Choosing to visit Africa, especially if it's your first time, is one of the most exciting decisions you'll ever make. It can also be daunting, because most African destinations require a degree of careful pre-planning. This is especially true if you need to take precautions against tropical diseases like Yellow Fever or Malaria; or if you require a visa to enter the country.
Some countries, like South Africa, allow visitors from the United States and most European countries to enter without a visa as long as their stay doesn't exceed 90 days.
For the vast majority of African countries, however, visitors from the United States and Europe will need a tourist visa. These include top safari destinations Tanzania and Kenya; and Egypt, popular for its world-famous archaeological sites.
Research Your Visa
The first step is to find out whether you need a tourist visa or not. You'll find plenty of information online, but be careful - visa rules and regulations change all the time (especially in Africa!), and this information is often outdated or incorrect. To make sure you're not misadvised, get your information directly from the country's government website, or from the nearest embassy or consulate.
If your country of origin (i.e. the country listed on your passport) is not the same as your country of residence, make sure to advise the embassy staff of this when making your enquiries. Whether or not you need a visa will depend on your citizenship, not on the country that you're traveling from.
Some countries (like Tanzania) require a tourist visa, but allow you to purchase one on arrival.
Key Questions to Ask
Whether you choose to search for information on the country's visa website or to speak directly to the embassy staff, here is a comprehensive list of questions you need to be able to answer:
- Do you need a tourist visa?
- If so, is it possible to purchase a visa on arrival, or will you need to apply for it in advance?
- How long is the tourist visa valid for?
- Does the validity of the tourist visa start on the date of issue, or on the date of arrival?
- Do you require a single or multiple entry visa (this will depend on your planned itinerary)?
- What documentation do you need to supply?
- How much does the visa cost and what is the accepted method of payment?
- How long does it take to process the visa?
- How far in advance should you apply for your visa?
List of Requirements
If you do need a tourist visa, there will be a set list of requirements that you need to be able to fulfil in order for your visa to be granted. These requirements differ from country to country, and it is essential that you check directly with the embassy for a complete list. However, at the very least you will need the following:
- A valid passport. In most cases, your passport needs at least two blank pages, and to be valid for at least six months after your intended date of departure.
- A visa application form. These are usually available for download from the government or embassy website.
- Passport photos. Usually you will need two photos, both of which need to adhere to standard passport photo regulations.
- Proof of return or onwards travel. You will need to be able to prove that you intend to leave the country, either by showing return flights or flights to your next destination. Often, you will need to provide a copy of your itinerary as well.
- Application fee. Payment methods differ from country to country, and depend on whether you're applying in person or online.
If you're applying via post, you will also need to make arrangements for a courier service, or supply a stamped, self-addressed envelope so that your passport can be returned to you. If you're travelling to a Yellow Fever endemic country, you will need to carry proof of Yellow Fever vaccination with you.
When to Apply for Your Visa
If you have to apply for your visa in advance, make sure to time your application carefully. Many countries stipulate that you can only apply within a certain window prior to your trip, i.e. not too far in advance, and not at the last minute.
Generally, it's a good idea to apply as far in advance as possible, in order to give yourself time to overcome any complications or delays that may arise.
There is an exception to this rule, however. Sometimes, visas are valid from the moment they're issued, rather than from your date of arrival. For example, tourist visas for Ghana are valid for 90 days from the date of issue; so applying more than 30 days in advance for a 60 day stay could mean that your visa expires before your trip finishes. Consequently, checking timings is a key part of your visa research.
Applying in Advance vs. on Arrival
Some countries, like Mozambique, will often issue visas on arrival; however, in theory one is supposed to apply in advance. If the country you're intending to visit has any ambiguity over whether or not you can obtain a visa on arrival, it's always better to apply in advance instead. This way, you minimise stress by knowing that your visa situation is already sorted - and you also avoid long queues at Customs.
Using a Visa Agency
Although applying for a tourist visa is generally quite straightforward, those that feel overwhelmed at the thought of the inevitable bureaucracy should consider using a visa agency. Agencies take the stress out of the visa process by doing all of the running around for you (at a charge). They are especially useful in exceptional circumstances - for example, if you need a visa in a rush, if you're travelling to more than one country, or if you're organising visas for a large group.
Any Other Kind of Visa
Please be aware that the advice in this article is geared towards those applying for tourist visas only. If you're planning on working, studying, volunteering or living in Africa, you'll need a different type of visa altogether. All other visa types require additional documentation, and must be applied for in advance. Contact your embassy for further details.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on October 6th 2016.