Want to visit, live, work, or study in the “rainbow nation”? We explain how to apply for the correct visa for South Africa based on your situation.
South Africa is a beautiful and culturally diverse country that offers unique experiences and exciting opportunities for all. However, many tourists and migrants wanting to cross her rugged shores must first apply for a South African visa if they are planning to visit, live, work, or study in the country; or perhaps join a relative or partner there. Furthermore, your nationality and reasons for coming to South Africa will dictate what type of visa you need.
Luckily, this guide is here to explain the conditions of each type of visa for South Africa to help you choose the correct permit. But before we delve into that, it’s important to know that this information serves only as a guideline. Ideally, you should seek specific advice from the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) or its official immigration partner, VFS.Global, which manages all visa applications and visa facilitation centers of the DHA. Just note that only the DHA can issue visas and permits for South Africa and VFS.Global do not influence the outcome of the application.
The guide includes the following information on permits and visas for South Africa:
- Immigration in South Africa
- Who needs a South African visa?
- Types of South African visas
- Temporary Residence Visa (TRV)
- Non-immigration Visas (short-term)
- Non-immigration Visas (long-term)
- Asylum seekers and refugees in South Africa
- Permanent Residence Permit (PRP)
- Citizenship in South Africa
- Arriving in South Africa
- Appeals and complaints
- Useful resources
Immigration in South Africa
South Africa is the most industrialized economy in the region with a culturally diverse population of over 60 million people and 11 official languages. According to a survey conducted by HSBC in 2019, 62% of expats who moved to South Africa saw an improvement in their quality of life compared to their home countries. Furthermore, 55% planned to reside in South Africa for more than 20 years.
The county’s attractive climate, thriving outdoor lifestyle, and general quality of life were among the reasons for wanting to remain there longer. South Africa also ranked as the 38th most appealing country for expats in HSBC’s 2020 Expat Explorer Survey, based on living, aspiration, and mindset criteria.
However, as a society, South Africa does have its problems. Indeed, general safety, security, and racial tensions remain the biggest concerns among expats living or considering moving to the country. You can gain a better understanding of South Africa by reading our guides on where to live, the society and history, and the cost of living in the country. Furthermore, these may help you make a more informed decision about whether to move there.
Who needs a South African visa?
Anyone traveling to South Africa will need a visa to enter the country; be it for a holiday, visiting family, joining a partner, living, working, or studying. However, some countries are exempt from this rule.
When traveling with a child under 18, you should always check the current South African visa requirements and child policy as these sometimes change. From November 8, 2019, for instance, foreign children traveling with their parents no longer need to present parental consent letters or birth certificates. Nonetheless, it can’t hurt to keep a parental consent letter and birth certificate handy just in case.
Essentially, an applicant’s nationality and reason for entering South Africa determine the type of visa they require. Applicants must also petition in person and supply supporting documents, such as medical and biometric data, a passport valid for at least one month after leaving South Africa, and financial records.
If you reside outside of South Africa, you will need to book an appointment at the embassy or consulate in your country of citizenship or residence. However, if you are already in South Africa and want to apply for a different visa or extension, you must book an appointment at one of the visa facilitation centers which are managed by VFS.Global. It is also critical to stay updated with the latest travel restrictions to South Africa concerning the current global COVID-19 pandemic.
Types of South African visas
Visas for South Africa are categorized under two main branches: Temporary Residence Visa (TRV) and Permanent Resident Permit (PRP).
The type of visa you require, as well as the documents, costs, and processing time, will depend on your reason for entering South Africa, your nationality, and at which consulate or embassy you apply. And because processing times can vary between consulates and may often take longer than expected, it is advisable to apply for your visa well in advance.
The Temporary Residence Visa (TRV) is broken down into several categories based on different reasons for entering South Africa. These are as follows:
- Visitor’s Visa: for tourism purposes of no longer than 30 or 90 days
- Business Visa: allows a person to enter the country for up to 90 days to work or invest in the economy
- Study Visa: allows a person to study on a primary, secondary, or tertiary level for the duration of the course
- Exchange Visa: for applicants who are 25 years old or younger wanting to participate in cultural, social, or economic exchange initiatives
- General Work Visa: allows entry to a person with specific, in-demand skills for the duration of their work contract
- Relative Visa: immediate family members of South African citizens or residents can apply to stay in South Africa for a maximum period of two years at a time
- Medical Visa: allows a stay of six months for medical treatment
- Retired Person’s Visa: pensioners with the financial means can apply to retire in South Africa
You can find a more detailed explanation of the numerous types of visas and permits for South Africa further down this guide.
Temporary Residence Visa (TRV)
While processing times for visas under this category vary, they typically take up to 60 business days from the date of submission. However, it can take up to 10 days to process the Visitor’s Visa and Holiday Visa.
When applying for a Temporary Residence Visa, you must meet the following criteria:
- Hold a valid passport with at least two blank pages, which only expires a month after your intended departure date from South Africa
- Ensure your temporary residence permit remains valid
- Submit the online application and required documentation at any VFS.Global visa facilitation center or at the South African embassy in your country of residence or citizenship
- Provide a yellow fever vaccination certificate (when applicable)
The following supporting documents are not required for the Visitor’s Visa but all other Temporary Residence Visas:
- Radiological and medical reports
- Criminal clearance certificates (not older than six months)
- A completed BI-1738 form (not applicable for a Visitor’s Visa)
You can follow this simple step-by-step guide on how to apply for this visa. Notably, it is possible to transfer or rectify a Temporary Resident Visa in the case of damaged, lost, or stolen passports, but only if the passport is still valid.
Non-immigrant South African visas (short-term)
Visitor’s Visa (Holiday/Tourist Visa)
Tourists wanting to visit South Africa can apply for a Visitor’s Visa, which allows them to enter the country for a maximum of 90 days.
Currently, 52 nationalities can enter South Africa visa-free for up to 90 days, and another 28 nationalities are exempt from visas when visiting for a maximum of 30 days. You can find the full list of visa-exempt countries here. Processing times typically range between five and 10 days, but applicants are advised to apply well in advance in order to avoid delays. The costs include an application fee of R425 and a service fee of R1350.
While they are in South Africa, tourists can extend their Visitor’s Visa at a visa facilitation center or through a registered immigration practitioner 60 days before the visa expiration date. Just be aware that renewal is not automatic and may not be the same duration as the original visa. Because most visitor visas are only granted for single entries, you will need to lodge a new application to enter again, once you have left the country. You will also need to leave the country and apply from your country of residence if you want to switch to another type of visa.
Other types of long-term visitor visas
Under the Immigration Act, there are 12 additional long-term visitor visas on offer for purposes other than tourism. These are as follows:
- Academic sabbaticals
- Voluntary or charitable activities
- Research (includes visiting professors and lecturers)
- Accompanying spouses and children of temporary residence visa holders
- Teachers at international schools
- Film and television crews and actors
- Foreign journalists working for a foreign news agencies
- Artists who wish to write, paint or produce sculptures
- Foreign entertainers on tour
- Tour hosts and leaders
- Foreigner (state) witnesses testifying in criminal court cases
If you wish to apply for one of these visas, you will need to present the following documents:
- A valid passport with at least two blank pages; expiring no less than a month after your intended departure
- A return air ticket
- Proof of sufficient funds for the duration of your stay
- Proof of host address or hotel reservations
The new South African Electronic Visa (i.e., holiday or visitor’s visa) has been trialed with visitors from Kenya and India and is expected to be launched and available to nationals of 14 countries in 2022.
South Africa is a country that welcomes much-needed foreign investment. Therefore, a section of South African immigration legislation deals specifically with foreign individuals wishing to conduct business in the country or invest in a South African company.
If you are trying to start your own business, take over an existing business, or invest in a company in South Africa, you need to apply for a Business Visa. Furthermore, you will need to invest a prescribed financial capital contribution, and at least 60% of your workforce needs to be South African.
The capital requirement may be reduced or waived for the following industries:
- Information and communication technology
- Clothing and textile manufacturing
- Chemicals and biotechnology
- Agriculture processing
- Metals and minerals refinement
- Automotive manufacturing
You should also show proof of the following:
- Certification by a chartered accountant of an amount determined by the minister or a capital contribution
- A recommendation from the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC) regarding the feasibility of your business plan
- Undertaking to register with an appropriate statutory body, depending on the nature of the business
- An undertaking to register with the South African Revenue Service (SARS)
The processing time is within 40 working days and the cost is R1,520 for the application plus R1,350 for the service fee.
Non-immigrant South African visas (long-term)
Foreigners who want to study in South Africa, at any level, must apply for a Study Visa before they arrive in the country. This applies even if you are coming to South Africa as the dependent of someone who is coming to work there. International students applying for scholarships in South Africa may also require a study visa first. You can read more about how to apply, as well as the requirements, in our Guide to student visas in South Africa.
Young people aged 25 and under can apply for an Exchange Visa in order to participate in economic, cultural, and social exchange programs in South Africa. Notably, these programs must be affiliated initiatives between a South African state body or higher education institution and an international organization or education institution.
It is important to note that these visas are only valid for the duration of the program and cannot be renewed or extended. The documents required depend on the exchange program and the processing time is within 40 working days. You will need to contact the embassy to find out the costs as these can vary.
There are four primary types of work visas available for South Africa, and these depend on the applicant’s situation. You can read more about these in detail in our Guide to getting a South African work visa.
In short, these main work visas are:
- General Work Visa
- Critical Skills Work Visa (GSWV)
- Intra-Company Transfer Visa (ICT)
- Corporate Work Visa
General Work Visa
The General Work Visa is the most common type of work visa for South Africa. To obtain one, the employing company must show documentary proof that they tried to employ a South African citizen first and could not fill the position; for example, showing advertisements of the position in the local media.
Secondly, the applicant must submit proof of their qualifications and experience. The South African Qualifications Authority must also approve their qualifications. General Work Visas are valid for the duration of the contract up to five years.
Critical Skills Work Visa (CSWV)
The South African government considers some skills to be in short supply in the local labor market. This has allowed employers to recruit suitable candidates from abroad who meet these skill-shortage demands. A person with these coveted skills or qualifications may obtain a Critical Skills Work Visa without securing a specific position at the time of application. Having published articles, a doctorate, or being an expert in a field will also strengthen your application.
Some of the skills currently considered as critical are:
- Agricultural engineer
- Business analyst
- Financial investment advisor
- IT security specialist
- Mining technician
- Nursing professionals
- Pressure welder
- Soil scientist
- Urban and regional planner
The most recent list of critical skills catalogs positions that can be filled by formally qualified foreigners who have a minimum of five years of practical experience.
You should be able to provide proof of:
- Relevant qualifications as certified by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA), including authenticated copies of academic certifications or degrees; notably, any qualification certificates not in English require a translation from a certified translator
- Registration with the relevant South African professional body, trade organization, board or council, if your field requires such permission
You can find the complete list of conditions for the Critical Skills Work Visa here. The processing time is within 20 working days, and the costs are R1,520 for the application fee and R1,350 for the service fee.
Intra-Company Transfer Visa (ICT)
It is not uncommon for multinational companies to transfer employees between countries. When a person moves to South Africa, they must apply for the Intra-Company Transfer Visa (ICT). Notably, an applicant must have first worked for a minimum of six months in the company’s foreign office before applying to relocate to the South African branch.
An Intra-Company Transfer Visa lasts for four years and is not extendable. Applicants must also apply for a new ICT from their country of origin or permanent residence. The processing time is within 60 business days and the costs are R1,520 for the application fee and R1,350 for the service fee.
Corporate Work Visa
Suppose a business, often in the farming, mining, or engineering sector, needs to recruit a larger number of international workers due to a domestic skills shortage. In that case, it needs to apply with the number of workers required and provide specific job descriptions. The employer must also prove that they could not find employees with the relevant skills in the South African labor market.
If the Corporate Work Visa is approved, then the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) will issue each employee with a Corporate Workers Certificate. The employer will then convert this into a Corporate Workers Visa. This is valid for up to three years in South Africa.
The processing times for Corporate Work Visas is up to 60 days, and the costs are R1,520 for the application fee and R1,350 for the service fees; these are paid by the employer and employee, respectively.
Other visas under the Work Visa category include:
Family members of a South African citizen or permanent resident can apply for a temporary residence Relative Visa if they fall within the first or second line of kinship.
This visa applies to the following:
- Life partners
Life partners (heterosexual or same-sex) of a South African citizen or permanent resident must provide comprehensive and satisfactory evidence that their relationship is at least two years in length to apply for the Relative’s Visa.
Spouses or partners who want to work, study, or conduct business must apply for a Visitor’s Visa 11.6 (Reside with SAC and work). Notably, this visa is not available to any other relatives.
In the case of dependent family members, the South African citizen or permanent resident must prove their ability to financially care for the applicant. Furthermore, the applicant is not allowed to work and must prove kinship via a birth certificate. For spouses, a financial requirement is not necessary. However, they may be subject to an interview to demonstrate the authenticity of the relationship. You can read a full list of required documents on the visa facilitation website.
Relatives’ permits are valid for two years 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). That said, there is still an additional application fee and different conditions for extended family members wishing to visit South Africa.
Processing time for the Relative Visa is up to 60 working days from the date of submission. The costs depend on the relationship between the applicant and the South African resident or citizen.
A Medical Visa is required if you enter South Africa on the grounds of seeking medical treatment. The DHA issues this visa for a maximum of six months and only if specific visa requirements are met. Notably, the permit holder is not permitted to work or look for work during this period.
Apart from the typical supporting documents, the applicant must provide a letter from their registered medical practitioner or institution stating:
- The available space in the medical facility
- Estimated costs of the treatment
- The treatment schedule and period of intended treatment in South Africa
- The prognosis
Additional documents include:
- Proof of financial means or health insurance to cover all the medical costs
- Proof of economic independence to cover living costs
- A valid return air ticket
- The particulars of the applicant’s companions (if applicable)
The processing time for a Medical Visa is up to 60 working days from the date of submission, and the costs are R425 for the application fee and R1,350 for the service fee.
Retired Person’s Visa
The Retired Person’s Visa is a temporary residence visa for any person, regardless of age, who intends to retire in South Africa. To qualify for this visa, the applicant must show that they have sufficient financial means to support themselves in South Africa.
To meet the necessary financial requirements, the applicant will need to show that they receive a monthly income of at least R37,000 per month through specific means; such as a pension fund, an irrevocable retirement annuity, a net worth, or a combination of assets.
Asylum seekers and refugees in South Africa
The South African government makes a distinction between an asylum-seeker and a refugee. An asylum-seeker has fled their country and is seeking recognition and protection, but their application is not yet approved. Conversely, a refugee has asylum status and protection according to the Refugees Act 130 of 1998.
Statistics for South Africa show that the country hosted 89,285 refugees in 2019 and 76,754 refugees in 2020. Demographically speaking, they have fled from Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and the Republic of Congo.
The process for seeking asylum or refugee status in South Africa
The Department of Home Affairs (DHA) outlines the process for seeking asylum or refugee status in South Africa on its website. When an asylum-seeker enters South Africa, they are issued a non-renewable Section 23 Permit (i.e., Asylum Transit Permit) which is valid for 14 days.
The asylum-seeker must apply for asylum status – under section 21 of the Refugee Act – in person at a refugee reception office (RRO). They must present their Section 23 Permit, proof of identity from their country of origin, and any travel documents (if possible). Notably, due to long queues and delays caused by COVID-19 restrictions, this process can take days.
At the RRO, the applicant will be interviewed (i.e., admissibility hearing) to establish their eligibility for refugee protection and complete the B1-1590 form. The applicant will then receive a case number and a Section 22 Permit which is valid for three to six months. This grants the holder access to medical services, education, and the right to work. The applicant must renew the permit continually until they are invited to a second interview.
A Refugee Status Determination Officer (RSDO) conducts the second interview (i.e., status determination hearing) to verify information in the applicant’s file and look deeper into the asylum-seekers background. The applicant may be accompanied by a witness, legal representative, and interpreter. The RSDO will conclude this interview by providing the date that the applicant can return to find out the outcome of their application. This process can take months.
If successful, the asylum-seeker will officially become a refugee with a Section 24 Permit which is valid for two years. This permit can be continuously renewed, three months before it expires. If refugee status is refused, the applicant can appeal to the Refugee Appeal Board or the Standing Committee on Refugee Affairs within 30 days.
Requirements for applying for a Permanent Resident Permit (PRP)
All refugee applicants applying for a Permanent Resident Permit in South Africa must provide the following documents:
- Proof of their continuous refugee status in South Africa for five years
- Certification from the Standing Committee for Refugee Affairs verifying the applicant’s indefinite refugee status
- An affidavit listing aliases used for refugee status by the principal applicant or any family members
Permanent Residence Permit (PRP)
In South Africa, the step between a temporary visa and citizenship is a Permanent Residence Permit (PRP). Before applying for this, applicants must submit a presentation to the Minister of Home Affairs that they are not undesirable or prohibited persons.
It is important to be aware that applying for permanent residency in South Africa is a lengthy process with much paperwork, and requires an applicant to have lived in South Africa for at least five years.
The applicant (and spouse if applicable) will need to complete a BI-947 application form and book an interview appointment with a Home Affairs officer at a visa facilitation center.
Permanent Residence Permits are possible on many grounds, including the following:
- When you have a permanent work offer in South Africa
- If you have exceptional skills and qualifications
- You intend to establish a business in South Africa
- If you qualify as a refugee according to the Refugees Act
- You qualify as a retired person
- When you are financially independent
- If you are the relative (biologically or judicially adopted) of a South African citizen or PRP holder
The processing time for Permanent Residence Permits, in the extra-ordinary skills, general work, and business category range, is within eight months. However, all other forms of Permanent Resident Permits are finalized between 12 and 24 months.
The application fee for a Permanent Residence Permit is R1,520, with a service fee of R1,350. However, the application fee has been waived for refugee applicants.
You can find more comprehensive information on how and when to apply for a Permanent Residence Permit in our Guide to getting South African citizenship.
Citizenship in South Africa
If you were born in South Africa and have at least one parent who is a South African citizen, or holds a Permanent Residence Permit (PRP), then you automatically qualify for South African citizenship. Additionally, you may be able to obtain citizenship by descent or naturalization. Once you have lived in South Africa for five years with a Permanent Residence Permit, you can also apply for South African citizenship.
However, just be aware that the process is involved and time-consuming, and requires a great deal of patience. Before applying, you need to request a Determination of Citizenship at the DHA to establish your eligibility for citizenship and which application to submit.
For comprehensive information on the process and all the requirements to become a South African citizen, you can read the full clarification by the Department of Home Affairs. Of course, you can also read our Guide to getting South African citizenship.
Arriving in South Africa
Moving to South Africa – or any country – can feel overwhelming; particularly when it comes to all the things you need to do in your first week.
Therefore, to help you put together a comprehensive checklist, here are the main things you will need to arrange before and after you arrive in the country:
- Checking passport expiry dates
- Checking visa requirements and processes to transfer from a temporary to permanent permit
- Sorting passport photos for various applications and registrations
- Gathering your doctor’s records and registering with a GP
- Making sure you are fully immunized
- Arranging accommodation (renting or buying)
- Transporting your belonging to South Africa
- Sorting schooling (international school or South African school)
- Opening a South African bank account
- Arranging insurance (home, social, car, health, dental, contents, life, unemployment, pet, travel, and commercial)
- Setting up your home utilities
- Choosing a mobile phone, internet, and television provider
- Getting a driver’s license and learning about the country’s driving regulations
- Buying a car (or learning about the public transport system)
- Learning how to file your income tax in South Africa as an expat
- Possibly arranging domestic help in your home
Appeals and complaints
Appeals and complaints regarding visa applications are managed by VFS.Global, which promises to respond to complaints within two to four business days.
The complaint procedure is as follows:
- Complete the online form from VFS Global customer services
- Include your:
- Full name
- Contact details
- Clear description (e.g., date, location, names of staff, and relevant context)
- Type of application and reference number
Notably, there are VFS Visa Facilitation Centers in the following locations:
- Cape Town
- Port Elizabeth
- Department of Home Affairs (DHA) – find more information about visas and immigration in South Africa
- VFS.Global – the official visa and immigration partner of the Department of Home Affairs (DHA)
- South Africa Visa – expert consultants for visas to South Africa
- CIA.gov – discover interesting facts and figures about South Africa
- South Africa Visa – find a full list of South African Embassies around the world
- Scalabrini – an organization that helps migrants and refugees integrate into South Africa
- Home Affairs – provides a list of refugee centers in South Africa