Be careful what you wish for

The lady had tattoos in her face which made me like her right away. But I loved her when she said: ‘When do you want to go? I can only give you one month.’

The lady was the head of the visa section at the Ethiopian embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. I had been to the Ethiopian embassies in Harare and Kampala, had studied dozens of websites and was in contact with a visa agency in Berlin. I had been warned by Kev, the African Trails driver: ‘In order to obtain a visa for Ethiopia you have to send your passport to the embassy in your  country of residence. Or you fly into Addis.’

I had already given up on continuing over land. Flying was cheaper than sending the passport back and forth. And didn’t require me to let go of my passport.

But then we met this young American at the Milimani. He hadn’t given any thought to Ethiopian visa regulations. He planned to just head for the embassy around the corner, pick up a visa and get going. At first I tried to make him understand that this was impossible. In the end I thought: ‘I can’t really lose giving it just one more shot.’ And went to the embassy myself.

To my great surprise I wasn’t turned away at reception. Instead I was told that I would have to see the head of the visa section. I waited, went in, held some small talk in broken English. I had prepared a speech about how I was so very much looking forward to visiting Ethiopia, how I had to  go overland, and how I couldn’t possibly have acquired the visa in Germany.

When she motioned for me to show her the stamps in my passport and prove that I’d been travelling for the past eight months I was shocked. Now I would really have to find out how to get to the border. I had been looking forward to a week or two at the beach. Instead I committed to coming back a week later to hand in my visa application.

My advice

As European citizen I am used to travelling anywhere without having to worry about visas or travel restrictions. Africa is different. Some say it’s to reciproke for heavy travel restrictions on African passport holders. Others say it’s a way to make money. Fact is that for almost all African countries you have to buy a visa.

Sometimes, especially along the East from Zimbabwe to Kenya, you just go to the border and pay about 30 USD. Often times, however, you have to get your visa in advance.

To make matters worse there are different rules for different nationals. And sometimes rules change within a day.

For the Angolan visa we tried several embassies until we found the consulate in Dolisie, Congo. After a few days of waiting we received an eight day transit visa. That same day a couple of motorbike guys were told Dolisie wouldn’t issue any visas.

I heard about a group of travellers going to Zimbabwe: the Americans paid 30 USD and got in; a Mexican was told to go back and get her visa at the embassy in South Africa. In the end she paid 200 USD and didn’t have to go back.

Getting into Ethiopia I learnt about a chap that had just popped up expecting to get a visa or bribe his way in. He was turned back to Nairobi and ended up flying.

So gathering information in advance via the countries’ foreign offices, your home country’s foreign office and travel portals like Thorn Tree is essential.

Questions to ask are:

  • Where can I get a visa?
  • What information do I need for my application?
  • What documentation do I have to provide with my application (e.g. photo, passport copy, proof of vaccination, invitation letter, hotel booking)?
  • How much does the visa cost? Which currency do I have to pay in?
  • How long is it valid? When do I have to arrive in the country?
  • Am I required to register once in the country?
  • How long will I be allowed to stay in the country?
  • How can I extend the visa if I want to extend my stay?
  • Is there an exit visa procedure?

Make sure you always have a couple of photographs and copies with you. Sometimes working copiers are hard to come by in Africa. Especially at remote border posts.

When you’re already on the road you should ask other travellers. However, nothing beats going to the embassies to get information first hand. Because in the end it’s their consular sections that make the decision. And they might decide to give you a visa that everyone else tells you is impossible to get.

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