On my recent trip through Western Africa, by far the most challenging aspect of the travel was dealing with the bureaucracy of each nation’s immigration and trying to secure a visa for onward travel. Some of the hardest countries to get visas from including Angola, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, and Democratic Republic of Congo are located in this part of the world.
In general visas are easier to get in your home country. So if you can arrange all your visas before your travel that would be ideal, but this isn’t always an option especially for those spending a lot of time on the road. Many embassies will not process your visa because they claim that you must process in your home country (or the country designated to process your nationality). BUT there are always exceptions to the rule.
Here are 15 tips to help you get a visa in Africa.
1. Present Well
Imagine you are going to an interview for a new job, you want to look your best. This does not mean wearing a suit, but try to dress respectfully. This is mostly because the person interviewing you will have the power to grant or deny your visa. If you look less desirable they may not want you in their country. At the Sierra Leone Embassy in Conakry I was almost denied a visa because I was wearing shorts and “disrespecting Africa” according to the ambassador.
2. Be positive and have a good attitude
Smile and be pleasant to everyone in the embassy. The more likable you are the better chance that someone will try to help you. Never, ever lose your temper or show annoyance. This is the easiest way to guarantee you will NOT get granted a visa.
3. Know the gate keepers
Like trying to get into a strict nightclub, countries have bouncers too. Security guards, secretaries, immigration officers, and ambassadors may all stand in your way to getting that visa. Your job is to charm your way passed all of them and have the decision maker approve. The position of the decision maker changes depending on the embassy, so always be on guard. Figuring out the embassy or consulate’s person in charge is the first step.
4. Charm the gate keepers
Following the previous point, use whatever skills you have in your arsenal to get a green light from the decision maker. This can include flattery, compliments, social interaction (where are you from?), or even small gifts.
5. Expect bribes
At some point in getting visas in Africa, you will most likely be offered to bribe someone. This is usually presented in the form of an “express fee” or special service fee. When getting my CAR visa in Yaounde, the secretary told me the visa cost 70,000 francs. Only after I received the visa did I see it was only 50,000. That 20,000 went straight in her pocket.
Whether you decide to accept it or not is up to you, but if it is a difficult visa to obtain, usually the bribe is well worth the hassle of finding another place to get it cheaper. Though there are some exceptions. At the Equatorial Guinea Embassy in Libreville, I was told the “express fee” was 800 Euros. I got it at a bargain in Doula for US$280!
Research and know what to expect before going to a specific embassy or consulate. Many factors affect whether you can get a visa including your nationality, which consulate/embassy you go to, and what kind of visa you are applying for. Check online forums and travel blogs to see what travelers before you did in a similar situation.
7. Choose your best nationality
If you have multiple passports figure out which of your nationalities is on better terms with the country. “Belgium? We hate the Belgian embassy…” said the Nigerian secretary in Yaounde.
8. Select the right embassy/consulate
Knowing which embassy/consulate easily grants visas is key to saving yourself a lot of hassle. This is also very valued information among fellow travelers, so ask around if you are on the road for the most up-to-date information.
9. Have a strategy
Some visas are more difficult to get than others. A transit visa may be easier than a tourist visa. Figure out which you plan on getting ahead of time and have a strategy that is in line with that visa. If you are getting a tourist visa, you’ll need a hotel booking. If you are getting a transit visa, you’ll need proof of onward travel, etc.
When a secretary says “no”, don’t just nod and walk away. Politely persist that you are sure you can get a visa there. Usually if you can get a word in with the immigration officer or ambassador they will be able to grant you one. If all else fails, try the next consulate/embassy. I visited 5 different foreign representation of Nigeria in 4 different countries until I was granted a visa.
11. Be patient
Long waits and visa applications go hand in hand. Make time in your schedule for the process and bring a good read as mobile phones are usually not allowed into the premises.
12. Request something to be denied:
As these immigration officers seem to make it their job to deny you at least one or two times before accepting your application, I found that making requests (that I knew would be denied) seemed to hasten the process. For example, when getting my Gabon visa in Togo I requested a letter from the embassy stating that I was applying for the visa so I could go apply for another visa. They denied me but didn’t give me any issues after that.
13. Check for Visa on Arrival
Some entry points (road/airport) will grant a visa on arrival even if officially they don’t. After much hassle to get a Sierra Leone visa, I was given another visa at the border and asked to pay. When I showed I had a visa already I was just waved in!
14. Don’t act desperate
Desperation calls for attention. Act as if getting that visa is just another mundane task. Initially don’t draw special attention to yourself until you have exhausted all other options.
15. Know the office hours
Arrive early and know the office hours for visa pick up. Sometimes they will let you drop off or pick up after hours. Just ask.
Lastly, have fun. As annoying as the visa process is, you will for sure have some unique experiences that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. So try to enjoy it! 🙂