Thursday, May 19, 2011

Just How Easy (or Hard) Is it To Get African Visas?

©2011 Matthew M. Jones/Moved2Monrovia. Click for larger version.

"Africa is Open For Business!"

Its hard to avoid hearing this slogan recently: verbatim on CNN, and in the pages of major publications. Global consultancies will tell you this, too. But what does this mean, in practical, personal terms? Sub-Saharan Africa is made up of more than 50 countries, almost every one of which at least states that they're trying to attract foreign investment.

There have been attempts to measure this. The World Bank's Ease of Doing Business rankings have exploded in popularity in recent years (with the Caucasian Republic of Georgia mentioning its top-reformer status in television advertising). This index, surprisingly, does not compare one of the most basic measures of ease and welcome, and one that reflects directly on a country's efforts to open its doors to potential investment: How simple and straightforward is the entry process for foreigners into these countries?

I've often thought about this before in the last four years of traveling across the continent. But two recent incidents reminded me of this. The first was the report from the Cato Institute, titled "Why Is Africa Poor?", which, among other bemoanings, wondered how many potential tourists and foreign investors have been put off by the hassle or perceived chore of getting a visa to visit an African country (speaking of the Republic of Georgia):

To increase its share of the tourism business, Africa will have to liberalize air flight and visa regimes. In the formerly communist country of Georgia, for example, it is not necessary to acquire a visa for visitors who come from countries with a GDP per capita of $10,000 or more. Compare the Georgian system to the difficulty of entering many African countries or, for that matter, the difficulty of leaving African countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where one has to run a gauntlet of security and other checks—informal and formal.

I wonder how many visitors from rich coun- tries to Africa have been put off by the challenge of just getting to the continent or getting a visa. Yet I suspect that few, if any, overstay their welcome. The number of tourists to Georgia has nearly quintupled from 2003 to 2009—a war with Russia notwithstanding.

I don't know what an "air flight regime" is, and am not endorsing this report wholeheartedly, but I agree with part of the above sentiment.

Separately, but similarly, last week's surprising headline incident, in which veteran diplomat John Campbell was unable to gain entry to Nigeria in time to attend a graduation ceremony of an American University backed by former vice president Abubakar. Just to underscore: among many other career acheivements, Campbell is the former Ambassador to Nigeria. So you'd think he might be familiar with getting into and out of country...which makes you wonder how he was unable to get his visa. Hmmm.....

With these in mind, I conducted a very unscientific investigation into the sometimes-murky world of obtaining an entry visa into Sub-Saharan countries. Before going further, please read and agree to this legally iron-clad disclaimer: I can't guarantee that what I've gathered is accurate, and this information is subject to completely change. I obtained 95% of this information from the State Department's website, which is a great source, as well as the websites of various foreign diplomatic missions in Washington and New York. This does not cover requirements other than those for US Passport holders, and will not go into scenarios like obtaining visas for neighboring countries in Africa can sometimes be easier, and sometimes more difficult.

As this is already a long post, I'm also not going to index any of the basic details of visa applications, like the different types of visa (based on purpose of visit and length of stay), or important steps like getting required vaccinations, or any discussion of fees. Again, this is a subjective survey, and this information could change as I write these words. In summary, do not fly to Africa without required entry visas. Doing so can result in being flown back home at your own expense, or being detained, fined, or imprisoned.

The ease or difficulty of US citizens entering the 50-plus Sub-Saharan countries covers a broad spectrum: some countries are as wide-open as Netherlands, some so unwelcoming as be almost North Korean.

Starting with the more hospitable category, the good news is that several of the more popular destinations for American visitors are among the easiest to get into, and in almost all cases don't require a visa. These are popular business, development, and tourist destinations like Botswana, Senegal, and Mauritius. Others are something of a pleasant surprise, with no pre-arrival visas required for Americans to enter Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, or Swaziland. [Update 5/21: Rwanda grants most tourists a 90 entry visa-free, but seems to have different requirements for aid workers, students, or businessmen. Thanks to Jina Moore for this suggestion.]

Similarly, many states allow the vast majority of American visitors to just show up unannounced and gain entry, but there are a few details that might be relevant. For instance, South Africa is somewhat infamous for requiring at least one entirely blank passport page per entry, and anecdotes abound of customs officers insisting on even more virgin territory, supposedly in case a visitor transverses through other countries in the region and seeks another entry into SA. This in turns leads neighboring countries, like Namibia, to reportedly mimic this requirement. Rather than be booted back onto a 15-1/2 hour flight home to New York, a cost you would be responsible for, travelers should take note, and consider having extra pages added to a passport.

Likewise, some countries let Americans in without a problem, but getting a visa beforehand can still be strongly advisable. Kenya is a prime example: A pre-arranged visa can be a huge time saver, easing your life just when you are your most miserably jet-lagged. Rather than waiting in a long line and filling out paperwork in the groggy disorientation of arrival, sail past border control, and its queues. In 2008, I went ahead and got a Kenyan visa in Washington before I left the states, getting my passport back two days after I submitted it. Weeks later, I passed a long line at Nairobi's JKIA after a long overnight flight. I was very proud of myself.

Similarly, other countries like Ethiopia and Tanzania routinely grant Americans visa-free entry at Addis Ababa's Bole Airport and at Dar Es Salaam Airport, respectively, but at other entry points, like land borders, this might not be the case. The scene at Entebbe Airport in Uganda is reportedly similar.

In some other cases, arriving without a visa might involve basically applying for the visa at the airport, and waiting around in Immigration to get clearance. Not the sort of chore anyone would choose to undergo, but at least the option is there, especially when hopping around the continent with loose plans. Madagascar and Mozambique likewise do not require a prior visa, but its much easier if you already have it. [Update 5/21: Zambia allows tourists to pay for a single-entry visa at border crossings, but have much more strict visa regulations for most other visitors. Thanks to Shelby Grossman for this clarification]

Separately, countries such as Namibia let many tourists in through major entry ports visa-free, but do require visas workers or students. For many countries, foreigners who show up at remote land crossings can expect greater scrutiny than if they were to arrive on a scheduled flight at the capital city's airport.

The murkiness of the next category down could be considered quintessential of travel in less developed states. Several countries may, or may not, usually, or occasionally, grant Americans visa-free entry in at some entry ports, but then again, maybe they don't. Its always best to play it safe, but in the case, try to get a visa beforehand at all costs.

Ghana is a classic example of this. Technically, there is a process to get a Ghanaian visa upon arrival, but from personal experience this involved (1) Almost not being allowed to board the flight from Chicago to Amsterdam; (2) Waiting 45 minutes in a stuffy, crowded Immigration office at Kotoka Airport 24 hours later, during which I was lectured for not being an emergency asylum case or refugee. It wasn't a process I would wish on anyone. I did get a single-entry visa, but this ended up being a hassle a week later, when I got invited to a neighboring country, but then realized that I couldn't leave Ghana without applying for a visa in that other country. If I had had enough notice, I would have sent my passport to DC before I left.

Similar "I've heard they do, but I can't guarantee you" or "It was different a couple years ago" stories come out of Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, and Djibouti. Also, unrecognized Puntland/Somaliland supposedly grant visas at points of entry--but is this the sort of detail to be left to chance? For those intrepid enough to be venturing to these two regions, perhaps the answer is yes.

The next category, shaded yellow, are those countries which definitely require a visa beforehand, but the application isn't usually a big deal (aside from the very low-tech errand of getting passport photos at the local CVS or something). Somewhat interestingly, this is the smallest group: Cape Verde, Sao Tomé, Mali, Togo, Gambia, and Eritrea. The downloadable visa application for Mali is one page of pretty basic contact info, and gives the applicant the option for length of visa (single/multiple, etc) and asks virtually no questions about itinerary, financial resources, etc. Perhaps not the flagship example, the Republic of Togo has a delightful new website with absolutely no information about visas.

Other countries requiring a pre-departure application are a bit more involved. This can vary depending on the type of visa but it is common for the Embassy to require either a list of references in the home country (Liberia) or a letter of invitation, from a colleague, hosting company, or personal friend, in addition to sending in proof of vaccinations; head shots taken just so, with this color background, not that; and some sort of proof of itinerary or return ticket, which frankly in the age of Expedia and Kayak can pretty easily be bluffed. Still, this is an involved process, with lots of instructions and procedures, which take time both to complete and be turned around. In something of a setback, two years ago, Cote D'Ivoire slipped into this category from previously granting visa-free access to most Americans.

This process is challenging enough when visiting one country, but can really start to add up as it is common for a traveler to be planning to pass through several countries. Expect at least 3 days to a week of turn-around, per visa. Although it adds to the cost, consider using a passport rush service, which often work their relationships at these consular offices to get paperwork turned around just a little bit faster. There are several good agencies in both Washington and New York.

The last two categories are the more notorious. To varying degrees, these countries just do not make getting a visa quick or simple. The process is complex, lengthy, taxing, and difficult. Anecdotal reports tell of month-long processing, and of having applications returned due to insufficient documentation. While outright denial of a visa is rare, the clock can basically run out, if several weeks go by and the visa hasn't been issued before departure. Those in this category include some of the continent's largest countries: Nigeria, DR Congo, and Sudan, along with other least-developed economies not having solid reputations for ease of process or access to information. Guinea-Bissau is on the outer edge of this category, as their embassy in Washington "temporarily" ceased function in 2007. South Sudan is challenging because of its transitional diplomatic circumstances.

Special mention goes to the all-out Kafkasque nightmares: booming Angola and rather less burgeoning Mauritania. Their remarkably complex, involved, invasive processes rank proposed travel to the country at the same level of effort as applying to graduate school (often with a similar wait time). Both these countries reportedly take the particularly painful step of sending the applications to the home country for evaluation. This takes several weeks. For Mauritania, the State Department's own report states:

Mauritanian visas require an invitation or sponsor, can take up to several months to process, and must be obtained prior to travel.

Not exactly open for business. The Fort Knox Prize might go to Angola, whose invitation-only, submit your diplomas and bank-statements life audits make Greece's Mount Athos look like a public library.

Angola is awash in petrol-cash. In terms of prices, Luanda is the Moscow of Africa. Most foreigners arriving at the direction of their multinational employers, so Angola is not looking for the odd frontier market investor to kick the tires. However, other African countries aren't so flush with investment, and there's no question a few of them could make the process easier, which would probably yield more foreign interest as a result.

This already-long post could enter into a whole discussion of how African countries are, on the whole far more open to US Citizens than America is to them. If there is truly a Fort Knox award, it would probably be the country of Fort Knox. African governments have simply reciprocated US visa rules and fees schedules-- precious income for many foreign ministries and bureaux of immigration that would be lost if barriers were lessened.

It seems obvious to say that, if you need a visa beforehand, then you can't drive out to the airport and fly over for a meeting the next day. It might not seem to be a big deal, except that, in the world of international investment, it is sort of normal to jet off between New York, London, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Hong Kong, etc. at the last minute. Many of Africa's leaders, citizens, and boosters have the lofty goal of including Lagos, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Kigali, Dakar, Accra, and many other African cities to that circuit of world business capitals. While there are bigger obstacles to overcome to progress on that, visa restrictions are an impediment to that. The government of Rwanda seems to be aware of this, as they have eased visa requirements for US Citizens in the last few years.

More generally, I have often wondered how much African governments realize that they are competing against each other (and the rest of the world, for that matter) in the chase for slice of global investment capital. In looking past the hype of how Africa's doors are open to business, it is an important to have some perspective: there are more than fifty sets of doors, and each with their own keys.

I'd be interested to hear any particular anecdotes, or horror stories, or if any of the information above is deemed inaccurate, please don't hesitate to offer up other advice-- I'd much rather be told I am definitely mistaken and correct the map above than disseminate incorrect information. [this post and map were updated on 5/21 to reflect certain suggested improvements.]


texasinafrica said...

I have to say, I've never had a problem getting a DRC visa ahead of time. Their turnaround is usually 1-2 days, and they're incredibly efficient and friendly. The trick is to go through the UN mission in New York rather than the embassy.

Getting a visa at the border is another story entirely. That little adventure resulted in my detention, which is a story for another time...

MM Jones said...

Thanks for the comment-great to have your insight. Its good to hear that the experience was so efficient. Would you say the process has any burdensome requirements, in terms of paperwork, documentation, letters of introduction, etc? Could you compare it to another country in the region? Maybe red is too harsh? Your input is really appreciated.

Cheers, Matt

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