Visas for South Africa

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South African visa stamp

All foreigners need a visa for South Africa to enter the country. An expat’s nationality and the purpose of their visit dictates whether they have to get the visa before they arrive or if they can get it at the port of entry. 
Countries such as the UK, Canada, the USA and several others are known as visa exempt countries. Citizens of these countries are granted an entry visa upon arrival if their stay is less than either 30 or 90 days and they are strictly here as tourists.
Citizens of non-exempt countries and those wanting to stay longer to work, volunteer or study in South Africa will need to apply for a visa beforehand.
In May 2014 new immigration regulations in South Africa came into effect, affecting many expats. One of the most significant changes is that the word “visa” has replaced “permit” except when it comes to permanent residence permits.
This means, for instance, that work permits for South Africa are now known as work visas, which allow expats to enter the country as well as stay and work for the duration specified by their visa.
Another change introduced by the new visa laws is that first-time applications for a visa have to be done at a South African consulate in the applicant’s home country. This means that only visa renewals or extensions can be done in South Africa. So, expats can't enter the country on a visitor’s visa and apply for another kind of visa (like a work visa) anymore.
The process of making an application for renewals or extensions has also changed, with the South African Department of Home Affairs (DHA) now outsourcing certain parts of the process. VFS Global now handles the submission of applications, the collection of biometrics and the pickup point for visa and permit application outcomes.
VFS Global is, however, unable to give applicants advice about the types of visa they need to apply for, nor about their eligibility for a visa. The DHA remains responsible for assessing applications.
A full list of visa types and the documents needed for an application is available on the DHA website.

Entry requirements for South Africa

While specific visas may have additional requirements, foreign nationals generally need the following to apply for a visa for South Africa:
  • A passport valid for at least 30 days after their intended stay 
  • Payment of application fees 
  • Completed application forms 
  • At least two colour passport photographs 
  • At least two blank pages in their passport for endorsements
  • Full set of biometric data including fingerprints for applicants older than 16 
  • Statement and documentation confirming the purpose of their visit 
  • Proof of sufficient funds to pay for living expenses during their stay 
  • A return or onward ticket 
  • Yellow fever certificates if their journey starts or has a layover in Africa or South America’s yellow fever belt

Temporary residency permits for South Africa

Expats planning to stay for between three months and five years will need to apply for a temporary residence visa. This is sorted into different categories depending on what the applicant intends to do, such as moving to study, work or start their own business. Most expats moving to the country apply for a work permit.

Permanent residence permits for South Africa

Getting a permanent residence permit for South Africa is a natural step for many expats who already have a temporary residence visa or want more access to national infrastructure. The application process varies according to what the expat wants to do upon arrival. The first thing to consider when seeking permanent residence in South Africa is therefore to determine which category the application falls under.
Categories for permanent residence include:
  • Work – applicants must first hold a temporary work permit for five years, unless applying for a critical skills work permit.
  • Retired – applications can be made for permanent residence on a stand-alone basis.
  • Business – applicants will need to be in possession of a business visa first.
  • Relatives – applications can be made for permanent residence providing the applicant is next of kin, married or in a life partner relationship with the original applicant for a provable five year period.
Though some permanent residence applications can be made on a stand-alone basis in theory, most immigrants get a temporary residence visa first. This is often because permanent residence applications can take anywhere up to 36 months.

Benefits of permanent residency in South Africa

One of the most obvious benefits of a permanent residence permit is the fact that it is valid for life. The holder merely has to abide by the conditions set by their permit and must enter and stay in South Africa once every three years to maintain it. All other permits require renewal or re-application after a limited amount of time. Permanent residents can also access privileges such as local banking, obtaining a local driver’s licence and sponsoring qualifying relatives.

Permanent residence applications

Permanent residence applications can be made both in South Africa and in the applicant’s home country; however, advice should be sought as the duration of the permit process may cause applicants in South Africa to overstay the validity period of their current visa.

Family visas for South Africa

Expats wanting to move to South Africa with their families are also affected. Life partners need to be able to prove a relationship of more than two years, although spouses are exempt from this rule.
Children are required to have their own passports and their parents are also required to present unabridged birth certificates when travelling. Expat parents may also need to provide proof of guardianship or custody of their children.

Overstaying a visa in South Africa

Under the old legislation, foreigners with an expired permit only had to provide a receipt proving that they had reapplied for a permit with the Department of Home Affairs.
This is unfortunately not possible under the new regulations. Expats who overstay their visit in South Africa can be declared an “undesirable person” for up to five years. There have been several notable cases of expats living with their families in South Africa, who find themselves unable to return to the country even though they are waiting for a renewal to be processed.
For this reason, where possible, expats are advised to stay in the country until their existing visa has been extended or renewed.

Using a registered immigration practitioner

Applicants can apply directly to a South Africa mission or through a South Africa visa application centre. Expats may, however, find that certain offices are not easily accessible and obtaining advice is difficult. The process is often confusing, time consuming and frustrating – South African Home Affairs is notorious for poor service, disorganisation and shifting standards.
Applications are not points-based, but assessed on a case-by-case basis. This policy creates a large grey area that is often best navigated with the experience and knowledge that an immigration practitioner provides, when it comes to correctly preparing an application and monitoring its process.

*Visa regulations are subject to change at short notice and expats should contact their respective embassy or consulate for the latest details.

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Hamburg, Germany
Claus joined Intergate Immigration Service in 2008 and now operates as marketing director. He has 25 years experience in...

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