Before you set off on your trip to the continent, it’s important to find out which African countries require travel visas and which don’t. Some nations make you get one in advance, while others offer them upon arrival at the airport, and a few don’t require a visa at all (for short visits).
The best way to get the most up-to-date visa information is to get on the phone (or online) at least 4 weeks before your trip, and start doing some research. You can either call the country’s embassy and inquire, or can check a website like the U.S. State Department’s (if you’re American) or the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s (if you’re British). Both publish up-to-the-minute information on whether visas are required for nationals of your home country.
Otherwise you may end up spending thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours planning the perfect trip, only to lose it all by neglecting to get a visa that you didn’t know you needed (or didn’t get in time).
Some other considerations to bear in mind when researching and applying for visas:
Does your passport meet all the requirements?
This is not just a matter of whether or not it has expired. Some countries have other rules relating to passports. For example, South Africa requires travelers to have at least two blank pages in their passport upon entry into the country. If you don’t, you could be put on the next plane back to your home country. And most nations require your passport to be valid for at least 6 months beyond the date which you intend to visit. If your passport isn’t up to snuff, you’ll have to apply for a new one, which can take several weeks.
What kind of visa do you need?
Visas are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Most countries have different classes depending on what you are visiting for and how long: business, tourism, volunteering, research, multiple-entry, short-term, long-term, etc. So when you call the embassy, be sure to clarify what types of visas are offered in order to determine which one is appropriate for your circumstances.
Pay attention to all the additional documents/requirements.
Getting a visa is not always just as simple as filling out a form and sending it to the embassy with your passport. You’ll may also need to send photos (of a certain size and angle), proof of vaccination for yellow fever or other diseases, a copy of your travel itinerary, and a stamped, addressed return envelope.
Even if a country lets you buy a tourist visa on arrival, you still may want to get one in advance.
Getting a tourist visa before you leave will give you peace of mind and save you potential time and hassle at the airport. Also, some countries can’t GUARANTEE you’ll be able to get a visa on arrival (hello, Ethiopia), so better to be safe than sorry and get one before your trip. Obviously this may not be possible if you are wandering around Africa spontaneously or taking a last-minute side-trip to a visa-on-arrival country, in which case you’re best bet is to just show up at the airport or border crossing and hope for the best.
Timing is crucial.
As I mentioned before, you may need several weeks lead time if you need a new passport AND a visa. If you only need a visa, you’ll still need at least 2 weeks, considering mailing time and processing time (some embassies can take up to a week to process a visa request).
If you are planning to leave then re-enter a single country, investigate the possibility of getting a multiple-entry visa, which can save you money. Tourist-friendly Kenya offers such a visa, since officials there realize that visitors often go over the border to Tanzania or Uganda for a day or two, then come back to Kenya during their trip.
If you are planning to visit more than one African country during a single trip to the continent, you may need to get multiple visas, so plan your lead time accordingly. In this situation, using a visa agency may be worth your while; they can handle all the back-and-forth with different embassies for a single fee, saving you the time and hassle.
As of January 1, 2014 you can enter Rwanda, Kenya and/or Uganda with a single East African Visa. If you are planning to visit two or more of these countries, the East African Visa will cut down on the paperwork and cost normally involved in buying individual country visas. The joint visa costs US$100, versus US$50 for Kenya, US$30 for Rwanda, and US$50 for Uganda. The EAV can be obtained at the embassy of any of the participating countries. (In future, Tanzania and Burundi may join the scheme.)
If you’re traveling to multiple countries in West Africa, you may want to investigate the Visa Touristique Entente (VTE) which covers Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo and Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). It costs around $50 and is valid for up to two consecutive months. The Benin embassy seems to issue the VTE with the least hassle, although it’s available from any of the five countries’ embassies.
A pilot project is currently underway to test the implementation of another regional visa, for countries in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA). This visa would allow entry to Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia, which all border each other in southern Africa. Keep your eyes and ears open to see if this becomes an “official” program in 2014 or 2015.
Click through to the next page to see a detailed list of which countries do and don’t require visas.