Entering African countries varies significantly from country to country – in some places you'll be across the border in no time, in others you'll spend hours waiting to get across. Obtaining visas on arrival at borders is increasingly possible, but by no means universal – research the situation before setting out. A valid passport, usually with at least six months validity remaining, is always required.

Customs Regulations

  • At some borders you may have your bag searched, but serious searches are rare.
  • Anything made from an endangered animal is likely to land you in trouble. You'll also need a permit from the Ministry of Antiquities or a similar office in the relevant country if you are exporting valuable cultural artefacts (no, not that 'ebony' hippo carving you bought on the beach with the shoe polish that comes off on your hands). It usually applies to artefacts that are more than 100 years old.
  • Some countries limit the local currency you can take in or out, although small amounts are unlikely to be a problem. You can carry CFA francs between countries in the CFA zones.
  • A few countries have restrictive exchange regulations, and occasionally you may need to fill in a declaration form with details of your dollars or other 'hard' currencies.

Visas

For short trips sort out visas before leaving home; for longer ones, arrange as you go. In some countries they're available at borders, others not.

More Information

Remember that regulations can change, so it's always worth checking before you enter the country.

Planning

For a short trip through Africa you might get all your visas before you leave home, which will save considerable hassle while on the road. 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. And not all embassies issue visas; getting an Angolan visa in Namibia or an Ethiopian visa in Kenya has been problematic in the past, for example.

Remember that 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.

Cost & Nationality Issues

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, but only once you're in the country in question.

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 (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.

How Long it Takes?

Most visas are issued in 24 or 48 hours – and it always helps to go to embassies in the morning – but occasionally the process can take a week or longer (such as for Sudan or Angola).

Supporting Documents

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 two or three 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.

A few countries demand a note verbale (letter of recommendation) from your own embassy before they issue a visa. This is generally no problem as your embassy will be aware of this, but be prepared to fork out yet more cash. It'll say: 'This letter is to introduce Mr/Ms [name], carrying [British/French] passport No [1234]. He/she is a tourist travelling to [Chad]. Please issue him/her with a tourist visa. All assistance you can give would be most appreciated.' Or: 'Par la présente, nous attestons que Mr/Ms [Name] est titulaire de passport [Britannique/Française] No [1234]. Il doit se rendre au [Tchad] pour faire le tourism. Toute assistance que pourrait lui être accordée serait appréciée.'

Australians travelling in Africa have only eight of their own embassies or consulates on the entire continent, so it's handy to obtain a letter of introduction from the Passports section of the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade before you leave home.

Warning: Israeli Stamps

A final note: if you have Israeli stamps in your passport, they may prove problematic when you enter Algeria, Libya and Sudan. Israeli border officials may stamp a piece of paper, which you can then remove, but, for example, your Egyptian entry-point can still be a giveaway.

Regional Visas

West Africa

The Visa des Pays de l'Entente is a multi-country visa that covers travel in Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Niger and Togo. If you've never heard of it, don't be surprised – it's so poorly publicised that most travellers never learn of its existence. Implementation of this relatively new visa is also still patchy, which significantly diminishes its appeal. In remote border crossings there is also the danger that officials won't recognise the visa and will force travellers to purchase a new individual country visa or, worse still, return to some far-distant capital city to apply for a new one.

Before you go rushing off to your nearest West African embassy to ask for this visa, you need to learn how it works. For a start, it is only obtainable within these five West African countries, which means that you must obtain a visa for the first of these countries and, once there, apply at the immigration or visa extension office (or neighbouring country's embassy) in the capital city. To get the Visa des Pays de l'Entente, which is valid for two months, you'll need to take along CFA15,000 to CFA25,000 depending on the country, and up to two passport photos. It usually takes 24 to 72 hours for the visa to be issued.

Although the Visa des Pays de l'Entente may work out to be more convenient in some cases, it's worth remembering that it's only valid for one entry into each country: ideal for overlanders, less so for those who plan to visit countries more than once.

East Africa

There is now an East African tourist visa covering Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. Visas are issued for 90 days, cost US$100 and allow for unlimited travel between these countries for the duration. Apply for the visa through the embassy of the first of the three countries you plan to visit.

At the time of writing, Tanzania was yet to sign on to the region visa, although it doesn't actually make a whole lot of difference. If you have a Tanzanian single-entry visa, you can travel to Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda and return to Tanzania without having to obtain another visa, provided your visa is still valid and you don't go beyond these other four countries in the meantime.