- Purchase the complete Expat Arrivals South Africa Guide (PDF)
Depending on where they're from and how long they intend to stay, most expats will need a visa for South Africa. Citizens of visa-exempt countries such as the UK, Canada, the US and several others won't need a visa if they're staying for 90 days or less and are in the country for tourism or business purposes.
Holders of passports from non-exempt countries and those wanting to stay longer to study, volunteer or work in South Africa will have to apply for a visa beforehand.
It's worth noting that only visa renewals or extensions can be done in South Africa – expats won't be able to change from, for example, a visitor's visa to a work visa from within the country. To change to a new visa category, an expat would need to return to their country of origin and submit the relevant application at a South African embassy.
Temporary residence visas for South Africa
Expats planning to stay in South Africa for more than three months will need a temporary residence visa. This is sorted into different categories depending on what the applicant intends to do, such as moving to study, work, start their own business or receive medical treatment. Each type of temporary resident visa has its own specified period of validity. Work visas, for instance, are valid for up to a maximum of five years, while medical treatment visas are issued for six months at a time and are eligible for extension.
Permanent residence permits for South Africa
Expats who want to stay long-term will need a permanent residence permit for South Africa. The application process varies according to what they want to do in the country. The first thing to determine is which category the application falls under.
Direct residence permits are applied for on the basis of having been in the country on a work visa for the past five years. Residency-on-other-grounds permits cover other reasons for permanent residency, such as retiring, starting a business or moving to the country to join a family member or spouse.
Though some permanent residence applications can be made on a standalone basis in theory, most expats get a temporary residence visa first. This is often because permanent residence applications can take a long time to be processed and granted.
Benefits of permanent residency in South Africa
One of the most obvious benefits of a permanent residence permit is the fact that it is valid for life if the holder abides by the permit's conditions. All other permits in South Africa require renewal or re-application at some point. Permanent residents can also sponsor qualifying relatives.
Permanent residence applications
Permanent residence applications can be made either in South Africa or in the applicant's country of origin, but expats should get advice from an immigration agent. The process takes several months and might cause applicants in South Africa to overstay on their current visas.
Using a registered immigration practitioner
Applicants can apply directly to a South African mission or through a South African visa application centre. But certain offices might not be easily accessible, and getting advice is difficult. The process is often confusing, time-consuming and frustrating – South African Home Affairs is notorious for disorganisation and shifting standards.
Applications aren't points-based but are assessed on a case-by-case basis. This policy creates a large grey area that's often best navigated with the knowledge that an immigration practitioner provides.
*Visa regulations are subject to change at short notice, and expats should contact their respective embassy or consulate for the latest details.
►Working in South Africa gives an overview of the country's job climate
►For information on the paperwork required to work legally in the country, see Work Permits for South Africa
►A full list of visa types and the documents needed for applications is available on the Department of Home Affairs website
"Getting a visa here can be difficult if you don't know the system. This is one of the aspects of life here that I've had the most difficulty with. I would recommend doing lots of research before moving here and taking care of things as much as possible before you leave, through your home embassy." Heather explains her experience of the country's notorious bureaucracy as an expat in South Africa.
"Sometimes the way in which visas are granted seems arbitrary. Long waiting periods are common. I've been waiting almost 4 years for my Permanent Residency to be processed. It's difficult because without the correct paperwork, your life is in limbo and you can't do even the most basic bureaucratic tasks. I once had to return to the UK and wait there till my permit was processed. It's not fun!" Read more about Shantalie's expat experience in South Africa.
Are you an expat living in South Africa?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to South Africa. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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