Border Basics


Words by Jess Fogarty

Long queues. High temperatures. Surly officials. Brazen touts. Scheming money-changers.

These are the staples of a typical African border post. To make it more difficult, no two border posts are the same; there are different requirements, fees, and customs wherever you go. To try to make things a little easier for you, we’ve compiled this guide to help you navigate your way through various border posts. But, please, be warned; conditions on the ground can change in a heartbeat, so just because you read it here, doesn’t mean that it’ll definitely work that way when you arrive.

Preparation and knowledge are the keys to a successful trip. Before you arrive at a border post, you should take time to learn about the new country’s customs, and its political, cultural and economic environment. This will help you to understand your new surroundings. Learn at least a few key phrases in the country’s language – even a modest command of the local tongue will go a long way towards easing your passage.

Pay particular attention to issues of personal security, and to safety, health, immigration, customs and import regulations. You don’t want to end up in a dingy jail cell because you unwittingly broke the law – ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’ applies in all countries, developed and undeveloped.

Anyone who intends travelling abroad needs a valid passport. If you don’t have a passport, apply for one well in advance of your travels. Temporary passports can be issued on short notice, but aren’t accepted everywhere. Also, if your passport is damaged in any way, you should try to replace it before departure. Passport application forms are available countrywide at all offices of the Department of Home Affairs, and at South African embassies abroad. If your passport is due to expire within six months of your date of departure, or has fewer than two blank pages, check with the embassy or consulate of your intended destination for its requirements regarding passport validity and expiry.

Keep with you certified copies of your passport (including the visa pages) for identification purposes, but don’t keep the passport and the copies in the same place. precaution, leave a copy with a relative or friend at home; or store it in PDF form on your internet-based email account for easy access wherever you go.

If your passport is lost or stolen while you are travelling abroad, report the loss / theft immediately to the local police station. Take a copy of the police report to the nearest South African embassy and apply for a temporary passport or emergency travel document.

If you have any questions about passports, contact the Department of Home Affairs in Pretoria on 012 810 8911, or any of their regional offices.

A visa or permit is your permission to travel to, enter, pass through or remain in a foreign country. But remember that a visa or permit does not guarantee entry; the decision to grant entry rests with the immigration officials of the foreign country. South African passport holders enjoy visa exemptions for certain countries. This means that South Africans, usually for holiday or business purposes, can travel without a visa to a country for a predetermined time. However, as such rulings change from time to time, it’s best to double-check with a travel agent or the country’s foreign representative in South Africa before you depart. For visa applications, visit the embassy or consulate general of your intended destination.

The US dollar is the preferred currency for travels in southern Africa. You should always try to carry small denominations as the locals usually don’t have change, but bear in mind that bureaux de change and banks prefer to hand out $50 or $100 denominations. Conveniently, the rand is generally accepted in Namibia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

In most instances, you will have no problem exchanging rands or US dollars for the local currency at border posts, but be aware that this might be illegal in that country, so just be careful and vigilant. Make sure you count and check every bill before exchanging your money, and be careful to check for fake US dollar notes, or bills produced earlier than 2006: in many countries older bills are not accepted.

Some informal money changers are legitimate businessmen, but some are scam artists with well-polished routines aimed at conning you out of large sums. Use their services at your own risk.

If you want to charge anything to your credit card, remember that VISA is preferred; many establishments don’t accept MasterCard.

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