Discover more about South African immigration, including what you need to know about how to become a South African citizen and how to apply for South African residency.
Unless you are born in South Africa or have South African parents, you can apply for South African citizenship after holding a permanent residence permit for five years, by marrying a South African citizen or by being a minor with a permanent residence visa.
You can apply for permanent residence in South Africa if you or your spouse have been living and working in South Africa for a minimum of five years or if you fulfil certain other conditions.
But what’s the difference between citizenship and permanent residence, which would be right for you – and how do you apply?
Permanent South African residency vs South African citizenship
As a permanent resident, you will have most of the rights and responsibilities of a South African citizen but you are not allowed to vote in South African government elections or hold a South African passport.
Permanent residency is not as ‘permanent’ as citizenship. You may have your permanent residence permit withdrawn if you don’t live in South Africa within the first year after the permit has been issued if you live outside South Africa for three years or you are convicted of a serious criminal offence.
Citizenship by birth or descent cannot be revoked unless you take on another nationality without first applying to retain your South African nationality or you serve in the armed forces of another country, which is at war with South Africa.
You could lose your South African citizenship by naturalisation if you supply false information about yourself, conceal important information relating to your application or obtain your naturalisation fraudulently, or you are sentenced to jail for 12 months for an offence that would also have been an offence in South Africa.
How to apply for a South African permanent residence permit
You can apply for a direct residency permit or a residency-on-other-grounds permit. But before you can make an application for either, you have to prove to the Minister of Home Affairs that you are not a ‘prohibited’ or ‘undesirable’ person. These include people with certain infectious diseases (like cholera), many criminals, bankrupts and anyone involved with a racial hatred organisation. Once you’ve received confirmation that you are acceptable, you can apply for permanent residence in South Africa.
Direct residence permit
You can apply for a direct residence permit if you or your spouse have been living and working in South Africa for a minimum of five years, or you are the spouse or dependent of a South African citizen or someone who holds a permanent residence permit.
You can apply for a residency-on-other-grounds permit if you have a permanent work offer in South Africa or intend starting up a business, have exceptional skills and qualifications, are a refugee, are retired, are relatives (biological or by adoption) of a South African citizen or someone who holds a permanent residence permit and you are financially independent.
How to apply for South African residency
You (or a lawyer or immigration specialist acting on your behalf) need to apply at the nearest office of the Department of Home Affairs in South Africa, or the South African embassy or consulate if you’re outside South Africa. You need to submit Form BI-947 along with a full set of fingerprints and various documents. There’s information at the end of the form about specific documents you need to submit as they vary according to South African immigration category.
How to acquire South African citizenship
There are three ways to acquire South African citizenship: by birth, by descent or by naturalisation.
Citizenship by birth
If you were born in South Africa before October 6, 1995, or were born in South Africa after October 6, 1995, and one of your parents was a South African citizen or held a South African permanent residence permit at the time of your birth, or you were adopted by a South African citizen or by someone who holds a South African permanent residence permit – and your birth was registered within 30 days – you automatically qualify for South African citizenship.
In September 2016, the Supreme Court of Appeal in South Africa granted South African citizenship to a ‘stateless’ 8-year-old girl who was born in South Africa to Cuban parents. Her parents had not lived in Cuba for some time she was unable to claim Cuban citizenship. Although this has been theoretically possible for some time, in practice, there was no application form to enable people to apply. The Minister of Home Affairs has now agreed to pass new regulations within 18 months of the ruling so that stateless children can apply for citizenship.
South African citizenship by descent
If you were born outside of South Africa to a parent who was a South African citizen at the time of your birth or you were adopted by a South African citizen, and your birth was registered, you can apply for citizenship by descent.
How to apply for South African citizenship by descent
You will need to submit the following documents to the Department of Home Affairs:
- Form DHA-24 to register your birth.
- Form BI-24, signed by both parents if your parents were unmarried at the time of your birth, to confirm paternity.
- Forms DHA-529
- Your birth certificate
- Your parents’ marriage certificate (if applicable)
- Form DHA-9, the application form for an identity document, along with two ID photographs (for those aged 15 years and over)
- Proof of your parents’ identity
- If applicable, proof of your parents’ foreign citizenship
- Adoption order (if applicable)
Citizenship by naturalisation
You can apply for South African citizenship through naturalisation if you have held a permanent residence permit for at least five years if you have married a South African, or you are a minor under 21 years with a permanent residence.
If you are applying as a permanent permit holder, you must have lived for one year’s ordinary residence in South Africa immediately before your application for nationalisation. After you have acquired permanent residency, you should have lived for an additional four years in South Africa during the eight years before your application for naturalisation (excluding the year of ordinary residence).
If you’re married to a South African, you must have two years of permanent residence and have been married for two years immediately before your application but after you received permanent residence status.
If you are a minor, then you can apply for permanent residence immediately. The responsible parent of a minor can apply on their behalf as long as the minor lives permanently and lawfully in South Africa.
You must have an ‘adequate knowledge’ of the duties and responsibilities of a South African citizen, be able to communicate in any one of South Africa’s official languages and be of ‘good and sound’ character. You must also intend to continue living in South Africa.
How to apply for South African citizenship by naturalisation
You will need to pay the fee for naturalisation and submit the following documents (and copies in most cases) to the Department of Home Affairs.
- Forms DHA-63 and DHA-757
- Your original South African non-citizen identity document
- Your marriage certificate (if applicable).
- Your divorce decree (if applicable)
- An application for the re-issue of your identity document, including two ID photographs
- The fee for the re-issue of your identity document
- Proof of permanent residence or exemption
- Form SAP 91 with a full set of fingerprints (needed for a police clearance report for applicants aged 18 years and over)
- If you are under 18 years old, your parents or legal guardian must sign the application form (BI-63).
Citizenship by registration
If you are a British citizen who lived in South Africa for at least two years before September 2, 1949, you can apply for South African citizenship through registration.
Dual nationality in South Africa
Some countries allow dual nationality; many do not, so you will need to check with the authorities in your country of origin to find out whether it is possible to acquire South African nationality alongside your existing nationality. Dual nationality is allowed in South Africa. Once you have the South African nationality, if you wish to acquire another nationality, you must apply to retain your South African nationality or you may lose it.
For more information
- Department of Home Affairs – www.dha.gov.za