Applying for a South African Visa

If you’re an expat sent to South Africa by your multinational company, in all likelihood your visa is being sourced for you by the company lawyer, and all you have to do is gather the documents they tell you to gather (which, trust me, is painful enough).
However, you might just decide to move to South Africa on a whim. Or join your fiance, who is South African (this seems to happen quite a bit, at least to the group of people who contact me for advice). Or join your expat spouse and decide you also want to work.
Let’s get some terminology out of the way first. The piece of paper or rather the stamp you need in your passport to enter the country is called a visa. That’s just to get in. If you want to work, you need a work permit. However, the new visa regulations issued this year apparently have changed the word work permit to work visa, although the Home Affairs webpage doesn’t seem to be updated to that effect. I am therefore using both terms interchangeably.

Types of Visa

Basically, there are three different ways a foreigner can legally reside in South Africa: As a visitor, a temporary resident, or a permanent resident. 

Visitor

If you’re a visitor, most likely you won’t require a visa because you are visa exempt. Most Western countries are on that list. In that case you will receive your visa stamp in your passport upon arrival. It is, however, important that your passport be valid for 6 more months, and that you have at least one 2 consecutive blank pages in it where the visa can be stamped. If not, this is what can happen
Please also note that starting June 2015, the new regulation requiring parents to carry an unabridged birth certificate for their minor children accompanying them will go into effect. It was introduced in 2014 but put on hold due to huge backlogs in issuing such birth certificates for South African children. Foreign birth certificates are typically already unabridged. In addition, if the child is not traveling with both parents, you also need a notarized affidavit from the missing parent(s). ***
As a visitor to South Africa, you’re allowed to stay in the country for 90 days. After that, or if you want to study or work in South Africa, you need to apply for temporary residence. 

Temporary Residence

This is the category most expats will (at least initially) fall into. To live, work, and study in South Africa, you and your dependents will need a temporary residence permit of some form (one exception I have come across: teachers at international schools are allowed to work on a visitor’s visa). As mentioned above, as of this year (2014), there are new visa regulations in place (for a brief summary click here). The big change is that expats can no longer enter the country on a visitor’s visa and then apply for the work permit, which is exactly what we did, because it was quicker that way. Nowadays, you have to apply for your work visa at a South African embassy in your country and wait for it to be granted before you (or your family) can enter South Africa. I know it’s not great news, but the good part is that apparently South African embassies in foreign countries are a ton more efficient than Home Affairs.
The types of temporary residence permits are:
  • Business permit
  • Work permit
  • Study permit
  • Exchange permit
  • Retired Persons’ permit
  • Relatives’ permit
  • Medical treatment permit
Most of these permit categories are self-explanatory. A business permit requires that you have a ton of money, like ZAR 2.5 million, and most likely isn’t feasible for most expats. As an expat, the subcategory you most likely will fall into is as work permit holder, see more on the different types of work permits below.  Another permit worth pursuing is the retired persons’ permit, more on that also below.

Permanent Residence

If you’re neither a prohibited or undesirable person (like when you’ve overstayed a visa previously, though you can be rehabilitated again), you may become a permanent resident. The advantage is that you automatically are allowed to work in South Africa without an employer sponsoring you (much the same as it is for the American Green Card). 
There are two avenues to obtain permanent resident status in South Africa: First, you can apply for permanent residence once you’ve lived in South Africa as a temporary resident for 5 years, or if you’re a dependent of a permanent resident. It’s called a Direct residence permit
The other, lesser-known avenue is a so-called Residency-on-other-grounds permit. You can qualify, if you:
  • are in possession of a permanent work offer in South Africa, or
  • have exceptional skills and qualifications
  • intend to establish a business in South Africa
  • qualify as refugee
  • qualify as retired person
  • are financially independent
  • are relatives of a South African citizen/permanent residence permit holder
Some of these overlap with the temporary residence categories above. From what I gather, this means that you can hold one of those temporary residence permits and use them as “other grounds” to apply for permanent residence without waiting the full 5 years.
I’m not sure where exactly the so-called Life Partner visa falls, as I couldn’t find it listed, but would assume it’s in one of these two permanent residence categories. The terminology keeps changing, so please forgive me. More details on permanent residence status can be obtained here

Visa Application

To apply for a temporary residence visa, you will need:

  • Two passport photographs 
  • Passport valid for 30 days or more after the date of intended departure from South Africa (elsewhere, 6 months are mentioned, so make that your minimum)
  • Medical report (this is a form your doctor has to sign, mainly stating that you are not insane)
  • Chest X-ray dated within one year of application proving the applicant does not have tuberculosis (for anyone 12 years of age and over)
  • Full birth certificate 
  • Police clearance certificates for applicants 18 years and older in all countries where they resided for one year or longer (I doubt they will go back and check every place you lived, so for simplicity I’d say it’s sufficient to provide this for the place you currently reside, if that’s also your country of birth; in our case, we were born in Germany, coming from the U.S., and one of our children was born in Singapore, so we felt we had to get police clearances from all three countries – a major pain!
  • Completed application form 
You may also need a Yellow Fever certificate if coming from an at-risk country. And other documents may be needed for other types of visas, i.e. bank statements and financial documents. Check out all visa requirements here.

Visa Renewal

Visa renewals can still be handled from within South Africa, even  under the new visa regulations. But I think you now have to wait until the renewal is granted before you can leave the country, whereas before you could simply prove that you had applied and that was enough. Not anymore. Enter the Department of Home Affairs and a long (and probably frustrating) wait. Start early with your renewals!

Work Permit

A work permit is what you need to be allowed to work in South Africa if you are NOT a permanent resident. The types of work permits include:
  • Intra-company-transfer work permit
  • General work permit
  • Critical skills work permit

If you’re being moved to South Africa by a multinational company, the subcategory you most likely will fall into is an Intra-company transfer work permit. In this case your company will have taken care of the permit by getting a lawyer working on it, and it might simply be annoying because it’s taking too much time, as such things are bound to do in South Africa. But as a general rule it won’t likely be denied. It used to be valid for 2 years and was renewable thereafter, but if I understand the new visa regulations mentioned earlier correctly, it is now valid for 4 years but no longer renewable. I’m not sure what happens to expats after those 4 years, still short of one year to apply as permanent residents.

If you don’t have a company that is moving you – meaning you’re probably the spouse and moved to South Africa with someone who already has a work permit and now want to find a job of your own – you would have to qualify for a General work permit. This will be more difficult. The difficulty stems from this little sentence: “Work permits are issued only to foreigners where South African citizens with the relevant skills are not available for appointment.” As opposed to an Intra-company transfer work permit, where your only requirement is that you have to have been employed by your company for 6 months prior to moving to South Africa, a General work permit requires your would-be employer to prove that they haven’t found a South African to do the job. I will be talking more about this process in How Can I Find a Job as an Expat in South Africa.

Critical Skills

I’m making this its own subheading because I’m not sure it still falls under the work permit category anymore. The Home Affairs website hasn’t been updated, but from what I understand the new visa regulations have combined what was formerly the exceptional skills work permit and the quota work permit, and combined it under critical skills.
If you have a skill critical to the Republic of South Africa, you can apply for a Critical skills visa, which is not dependent on an existing job offer. Here is the very extensive list of official critical skills. 
From what I understand, a Critical skills visa is open-ended. It is valid for 5 years at a time, but will automatically be renewed. So for all intents and purposes, until something changes again in the regulations, this will allow you to stay in South Africa permanently, or at least the required 5 years, at which time you can apply for permanent residency.
It says somewhere in the small print that you have to find a job in your area of critical skill within 90 days. But it also says that you can file for an extension.

Retirement

I have friends who recently retired in South Africa, so I thought I would provide some first-hand information they gave me. 
Basically, they applied for the Retired persons’ permit in the temporary residence category. It’s valid for 4 years at a time, and renewable indefinitely. As soon as they arrived, they filed their application for permanent residence, on the basis of the retiree permit. This would save them the trouble of renewing every 4 years, and also gives them work permits. The processing time for this is estimated to be 18-24 months.
If you have obtained the Retired persons’ visa already, you apply in the “residency-on-other-grounds” category for permanent residence. There is no waiting period. It’s not exactly “easy” to obtain the retired visa. They were closely scrutinized, particularly on the financial criteria. Had to have everything notarized, certified, etc. by a chartered accountant. An easier option is probably the “independently wealthy” category, but this carries a ridiculous, non-refundable fee of ZAR 175,000 R, so my friends decided against it. They just had to jump through a few more hoops to show that their “net worth” equaled the requirement of the monthly payout on an “irrevocable annuity”.

Check out this guest post for more information on retiring in South Africa (especially if you are British).

I got a good laugh out of the “We Care” message on the Home Affairs website. 

Lastly, you should familiarize yourself with visa types and requirements on the Department of Home Affairs website. Everybody hates Home Affairs, especially those who’ve stood in line only to be sent home again to collect more paperwork, but the website covering all the visa information is actually not bad (except for the fact that it hasn’t been updated with the latest regulations and that some of its terminology is rather confusing). Unfortunately, some useful information has been removed from the Home Affairs website, such as visa application forms. To obtain those, visit Leroux Attorneys, who have compiled a comprehensive and easily navigable listing of all relevant forms.

I know this is a lot to read and process and probably still doesn’t cover everything, but I hope it gives you some clarity and a good start to your move to South Africa. I welcome all your comments, especially if I’ve left anything off that needs mentioning.

Good luck!

*** As of October 2015, the visa travel regulations for children requiring unabridged birth certificates have been relaxed again. ***