At craft and curio stalls geared towards tourists, bargaining is expected. Some vendors might initially ask for double the price they’re willing to accept; haggle until you arrive at a mutually agreeable price. Try not to have the attitude that people are trying to rip you off. If the price seems fair and affordable to you, there’s no point in bargaining someone down just for the sake of it.
Malawi has a tropical climate with a number of regional variations. The country’s steamiest areas are the Shire Valley and Lake Malawi. The highland regions, including Nyika, Mulanje, Viphya and Dedza, can be very cold during winter (June to August), especially at night. The rainy season kicks in between November–December and March–April.
Dangers & Annoyances
Malawi is one of the safest African countries for travellers, but you should still be reasonably cautious and employ common sense.
- The cities are most dangerous. Catch taxis and don't wander around at night.
- Much of the danger comes from the chaotic roads and unfit vehicles; drive carefully, and bail out if a minibus feels excessively unsafe.
- Take care to avoid environmental hazards such as bilharzia and traveller's diarrhoea.
Crime & Punishment
Robberies, pickpocketing and violent muggings do occur. However, these are still rare compared with their incidence in other countries, and violence is not the norm.
Potential dangers at Lake Malawi include encountering a hippo or crocodile after dusk, when they come up onto beaches. The Shire River is replete with crocodiles, and locals disappear in dugouts on a regular basis, so be careful of dipping your hand in the water while on a river safari. Popular tourist beaches are safe, although, just to be sure, you should seek local advice before diving in. Avoid sheltered, reedy beaches where bilharzia host snails are found. The most dangerous animals in Malawi are the mosquitoes that transmit malaria.
Government Travel Advice
Some government websites offer travel advisories and information on current hot spots.
- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
- British Foreign Office (www.fco.gov.uk)
- German Federal Foreign Office (www.auswaertiges-amt.de)
- Global Affairs Canada (www.voyage.gc.ca)
- Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.mofa.go.jp)
- Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.government.nl)
- New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
- US State Department (www.travel.state.gov)
Frequent power cuts last anything from a couple of hours to half a day. Many of the top hotels and lodges have back-up power supplies.
Embassies & Consulates
Australia Contact the Australian Embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Canada Contact the Canadian High Commission in Maputo, Mozambique.
France Contact the French Embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe.
New Zealand Contact the New Zealand High Commission in Pretoria, South Africa.
The following are in Lilongwe:
Emergency & Important Numbers
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Entry & Exit Formalities
Provided you have a passport with six months' life left, entering Malawi is generally straightforward, with visas issued on arrival.
Like any country, Malawi doesn’t allow travellers to import weapons, explosives or narcotics. Plants and seeds, livestock and live insects or snails are also prohibited. It is illegal to take products made from endangered animals or plants out of the country. A yellow-fever certificate is required from people arriving from an infected area.
When entering Malawi, you must present a passport with at least six months of validity remaining, and you should be in possession of an onward or return ticket, though this is seldom checked.
Most nationalities require a visa, which is issued (in most cases) upon arrival at the airport or major land border.
A one-month single-entry visa costs US$75, six- and 12-month multiple-entry visas cost US$150 and US$250 respectively; a seven-day transit visa costs US$50. Card payments should be possible at the airports, but it would be wise to have the fee handy in cash US dollars. You can apply in advance through your local Malawian embassy, but it is more expensive (US$100 for a single-entry visa).
Check the Malawian Department of Immigration website, www.immigration.gov.mw/visa.html, for more info. At the time of writing, the site advised travellers to apply in advance or, if that was not possible, to obtain a letter of authorisation. However, this directive was not being enforced and was likely to be dropped. There was also discussion of establishing an electronic visa system, so it would be worth checking with your accommodation for updates.
Once in Malawi, travellers with a one-month single-entry visa can apply to extend it to three months total at the immigration offices in Lilongwe, Blantyre and Zomba. This costs MK5000 per month cash. Temporary-residence permits, lasting up to six months and available in Lilongwe and Blantyre, cost US$100.
Malawi is not nicknamed 'the warm heart of Africa' for nothing; the locals are patient, accommodating and endlessly good humoured, and travellers should try to reflect these qualities in dealings with Malawians.
- Malawi is a devoutly Christian country; prayers before meals are common in local homes.
- Eating in people's homes, you will often be given a bowl and jug to wash your hands, and you will likely eat with your hands.
- Away from the beach, women should cover their legs down to their knees.
- When shaking hands with a village chief or elder, bend your knees slightly and place your free hand beneath your outstretched arm.
- In this traditional society, take the time to exchange pleasantries with people before getting down to business.
- Bureaucracy is rife, so be prepared to fill in the odd form and pay small administrative charges (which in most cases are not bribes).
Male and female homosexuality is illegal in Malawi. On top of this, the people of Malawi are conservative in their attitudes towards gays and lesbians, and gay sexual relationships are culturally taboo.
When buying your travel insurance, always check the small print – some policies specifically exclude ‘dangerous activities’, which could be anything from scuba diving to horse riding. You should check whether the medical coverage is on a pay first, claim later basis and, more importantly, ensure that your medical coverage includes the cost of medical evacuation.
Checking insurance quotes…
Across the country, most accommodation and restaurants catering to foreigners offer wi-fi, generally operated by Skyband (www.skyband.mw). The advantage of this system is that you can buy a voucher (typically MK2000 for 500MB) and use it at multiple locations. The disadvantage is that Skyband hot spots can be hit and miss, so many residents prefer to access the internet on their phone using an Airtel (http://africa.airtel.com) SIM card. TNM (www.tnm.co.mw) SIM cards are not as good for surfing the web. Mobile-phone data typically costs MK5000 for 1GB, valid for 30 days.
Wi-fi is rarely free in budget accommodation but may be in midrange and top-end places. You’ll find internet cafes in Lilongwe, Blantyre and most towns.
Smoking Malawi's famous marijuana/cannabis, known locally as ‘Malawi gold’ or chamba, is illegal. Being caught buying, selling or in possession of it can incur anything from a large fine to imprisonment with hard labour. Beware, too, that some dealers are police informers. These days most hostels and campsites will not allow you to smoke openly.
Map Studio and Macmillan produce good road maps, available in bookshops in Blantyre and Lilongwe.
Other useful maps, also available in local bookshops, include the government-produced Malawi (1:1,000,000), showing shaded relief features and most roads, and the Malawi Road & Tourist Map (also 1:1,000,000), showing all main roads, some minor roads and national parks (but no relief) and including street maps of the main towns.
- Newspapers Malawi’s main papers are The Daily Times, the weekly Malawi News and The Nation.
- Magazines Watch out for The Eye, a quarterly portable glossy detailing the best things to see and do, as well as an indispensable directory.
- TV Malawi's TV diet consists mostly of imported programs, news, regional music videos and religious programs. International satellite channels are available in most midrange and top-end hotels.
Take some US dollars and a back-up card. ATMs are widespread and credit cards accepted. Power cuts scupper both; keep a reserve supply of cash.
Standard and National Banks are the best bet for foreigners wishing to withdraw cash, and their ATMs accept Visa, MasterCard, Cirrus and Maestro cards. ATMs are found in most cities and towns including Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mzuzu, Karonga, Liwonde, Salima, Mangochi, Zomba and Nkhata Bay. Visa is most widely accepted.
ATMs dispense a maximum of MK40,000 per withdrawal, but you can insert your card three times in a row, thus ending up with MK120,000 (US$168). Your bank at home will charge you for each transaction. Alternatively you can go into the bank and withdraw your card limit in kwacha, although you will have to queue and the tellers are sometimes reluctant.
It's worth taking at least one back-up card, as the banks often experience network problems: for example, sometimes foreign credit cards work in the ATMs but debit cards don't.
Malawi’s unit of currency is the Malawian kwacha (MK). This is divided into 100 tambala (t).
Banknotes include MK1000, MK500, MK200, MK100, MK50, MK20, MK10 and MK5. Coins are MK10, MK5, MK1, 50t, 20t, 10t, 5t, 2t and 1t, although the small tambala coins are virtually worthless.
At big hotels and other places that actually quote in US dollars you can pay in hard currency or kwacha at the prevailing exchange rate. As the US dollar is stronger than the kwacha, you will save money by paying with dollars where possible.
ATMs and card machines generally don't work during the frequent power cuts, so carrying a wad of kwacha, and preferably US dollars too, is wise.
Credit & Debit Cards
You can use Visa cards at some but not all of the large hotels, high-end lodges and top-end restaurants (be warned that this will add a 5% to 10% surcharge to your bill). MasterCard is less commonly accepted.
Inform your bank that you will be travelling in Malawi.
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
Tipping is not generally expected in Malawi. Some restaurants and services may add a service charge to your bill.
In good restaurants in Lilongwe and Blantyre, you can add 10% if the service has been good.
You can change travellers cheques at most major banks and bureaux de change, although you will need to show the original purchase receipt. You can occasionally use travellers cheques to pay at large hotels and lodges.
The major banks change money and there are bureaux de change in the big cities. You can also change money on the black market in border towns and the cities.
Many shops and stalls open most days but keep informal hours.
Banks Usually 8am to 3.30pm weekdays.
Bars Noon to 11pm.
Post offices Generally 7.30am to 5pm weekdays, sometimes with a break for lunch. In Blantyre and Lilongwe, they're open Saturday morning too.
Restaurants If they don't serve breakfast, 11am to 10pm.
Shops and offices In main towns, usually 8am to noon and 1pm to 5pm weekdays. Many shops also open Saturday morning.
The usual sensitivity rules apply for photographing people; don’t push cameras into people’s faces, and ask beforehand if they mind having their photo taken. In rural areas you will often find children keen to get in front of the lens and see themselves displayed on your LCD screen. Check out Lonely Planet's Travel Photography book.
Some letters get from Lilongwe to London in three days, others take three weeks, while in rural areas the post is generally very slow.
To African destinations, letters and postcards cost MK730. To Europe, India, Pakistan and the Middle East it’s MK780 and to the Americas, Japan or Australasia postage is MK870. It’s quicker (and probably more reliable) to use the express mail service at post offices. Letters up to 500g cost MK15,540 to Europe and MK18,500 to the USA and Japan; parcels up to 3kg cost MK34,780 and MK37,740 respectively. Visit www.malawiposts.com for more info.
The most dependable way to transport parcels into and out of the country is with DHL, which has agents in Lilongwe and Blantyre.
When one of these dates falls on a weekend, normally the following Monday is a public holiday. Islamic holidays are also observed throughout Malawi by the Muslim population.
New Year’s Day 1 January
John Chilembwe Day 15 January
Martyrs’ Day 3 March
Easter March/April – Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Monday
Labour Day 1 May
Kamuzu Day 14 May
Independence Day 6 July
Mother’s Day October, second Monday
Christmas Day 25 December
Boxing Day 26 December
- Smoking With its huge tobacco industry, Malawi has many smokers – which has terrible health implications. The Ministry of Health is considering a ban on smoking in public places.
Taxes & Refunds
VAT of 16.5% and a 1% tourism levy are generally added to quoted prices. If hiring a car, check if they are included in the quote.
The international code for Malawi if you’re dialling from abroad is 265. Telephone calls within Malawi are inexpensive, and the network between main cities is reliable, although the lines to outlying areas are often not working.
For making international calls, the best option is Skype or using your mobile with a local SIM card. Calls with an Airtel SIM to South Africa cost MK72 per minute; to Canada, the UK and the USA MK230 per minute; and to Australia MK250 per minute. International call bundles are available.
Cheap local SIM cards work in foreign phones on roaming and, especially on the Airtel network, are good for calls and data usage. SIMs and credit are widely available.
Mobile phones are in use everywhere, and coverage is extensive. The major networks are Airtel (http://africa.airtel.com) and TNM (www.tnm.co.mw), with 099 and 088 prefixes respectively. TNM has better coverage in rural areas and is popular with locals. Airtel is popular among expats and travellers; it also has good coverage, and works better in the cities, especially for using the internet and social-media apps.
SIM cards are readily available from street vendors for around MK1000 and include a small amount of airtime. If you need to cut the card to fit your phone, there will invariably be someone nearby ready to whip out his cutter for MK500 or so. You should get a booklet with your SIM explaining how to check your credit, buy data bundles and so on. You can buy top-up scratchcards from vendors and shops, usually clad in the bright colours and logos of the network providers. The cards generally come in maximum denominations of MK1000, so get ready to type in several strings of numbers.
On Airtel, calling another Airtel phone is MK72 per minute (MK93 to TNM), while text messages cost from MK15 (MK44 to foreign phones). Mobile-phone data typically costs MK5000 for 1GB, valid for 30 days.
Malawi does not have area codes: all landline numbers begin with 01, followed by six digits. Numbers starting (after the 01) with 7 are on the Lilongwe exchange; those starting with 8 are in Blantyre; 5 is around Zomba; 4 is the south; 3 is the north; and 2 is the Salima area.
Malawi follows Central Africa Time, which is two hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT/UTC). The country does not have daylight-saving time. In the middle months of the year, when it’s noon in Malawi, it’s 3am in Los Angeles (Pacific Daylight Time), 6am in New York (Eastern Daylight Time), 11am in London (British Summer Time), 8pm in Sydney (Australian Eastern Standard Time) and 10pm in Auckland (New Zealand Standard Time).
There are two main types of toilet in Malawi: the Western style, with a toilet bowl and seat; and the African style, which is a hole in the floor, over which you squat. In towns and cities, especially in cafes, restaurants and hotels frequented by foreigners, toilets are generally of the Western variety. Bus stations are another story!
There are tourist-information offices in Blantyre and Lilongwe, but you’re much better off asking for advice from your accommodation or a travel agency. Outside Malawi, tourism promotion is handled by UK-based Malawi Tourism, which responds to enquiries from all over the world.
Travel with Children
There are few formal facilities for children in Malawi; however, the country is generally a safe and friendly place for children to visit. Older kids will love the outdoor activities that Malawi has to offer, and many lodges in the wilderness areas and beaches are geared towards families.
Most of the big international hotels in Blantyre and Lilongwe can provide babysitting services, family rooms and cots for babies, as can several of the tourist lodges up and down the coast. Similarly, many of the big-city restaurants frequented by expats and tourists will be able to provide high chairs. Disposable nappies and formula are widely available in supermarkets and speciality shops in Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu but can be difficult to find elsewhere.
A word of warning: never let your children swim in Lake Malawi from just before dusk into the night. There are many tragic stories about kids who outstayed their welcome and got taken by crocs and hippos, who come out at this time.
Even though Malawi has around 500,000 people with disabilities, there are very few facilities to meet their needs. A few official buildings are constructed with ramps and lifts – but not many, and probably not the ones you want to visit. Some major hotels in the cities also have ramps and/or lifts, but again, not many.
Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guide from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
There are numerous volunteer opportunities in Malawi. A good initial contact is Volunteer Abroad (www.volunteerabroad.com), which has listings of current options. Otherwise, local grass-roots opportunities include the following:
Billy Riordan Memorial Trust (www.billysmalawiproject.org) Has an established clinic in Cape Maclear and provides medical care in the area. The trust needs medical volunteers (doctors, dentists, nurses, lab technicians etc).
Butterfly Space Involved in a number of projects in Nkhata Bay, as is neighbouring Mayoka Village.
Cool Runnings Involved in a variety of projects in the Senga Bay area.
Panda Garden Based in Cape Maclear, Panda Garden is always on the lookout for divers and others to help with bilharzia research in the lake.
Ripple Africa (www.rippleafrica.org) Recruits volunteer teachers, doctors, nurses and environmental workers for projects in the Chintheche district.
Wildlife Action Group (www.wag-malawi.org) Uses volunteers to assist in the management and maintenance of forest reserves near Salima.
Weights & Measures
- Weights & Measures The metric system is used.
Malawi is generally a safe destination for women travelling alone or with other women and you can anticipate few problems. In fact, many women travellers report that, compared to North Africa, South America and numerous Western countries, Malawi feels relatively safe and unthreatening.
If you are hassled by men, firmly decline their advances and you’ll usually be left alone. If you want to go out at night apply the same common sense that you would at home.
Malawian women dress conservatively, whether in traditional or Western clothes, so when a visitor wears something significantly different from the norm, she will draw attention. Revealing too much flesh will be seen as provocative by some men. Wearing short shorts or a bikini is acceptable on the beach in tourist areas, but elsewhere it will meet with disapproval.
As a sign of respect, cover your legs as far as your knees when visiting the market, heading out and about in town and so on. The locals appreciate the effort and it will help avoid unwanted male attention.
Most opportunities for foreigners are in the aid and tourism industries. To find work in tourism such as managing a lodge or teaching diving, check the businesses' websites for recruitment notices and send your CV on spec. You will likely work informally, at least initially, entering the country on a tourist visa and being paid cash or into your bank at home. Your employer can help you obtain a temporary employee permit after you've arrived in Malawi.
There is much to be said for being on the scene; making contacts, showing your enthusiasm to get involved and demonstrating your passion for Malawi will open doors. Of course, working here is all about the experience of living in Africa and pay will be minimal, although the package may include board and lodging.