Carola's passport with the Timbuktu stamp, Mali (2011-11-25)

Cheat sheet: Visa & Immigration


I am German which is usually a very cool citizenship to have. Traveling in Europe is a breeze and most other touristy countries have agreements that make it easy to travel there on a German passport. However, in Africa I learnt the hard way that getting into a country is an art of its own. That is why I have compiled a list of tips and tricks about how to make sure you get there.

  • Never, ever just pop up at the border without any kind of research, assuming ‘it’ll all work out’. (on that please also consider the last bullet in this list)
  • If you can get your visa in advance (in your home country).
  • Find out if your home country’s (i.e. the country/ies you’re holding a passport for) foreign office is maintaining a website for traveling abroad, and bookmark that website to get up-to-date immigration info.
  • Start gathering information on immigration formalities at least 4 weeks before going to a country. If you have never traveled to a developing country start even sooner to give yourself enough time to get necessary vaccinations.
  • If you get stuck because all the official sources say that a visa is impossible check travel forums to see which embassies are more inclined to help, whether there is special supporting documentation (like a letter of recommendation from your home country’s embassy or a travel booking) that eases the process. Sometimes going to embassies in countries neighboring your destination is better. Don’t give up too easily!
  • There are some countries where it is easy to fly in and out but almost impossible to receive a visa for entry over land.
  • Ask about different kinds of visa. Some countries don’t like to hand out tourist visas but are generous with short-term transit visa.
  • When having passport photos taken try and look presentable. As a woman, tone down the cleavage and wear a top with sleeves. As a guy: Should you shave and maybe get a haircut? That will allow you to use your passport photos for all countries – even tricky ones like Sudan.
  • Make sure your vaccination card is in order. Inform yourself and get necessary vaccinations ahead of time.
  • Have a story and stick to it. This is not about lying. But think about which details you should omit to make immigration as painless as possible. Don’t stray too far from the truth, though.
  • About you: What is your marital status? What is your address? What is your job? What is the address of your job at home? … – Traveling as a woman is in some countries is easier if you check the ‘married’ box in the immigration form. It might save you some hassle at the border. Even better: You are traveling with someone who can pose as your fiancé or steady boyfriend. If you do check the ‘married’ box, just be sure that your passport doesn’t say the opposite so your story remains coherent. You might think that what you do at home doesn’t matter on the road. It does. So always have a home address (including phone number) at the ready you can use for immigration forms. Ideally this is an address in a country you hold a passport for. Many countries will ask for your professional details. Some are sensitive to professions such as journalists or aid workers. So think before what job title you want to use and stick to it throughout the journey. If you are young enough to be a student or old enough to be a retiree consider using those. As for the employer: Even if you gave up your job to go travel you still want to fill in an address for an employer in your home country. Saying that you are self-employed is also an option, just be ready for questions about your business.
  • Whereabouts: Where are you going? Where are you going to sleep?… – This information, again, doesn’t necessarily have to be 100% correct (i.e. you usually won’t have to prove that you have a hotel booking etc.). However, you do not want to let the immigration officials know that you are traveling on a shoestring and have no idea where you are sleeping tonight. It is best to check your guide book / travel forum beforehand for a hotel address and to have a short itinerary that you can run through for the officials if they ask.
  • Make sure you have the right kind of currency. Many developing countries (especially) in Africa prefer for visas to be paid in US Dollars. These should be from 2006 or after, not be ripped or stained; and you should have exactly the amount needed as change may be hard to come by.
  • Find out whether you have to register once in the country and whether there are any unusual emigration formalities.
  • Always carry a few passport photos, copies of your passport and vaccination certificates with you. Even if you’ve already got a visa you might still need them to give directly to the border official.
  • When going to the embassy to apply for a visa (and even when you get the visa at the border) never forget: You are requesting entry; you are not entitled to it. So dress appropriately, have your papers in order, be friendly, and let the staff know that you love their country.
  • In embassies, at the border and in registration offices you are almost guaranteed to find touts that will help you through the process for a (small) fee. Before letting them overrun you take a deep breath and see if you really can’t do it on your own. Now, some of these guys are totally honest. But if you don’t see any of the locals use their service, you should beware. Also, sometimes, a friendly request for help to one of your fellow travelers in the line is more helpful while it is usually free.
  • If for some reason you are traveling on two (or more) passports, enter and leave the country on the same one. If you have to switch from a full passport think ahead and do it in a country which is less strict about letting people visit.
  • If you have dual-nationality, find a balance between saving money on visa and switching back and forth. In Africa I found that some officials suspect fraud when they see you handle two passports.
  • You hear stories about people bribing their way into a country all the time. Think about what kind of traveler you want to be: Are you going to be someone who pays bribes? Or are you prepared to sit at a border post for hours because the official is playing power games with you, trying to extract additional income? My personal stance on that in a nutshell: Wealthy Westerners start that kind of stuff and local people have to deal with it; I think that’s not fair.


  • Parker

    Danke für die Infos / Leitfaden. Ich finde diese Hilfestellung sehr hilfreich und habe mir auch schon für meine Australienreise ende des Jahres diverse Tipps abgehakt.

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