For a short trip through Africa you might get all your visas before you leave home. For a longer trip, it’s easier to get them as you go along. Most countries have an embassy in each neighbouring country, but not all, so careful planning is required. Some visas are valid from when they are issued, so you may have to enter the country pretty soon after getting them. On other visas you say when you plan to enter the country and arrive within a month of that date. Sometimes it’s convenient (and relatively cheap) to get several visas in one place – South Africa or Kenya, for example.
Prices vary widely, but you can expect to pay US$10 to US$50 for standard one-month single-entry visas, and up to US$200 for three-month multiple-entry visas. If you want to stay longer, extensions are usually available for an extra fee.
Rules vary for different nationalities: for example, British and Aussie citizens don’t need advance visas for some southern African countries; French citizens don’t need them in much of West Africa; Americans need them nearly everywhere. The price of a visa also varies according to nationality (Lucky Irish-passport holders seem to be able to get free visas in dozens of countries!), and where you buy it. In some of Africa’s more, ahem…informal countries, you’ll also be factoring in the mood/corruption level of the person you’re buying it from.
Most visas are issued in 24 or 48 hours –and it always helps to go to embassies in the morning – but occasionally the process takes a week or longer. You may have to show you have enough funds to cover the visit, or prove that you intend to leave the country rather than settle down and build a hut somewhere. (This could be an air ticket home, or a letter from your employer stating you’re expected to return to work on a specified date). For most visas you also need up to six passport photos; so take what you’ll need, although you can get new supplies from photo booths in most capitals. Some embassies ask for a photocopy of your passport data page, so it’s always worth carrying a few spare copies.
If you’re travelling in West Africa, ask about a Visa Touristique Entente – a five-country visa covering Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire. It costs around US$38 and is usually valid for two months. You should be able to get it in any embassy of the five countries covered, but in practice embassies of Benin seem the best bet (when we passed through Chad, the Niger embassy in N’Djamena hadn’t even heard of it).
A final note: if you have Israeli stamps in your passport, they may prove problematic when you enter Sudan and some North African countries, such as Libya. Israeli border officials may stamp a piece of paper, which you can then remove, but if you’re travelling overland your Egyptian entry-point can still be a giveaway.
Specifics on visas vary from country to country, and regulations can change so it’s always worth checking before you enter the country.