Read this in-depth guide to immigration requirements for moving to South Africa, and applying for a South African visa or permit.
Most foreigners planning to live in South Africa will require a South African visa or permit to legally live, work or study in South Africa. South Africa offers a full set of visas and immigration permits, and choosing the correct one is essential and depends on what you plan to do in the country. You will need to provide different documentation depending on the type of visa or permit you are applying for. Below we outline some of the major categories of South African visas and permits, and some conditions or documents required in certain cases.
A note upfront is that according to the latest Immigration Act (2002), temporary residence applications will earn you a ‘visa’, while the word ‘permit’ refers to permanent residence only. Many foreigners will apply for a temporary visa to South Africa to work, study or stay with a relative or spouse, however, one can often easily qualify for permanent residency; find out how in the final section of this article.
According to the South African Department of Home Affairs (DHA), South African visitors’ visas may be granted for:
- visits to family or friends, or for tourism purposes
- business purposes
- a spouse to join their partner who is in South Africa on a work or study permit
- children to join parents who are in South Africa on work or study permits
- fiancée/ fiancé to join his or her partner with the intension of marrying within 90 days
- study purposes (maximum stay three months)
- charitable or voluntary activities
- to work in the production of an movie or show (ie. in the entertainment industry)
- for medical purposes (maximum stay three months)
- sporting events.
Choosing the correct South African visa
The first step is to choose the right South African visa for your stay. This depends on, according to immigration law, the exact reason for your move to South Africa. For some this is simple, such as employment or joining their partner who has been transferred. But for others more than one option may be suitable, making the choice more difficult.
When multiple visa options are available, you need to look at each visa type and weigh the advantages. For example, you might be able to apply for a Relative’s Visa or a Critical Skills Work Visa but depending on your end goal, one or the other may be subject to limitations. You can read in detail about the different types of visas, conditions and required documentation on the website of the South African Department of Home Affairs (DHA).
Where to apply for immigration to South Africa
For any visa application for South Africa, you generally must apply at the South African consulate, embassy or diplomatic representative in your country of residence or citizenship, or in the closest country if not available in your own. Find out where to apply in your own country from this list of South African offices abroad. From abroad, you can call the DHA on +27 11 461 9252 for more information.
If you are already in South Africa, to apply for a visa or extension you need to visit a Visa Facilitation Centre (VFS) or you can complete an application form online. You can visit your nearest Department of Home Affairs office for information or call 0800 60 11 90 (toll free inside South Africa).
While there are many exceptions, in general if you come to South Africa on a Visitor’s Visa (Tourist) then you cannot change your visa status without returning home to collect it. Therefore, it is not advised to make travel plans to South Africa until your residency visa application has been approved.
You may only apply for immigration once in South Africa under one of the following conditions:
- you are in the country on a valid work permit;
- you are married to, or are the child of, a South African citizen or permanent resident, and are in South Africa on a valid temporary residence permit;
- you are being sponsored for immigration purposes by a blood family member who is permanently and lawfully residing in South Africa, and are in South Africa on a valid temporary residence permit;
- you have been exempted from the requirement to hold a temporary residence permit.
How to apply for a South African visa
An immigration lawyer will tell you quite correctly that the set of documentation is unique and different for every visa application. That said, there is a base set of documents which include:
- papers such as medical tests (both chest x-rays and tests from a doctor);
- a criminal clearance certificate (not older than six months);
- copies of all your identification.
The correct form is necessary; although the forms are downloadable online, the DHA only accepts the latest versions and may ask you to complete these again if you haven’t obtained them from a reliable source. You can access application forms online via the VFS, or if abroad, collect the necessary forms from the appropriate authority in your country.
Below is a list of the type of South African visas and permits you can apply for.
South African work visas
There are various types of South African work visas that may be issued, depending on the situation of the applicant. These types have been listed below. You can also read more in Expatica’s guide to South Africa work visas.
General Work Visa
The general work visa is the most common type issued. In order to obtain this type of work visa, the employing company has to show documentary proof that they tried to employ a South African citizen first and were unable to fill the position. This usually means showing advertisements of the position in the local media. Secondly, proof has to be submitted of the applicant’s qualifications and/or experience, and their qualifications have to be approved by the relevant South African authority.
Critical Skills Work Visa
There are some skills and qualifications which are regarded as exceptional by the South African government. A person who has such skills and/or qualifications may obtain a Critical Skills Work Visa. In order to obtain this visa, the applicant does not have to secure a specific position of employment at the time of application. If you have a doctorate in a specific field, and have published articles and/or are considered an expert in a field, this can aid your application.
The most recent list of critical skills lists almost 35,000 positions across 53 different categories. These positions can be filled by formally qualified foreigners who have a minimum of five years practical experience.
You may be asked to show proof of:
- relevant qualifications as certified by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA), including authenticated copies of academic certifications or degrees.
- any qualification certificates not in English must be translated by a sworn translator.
- registration with the relevant South African professional body, trade organisation, board or council, if your field requires such permission.
See the full list of conditions for the Critical Skills Work Visa.
Intra-Company Transfer Visa (ICT)
It’s no uncommon for employees in multinational companies to be transferred between countries. Where a person has been transferred into South Africa, they need to apply for the Intra-Company Transfer visa. Also, any applicant must have first worked for a minimum of six months in the company’s foreign office before applying to relocate and immigrate to the South African branch. An intra-company transfer visas is issued for four years, and is not extendable. If you were issued an ICT visa for two years (under the old immigration act), then it can be extended for a further two years from inside the country.
A temporary residence Relative’s Visa can be applied for by a family member of a South African citizen or permanent resident if they fall within the first or second line of kinship.
This visa includes:
- life partners
Life partners (heterosexual or same-sex) of a South African citizen or permanent resident will need to provide comprehensive and satisfactory evidence that their relationship has existed for at least two years to apply for the Relative’s Visa.
For any dependent family members, the South African citizen or permanent resident must prove their ability to financially care for the applicant, for example, earning an amount of at least ZAR 8,500 per person per month, and must prove kinship via a birth certificate. For spouses, a financial requirment is not necessary but they may be subject to an interview to prove the relationship is real.
Relatives’ permits are valid for one year, and can be extended. For certain immediate family members – such as a spouse or dependent children – the permits are issued free of charge (except for the VFS fee) but there is a fee and different conditions for other relatives wishing to come to South Africa.
South Africa is a country that has an often-stated need for foreign investment. Therefore, there is a section of South African immigration legislation that deals specifically with foreign individuals wishing to conduct business in the country, or invest in a South African business.
If you are trying to establish your own business in South Africa, take over an existing South African business or invest in a South African business, you need to apply for the Business Visa. You’ll need to invest at least R 5.0mn and employ at least 60 percent South Africans in your business.
You may also be asked to show proof of:
- certification by a chartered accountant of at least ZAR 5.0mn in cash and/or a capital contribution;
- a recommendation from the Department of Trade and Industry regarding the feasibility of your business plan;
- undertaking to register with appropriate statutory body, depending on the nature of the business;
- an undertaking to register with the South African Revenue Services.
Read more on the Department of Home Affairs’ (DHA) website.
Retired persons visa
The Retired Person’s Visa is a temporary residence visa that can be issued to any person regardless of age who intends to retire in South Africa, whether it be on a continuous or seasonal basis. To qualify for a Retired Person’s Visa the applicant will need to show that they have the sufficient financial means to support themselves while residing in South Africa.
To meet the necessary financial requirements the applicant will need to show that they receive a monthly income of at least ZAR 37,000 per month through certain means, for example, from a pension fund, an irrevocable retirement annuity, a net worth or a combination of assets.
In basic terms, the Corporate Visa allows a company based in South Africa to employ foreigners and provides a simplified process for granting a work visa to those employees. It is important to note that the Corporate Visa is not issued to a worker, but to the employing company.
Once you are accepted into an approved education institution, you will qualify for a student visa. Students are required to show proof of medical cover renewed annually for the duration of the course, taken out with a medical scheme registered in terms of the Medical Schemes Act. This requirement is not necessary in certain cases, for example, if the student is the dependent of someone who holds the required South African visa and is registered on a family medical insurance scheme.
Other visas include medical treatment visas, volunteer/exchange visas and a visa called the financial independence visa (for those with enough funds, ZAR 12.0mn or more) to prove that they are self-sufficient. You can read all the conditions on the Department of Home Affairs’ (DHA) website.
Permanent residence permits
Many people decide to stay in South Africa permanently and the step between a temporary visa and citizenship is called permanent residence. To apply for a direct residency permit you need to complete numerous lengthy forms but there are many ways to qualify for it.
Direct permanent residence permits are applicable to foreigners who have legally resided in South Africa on a work permit for a minimum of five years, and extends to spouses and dependents of South African citizens/permanent residence permit holders.
Permanent residency permits are also possible on many other grounds:
- if you are in possession of a permanent work offer in South Africa;
- if you have exceptional skills and qualifications;
- if you intend to establish a business in South Africa;
- if you qualify as a refugee in terms of the Refugees Act;
- if you qualify as retired persons;
- if you are financially independent (net worth of over R 12.0mn);
- if you are the relative (biologically or judicially adopted) of a South African citizen or permanent residence permit holder.
Read more on the conditions and documentation required to apply for a South African permanent residency permit.
Extending a visa
If you wish to extend a temporary residence visa, it must be done at least 60 days before the visa expiry date by submitting an application online at www.vfsglobal.com. There is a fee payable.
Tips for your visa application
If you are abroad, you should get information from your nearest South African embassy, high commission or consulate or at the nearest Department of Home Affairs office if you’re in South Africa. You can also find a specialist or lawyer to take over the difficulties of doing it yourself. However, make sure this person is qualified to do the work, as South Africa’s immigration act does not stop anyone from trying to represent you.
There are many reasons for one to relocate to South Africa. Most do so for work or relationship reasons, others to start or invest in a business or to retire. A casual glance at the South African job boards will show there are numerous job opportunities in the country, particularly for skilled workers in certain shortgage occupations; however, there are less opportunities for unskilled and semi-skilled employment, of which there is already a vast supply of workers.
As in any country, vacancies are offered first to locals and permanent residents. To overcome this, the best option is to visit South Africa to attend interviews in person – this makes a huge difference to landing a job. Applications by industrialists and other entrepreneurs who wish to relocate their existing businesses or establish new concerns in South Africa are particularly encouraged.
The government of South Africa also emphasises the need for prospective workers to be ‘seriously committed to investing their assets, skills and experience for the benefit of themselves and the peple of South Africa’. In addition, a candidate may improve their application by showing they are of good character, are a desirable inhabitant, are not likely to be harmful to the welfare of the country, and will not follow an occupation in which there are already sufficient people available to meet the country’s needs.
Basic legal requirements for South African visas state that each application for immigration to South Africa is considered individually on merit by the Department of Home Affairs. There are three pieces to any individual’s immigration application. First, there is a base set of documents required for all applications, followed by a further set of documents for the specific visa or permit being applied for. Lastly, one often needs to include documents that are only relevant to the exact application being made by a certain individual. This is often where many people face a rejected application; a lawyer may be able to advise on any potential issues.
In short, there are many options available to those wishing to enter South Africa. It’s always advised to visit the country first as a tourist before making a full move, to prepare yourself not only in terms of the correct South African visa but also in terms of cultural and other factors.