Visas for South Africa

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Most expats will need a visa to live and work in South Africa

Depending on where they’re from and how long they intend to stay, most expats will need a visa for South Africa.
Citizens of visa-exempt countries like the UK, Canada, the USA and several others won’t need a visa if they’re staying for less than either 30 or 90 days and are strictly here as tourists.

Holders of passports from non-exempt countries and those wanting to stay longer to study, volunteer or work in South Africa have to apply for a visa beforehand.

Many expats have been affected by recent changes to immigration regulations in South Africa. One of the most significant changes is that ‘visas’ have replaced ‘permits’ except when it comes to permanent residence permits. As a result, work permits for South Africa are now known as work visas, which allow expats to enter, stay and work in the country.
Another change introduced by the new visa laws is that applications have to be done in person at a South African embassy in the applicant’s home country. Only visa renewals or extensions can be done in South Africa – expats won’t be able to change the type of visa they’re on within the country.
The renewals and extensions processes have also changed. The South African Department of Home Affairs (DHA) now outsources the application submissions, recording biometrics and collections to VFS Global. But the company can’t give applicants advice about the type or eligibility of the visa they need to apply for; the DHA remains responsible for assessing applications.
A full list of visa types and the documents needed for applications is available on the DHA website.

Temporary residency visas for South Africa

Expats planning to stay for between three months and three years will need 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.

Permanent residence visas for South Africa

Expats wanting to stay for the long term often get a permanent residence visa for South Africa. The application process varies according to what they want to do in the country. The first thing to determine is which category the application falls under.
Categories for permanent residence include:
  • Work – applicants must first hold a temporary work visa for five years, unless applying for a critical skills work visa.
  • Retired – applications can be made for permanent residence on a stand-alone basis.
  • Business – applicants will need to be in possession of a business permit first.
  • Relatives – the applicant must be sponsored by an immediate family member or married to a South African spouse for five years
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 if the holder abides by the permit’s conditions. All other permits require renewal or re-application at some point. Permanent residents can also access local banking, get a local driver’s licence and sponsor qualifying relatives.

Permanent residence applications

Permanent residence applications can be made both in South Africa and in the applicant’s home country. But expats should get advice from an immigration agent because the process might cause applicants in South Africa to overstay on their current visa. Expats should also note that in order to apply for permanent residency, they need to be on the same visa for five consecutive years. 

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.
Expat children will need their own passports and their parents have to present unabridged birth certificates in English (or translated).

Overstaying a visa in South Africa

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 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 African mission or through a South Africa visa application centre. But certain offices might not be easily accessible and getting advice is difficult. The process is often confusing, time consuming and frustrating – South African Home Affairs is notorious for disorganisation and shifting standards.
Applications aren’t points-based, but assessed on a case-by-case basis. This policy creates a large grey area that’s often best navigated with the knowledge that an immigration practitioner provides.
*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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Our South Africa Expert

ClausLauter's picture
Hamburg, Germany. Cape Town, South Africa
Claus joined Intergate Immigration Service in 2008 and now operates as marketing director. He has 25 years experience in... more

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