir Dolphin

    Eu trabalho no aeroporto internacional de São Paulo e convivo diariamente com policiais federais. Posso dizer que não fiquei nem um pouco surpreso por você ter escapado da situação com lágrimas, porque, até onde eu já vi, eles nunca têm coragem de deportar ou prender alguém a não ser que a pessoa faça algo realmente grave. Já vi estrangeiros que vieram para cá só com a roupa do corpo e com atitudes muito suspeitas passarem tranquilamente pelo setor de imigração.
    Foi uma pena não ter conseguido seu visto por mais três meses, mas pelo menos toda essa situação te serviu como uma bela de uma lição! :D

  • Dudka souza

    kkkkkk Jeitinho de brasileiro kkkkk c aprende rápido gringo kkkkkkk

  • kaz

    Great Pic.

  • Ivar Urdalen

    I am currently in Brazil, and have used a lot of your tips to reach a high conversational level in 2 months. I am about to apply for an extension for my stay here in Brazil. Thanks for the heads up and maybe I will try to tone down my portuguese to be more touristy ;)

  • courageTOexist

    Like in Bali where police asked for donations for the christmas…

    • Klarsynt

      Psykosomatiska troll! Har du varit eller är du inlagd på dårhuset? Dina inlägg har du raderat och försökt soppa igen alla spår efter dig Vilak är ute efter dig nu? FBI, CIA, KGB, Aliens, NWO? Du är ett stort jävla skämt! Hela din familj vet att du ljuger! Jävla mytoman.

  • Luiz Lucena

    Hey Benny! I think another important lesson to learn here is: never do things whenever you are hungry or angry.

  • Raphael De Miranda Mendes

    Hahahahahhahaha…. I LMFAO ear… I’m brazilian and you cannot imagine how it sounds to us. An European crying like a baby and begging for forgiveness? Damn, I’d pay loads to see that in real life! Man, ya the best.

  • Jackson Rosembach

    As a Brazilian, I am so sorry for you. The police in Brazil suffer from “the god complex” and I think your strategy was perfect to break this. You are very smart!

  • Mike Wade

    Had my worst time in Rio too. was stripped searched. They also questioned me for speaking Portuguese so well. I went there many times, love the girls and the culture. Sao Paulo, Minas, Salvador, Vitoria, Fortaleza no problems ever, Rio 3 to 5 times just crap (so’ besteiras e bobos). Voltei muito por causa a namorada.

  • Jess Caster

    I am currently in Brazil, and I can related SO much to this story. I LOVE the Brazilian people. They are the absolute best. But the way this country is run is absolutely the most frustrating thing. I bought a car here and it took me roughly 3 weeks and several trips to their “DMV” to get everything they wanted. I can buy a car, have the title in my hand, and have insurance on the car within 30 minutes in the U.S. NOT HERE! Everything is so stinking difficult here. To get anything done takes 100x longer here. You can’t walk into any one place and get done what you want to do ie- you had to go to the bank before you could get your visa stamped. That’s how EVERYTHING is here lol. Sometimes I just have to gather myself and think, “THIS IS BRASIL, NOT THE U.S.!!” And I agree with you, it’s so easy to learn the language here. I was here for six months about two years ago and was communicating just fine. It helps that you WANT to talk to the people so badly that of course you’ll learn their language :). I was brought to your post because I’m trying to remind myself the process of extending my tourist visa for another 3 months. Your story is a good reminder what NOT to do WHEN they are annoying at the Federal Police ;) Thanks for sharing your story :)


    Rio Federal Police for visa extensions are the absolute worst.


      I was there today, and apparently the opposite is just as bad (not speaking Portuguese).. there was a guy (an exchange student, obviously American) behind me who asked the lady barking directions at us to repeat what she was saying please. She went up to him and repeated it (annoyed and condescendingly, in Portuguese) and he timidly told her that he doesn’t speak Portuguese.
      She shouted (in Portuguese) – “Why are you even in Brazil? If you can’t even speak Portuguese!!!!” And walked away without clarifying. The other people in line explained it to him.

      Obviously.. they aren’t too fond of tourists at the office that renews tourist visas.

  • Benny Lewis

    I have to admit, I have used emotional blackmail to get similar things in my travels… sometimes you gotta do what  you gotta do! I save actual tears for only dire emergencies though!

  • Benny Lewis

    I’ve gotten into plenty of trouble…

  • Liana Gramza

    tell us more Benny!  You have such a great way with words I can actually see you bawling in a brazillian jail/federal office.  Thanks for the laugh!