My Never-ending South African Visa Journey

by | Feb 25, 2020 | Uncategorized | 48 comments

I’ve been waiting to write a South African visa post for nearly a decade.

South African and American flags flying in Melville during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. (Photo: Jon Hrusa)

Since 2010 I’ve been granted four long-term South African visas of various types, with many three-month tourist visas in between. I’ve been rejected multiple times for different visas. I’ve spent many thousands of dollars on immigration consultants, application fees, flights, medical exams, criminal background checks, postage, passport fees, and printer cartridges. I’ve cursed and raged and cried rivers of tears. I’ve considered giving up. I’ve aggravated friends, family members, and multiple ex-boyfriends with unrelenting angst and hand-wringing.

And guess what? My visa journey is not yet over. Also, to the disbelief of most South Africans, my situation isn’t unique. If you’re a foreigner living in South Africa you’re definitely nodding vigorously as you read this.

My South African visa story is long, complicated, and at times ridiculously dramatic. Things have finally settled down and I no longer feel like I’m at risk for getting kicked out of the country, so I thought this might be a good time to tell the full tale. Then I realized the full tale would be a book, not a blog post. Also most of the information isn’t relevant to people applying for South African visas now. The rules and visa categories have changed dramatically, multiple times, and they’ll definitely change again.

So I’m going to skip to the end of the story and tell you about the visa I have now: a visitor’s visa for artists/writers.

Before I go on, I’ll state the obvious: I’m a U.S. citizen, which allows me tremendous privilege to travel the world with relative ease. The South African visa problems I’ve faced are — forgive the cliché — first-world problems, and pale in comparison to the problems faced by millions of refugees and economic migrants trying to make their way in South Africa and all over the world.

My South African Visa: Visitor’s Visa for Artists/Writers

In September 2018, I was in a serious bind. The five-year general work permit I’d received in 2013 had expired. I was advised not to bother trying to renew that visa because general work permits have become nearly impossible to get.

To my great dismay, I was also ineligible to apply for South African permanent residency (the equivalent of an American green card). Obtaining South African permanent residency, while not impossible, has become extremely challenging in recent years.

In September 2018 my application for a “retired person’s permit” was rejected. Yes, I applied for a retirement visa at the age of 43. No, I can’t explain why, other than to say it seemed like my best bet at the time. Anyway, it didn’t work out for me although others have achieved success with this visa.

After eight years of building an amazing life in South Africa, I thought maybe my time was up.

Then Natasha, the immigration consultant I was working with at SA Visa Experts, pulled a rabbit out of a hat. She told me about a South African visa I’d never heard of: a visitor’s visa for artists/writers.

I am the only person I know who has this visa. I can’t find information about the artist’s visa on the South African Department of Home Affairs (DHA) website, although various private immigration companies mention it on their sites.

In brief, the visitor’s visa for artists/writers falls under the same general category of long-term visitor’s visas for volunteers, journalists, researchers, entertainers, tour guides, etc. It’s a catch-all for people who want to come and do interesting things in South Africa — for longer than the duration of a three-month tourist visa — but don’t fall into any other category. The official designation for this visa is “Visitor’s Visa Section 11(1)(b)(iv)”, and the official “prescribed activity” is “artists wishing to write, paint, or sculpt”.

The artist’s visa can be granted for any amount of time between three months and three years, and applicants must submit a comprehensive portfolio of their work. In my case I submitted screenshots of the books I’ve written, several of my blog posts, testimonials from my readers, and photocopies of published travel articles.

There were many other documents required for the application, including but not limited to: proof that I can support myself financially; police reports from every country I’ve lived in for the past decade (the United States and South Africa, in my case); a medical report and a radiological report, i.e. chest x-ray (the most annoying party of the visa application process); and a million other irritating little documents that are exhausting to collect and use up tons of expensive printer ink.

First-time applicants for a long-term South African visitor’s visa must apply at an embassy in their home country. In November 2018, I flew to America specifically for this purpose and submitted my application at the South African embassy in New York City.

This application process was horribly, excruciatingly frustrating and stressful. If you plan to apply for a South African visitor’s visa (or any visa) in your home country, please take this advice:

1) Hire an experienced immigration consultant if at all possible. Immigration consultants are usually very expensive but it really helps to have a professional in your corner. Shop around, ask for recommendations, and speak to multiple consultants before hiring anyone.

2) Do as much research as you possibly can. Speak to others who have gone through the South African visa process in your own country and other countries. There is a great forum on Facebook for doing research and asking advice. Join it, but be prepared to read some terrifying horror stories.

3) Be prepared to hand over your passport at the embassy and be without it for at least a few weeks. There is no way of predicting how long it will take an embassy to process a visa — it can be anything from a couple of days to months. My visitor’s visa took about six weeks.

4) No matter how well you prepare, you will almost certainly be asked to provide some document(s) that you didn’t plan for. Allow plenty of time for this inevitability.

My story: I arrived at the New York embassy to submit my application at 11:00 a.m. on the day before Thanksgiving. It was frigidly cold and I had the flu. The visa office was closing at 1:00 p.m. and there was a long line. After 30 minutes of waiting, I found out I needed four additional documents. I rushed out of the embassy, dragging my bemused, shivering South African boyfriend behind me, sprinted several blocks — uphill and against the icy wind, while feverish and sneezing — to a UPS Store, figured out how to get my passport copy notarized (UPS managers can do this — who knew?), printed several bank statements (from multiple banks) and my CV, all while sobbing hysterically, then sprinted back to the embassy to wait in line again.

I successfully submitted my visitor’s visa application at 12:55 p.m. on November 21st, 2018. On January 3rd, 2019, the embassy granted me a one-year visa.

One year is better than nothing, of course, but I was extremely disappointed as it meant I had to go through this whole process again just a few months later. But there was one piece of good news: Applicants wishing to renew their current South African visitor’s visa can apply in South Africa.

This time I didn’t f*ck around. I printed more work samples, more testimonials, and wrote a detailed letter of motivation describing the writing projects I had planned for the following three years. I also included a letter of recommendation from a high-level South African tourism official.

I submitted my visa renewal application at the VFS Global office in Rivonia on September 18th, 2019. (Note: When submitting a visa application at VFS Global, which is like the middleman between visa applicants and the DHA in South Africa, you are not required to leave your passport; you can take it home with you and bring it back once the visa has been processed.)

And then I waited, for nearly five months.

On Friday, February 10th, after many follow-up emails from Natasha (thank you Natasha, you saved my life), DHA sent me an SMS stating my application had been “adjudicated”. To find out whether I’d been approved or rejected, I had to wait the whole weekend, drive to VFS on Monday, then wait in line for 45 minutes while trying not to pass out from anticipation and stress.

In the end, I walked out with this:

The font is tiny and my hands were shaking so badly I couldn’t read it at first. But they gave me three years. THANK YOU JESUS.

This isn’t a final solution. My new visa is still shorter than a U.S. presidential term. Nonetheless, I look forward to spending the next two or so years NOT worrying about my South African visa.

If you’re an artist/writer who thinks you might qualify for this visa, feel free to message me privately with any questions. Or contact SA Visa Experts, to whom I owe a lot of gratitude.

The end (until my next visa application).

48 Comments

  1. Stephanie

    Well done on seeing this through. I’ve never heard a good / easy / positive visa tale. Here’s to a few more years! (And hopefully more!) 🎉🎉

    I guard my green book with my life, but will admit it makes my life So. Much. Easier. here in SA. 🇺🇸🇿🇦

    Reply
    • 2summers

      If I ever manage to get one of those green books I am going to throw a VERY big party for myself.

      Reply
  2. dizzylexa

    Glad you are staying for a few more years at least and just maybe things will improve in that time.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      That is exactly what I’m hoping!

      Reply
  3. Justin

    Gosh Heather! You’re the very type of person this country needs and who contributes so much and yet it’s made almost if not virtually impossible with an endless bureaucratic charade just to legally stay here. But so pleased your Visa was approved and hope you can eventually stay forever 🙂

    Reply
  4. Albert

    An artist friend of mine has also obtained this visa recently. Well done! And so shameful that we have such a k@k immigration system actively keeping talent and skills out of SA.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Glad the visa is working for others!

      Reply
  5. Rosemary

    Tons of admiration for your grit and determination but then you are American! Hopefully you’ll get that SmartID and SA passport soon enough. All this stuff is tedious and requires so much effort but so important.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Some day…I hope.

      Reply
  6. Louise Whitworth

    I *loved* reading this, such great news- and yes I was nodding vigorously!

    I wanna add 2 more tips for not having nuclear meltdown when you submit – make sure everything has been spelled correctly, amazing how it can slip past you that somebody spelled your name wrong somewhere, and certified copies of every damn thing you have (several just in case!) 😂

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Ah yes, you know better than anyone! Very good tips. I should actually make a series of these posts because there is so much advice to impart 😂

      Reply
  7. Catrina

    Thanks for the heads-up, Heather! We are in the process of applying for a RSA visa and have already had a number of ‘interesting’ experiences. We are currently here on a tourist visa until the end of March. In the summer we will re-start the process with the embassy.
    In view of your story, I’m geared for a longer process.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Ahhhh, good luck! Yes it’s best to expect the worst and then be pleasantly surprised if it’s better.

      Reply
  8. eremophila

    I’ll step out on a limb, and suggest that in three years time you plan your Australian adventures😀😘

    Reply
    • 2summers

      That’s not a bad idea! I just wish I could bring the kitties with me 🙂

      Reply
      • eremophila

        Ummm, yes that’s tricky and expensive but not impossible. And mine travel all the time of course😀

        Reply
        • 2summers

          Yes, you’re my inspiration!

          Reply
          • eremophila

            Ha!😘

    • 2summers

      Definitely one of them.

      Reply
  9. Ced Pearce

    I salute your perseverance, and wish you all success in eventually getting Permanent Residence .

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thank you so much!

      Reply
  10. Shawn Malone

    And now you can officially ‘sojourn’! : ) Congrats on getting another 3 years. No small feat.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks! Yes I really like the idea of sojourning – it sounds so lofty.

      Reply
  11. Lani

    OMG. I wish I could have a cuppa (or three) with you as we share our horrifying visa experiences as Americans daring to live abroad. Ha!

    And I always get annoyed when I meet that expat who has NEVER encountered any problems (or is lying through their teeth). Who the hell do they think they are???

    I should write a post of my own! But you’re so lucky to have gotten on a long term visa. I suppose at this point you, can’t know whether or not you can renew it? What are most of your friends on? How much illegal wiggling around is there?

    For Thailand, it’s quite outrageous. We have to ‘check in’ every 90 days in person (unless the website is working which it never is) at our local Immigration office. Our medical checkup involves getting blood work to see if we have 3rds stage syphilis (I wish I was joking) and elephantiasis. They are in the process of abolishing ‘checking in’ every time you leave town for holiday so the military govt knows where you are at all times. I have to apply for a ‘re-entry permit’ to leave the country and keep my current visa. [Of course, it costs money.] Thailand is fond of copious amounts of paperwork, passport sized photos as well as signatures on every page, and as much ticker tape as you can stomach – and then some.

    So.Much.Fun.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      OMG, I don’t even know where to begin to reply to this! I do remember you mentioning visa difficulties in Thailand a while back…But this makes SA seem like a walk in the park. Godspeed.

      I’ve renewed the artist visa once now so at least I know it’s possible. I have friends who have renewed similar long-term visitor’s visas two and three times, so hopefully it will be possible for me to renew it at least one time again, if it comes to that.

      As far as illegal wiggle room, there really isn’t much (short of bribery, I guess, but I don’t even know how that works, haha). If you overstay a visa and try to leave the country, you’re automatically banned for at least a year — five years if you overstay by more than 30 days. The bans are very difficult to overturn.

      This post doesn’t even cover half the visa drama I’ve had over the past 10 years. Someday it will all be in my memoir, haha.

      Reply
      • Lani

        Yes! Heather’s memoir better have a chapter on all the Saffa boys I’ve loved and known. 😉

        The overstays are the same, but harsher? If you overstay a day, you are banned for a year.

        Glad to hear that there’s some possible good news with the renewals!

        Reply
        • 2summers

          Oh yes, the boys will play a significant role.

          Reply
          • Lani

            😀

  12. Lani

    Andddd, I can totally relate to standing in line, sick as a dog, and being turned away, while trying to get your visa. This happened in Laos. The line was long and the weather was so f*cking hot. The 14 hr bus ride prior to this glorious moment did not help either. But I deliberately booked a hotel near the Embassy, so I ran to the hotel where they generously let me call Thailand for free while I freaked out over the phone to my employer. I needed a ‘telex’ number, I’ll spare you the details, and so there was waiting, and back and forth, and then finally, a call back with the number.

    So then I ran back before the Embassy closed and cut in front of all these people who were so angry at me, but I tried to explain that I had been here before. [They didn’t care.] But the woman took my application…Christ. So, yeah, I understand. The stress level is so much more intense when you’re sick.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      So #FunnyNotFunny. And for what? None of it matters! 😂

      Reply
      • Lani

        *groan* I know! I know! Like, who cares?! Right? Ugh.

        Reply
  13. Julie

    Appreciate your patience!! Your patience makes you to bear the Visa for 3 years it seems..:) just fun. Now you can do your great work for 3 more years.Congrats!!

    Reply
  14. Lethabo

    I love you. You love SA more than most South Africans 😂. You will be a citizen soon if the current administration keeps it’s promise and fix home affairs 🇿🇦

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks, I hope so!

      Reply
  15. Julia Giddy

    I also highly recommend SA Visa Experts!! https://savisaexperts.com/ Although my process wasn’t quite as trying as Heathers, it also took me 8 years to get permanent residency and individual applications/renewals for 8 different visas before I got my permanent residency (also just in time for the expiration of my current one!!) I was on study visas for most of it but when I graduated (with my PhD) things became more difficult which is when I hired SA visa experts who were insanely helpful! Ended up with PR within the year! Natasha is very communicate and has real “ins” which help get through the process with knowledge that cannot be found in the deepest depths of internet research. This isn’t everyone’s story, as I qualified because of my PhD which is considered critical skills. But still!! Despite 2 direct South African uncles, a South African grandmother and a PhD it still took me ages to get to where I am! The moral of the story is HIRE SOMEONE TO HELP especially if your situation is even remotely complicated. And have an incredible amount of patience…Good Luck to all of you out there!

    Reply
  16. Micaeli

    Heather! This post of yours is received with empathy, understanding and a considerable amount of awe from yours truly!

    I am in a visa-limbo of my own, after submitting an application for a Life Partner Permit in November. Still no word of adjudication from home affairs (and the time on my Visitor’s Visa is dwindling away!) Reading your story was like a salve for my fears and lack of control.

    I feel like we could talk for hours about the infuriating nature of bureaucracy, and about how weird the SA Embassy is in Manhattan (on the 9th floor of a hospital bldg, you get out of the elevator and there’s Cyril’s face, framed on the wall smiling at you–and even though you’re in NYC, the time-spend and efficiency inside the embassy is right back to the 3rd world.)

    This artist’s visa is a victory! And it gives the rest of us hope. I’m so glad you shared this harrowing tale, and that I found it today, just when I needed to read about it.

    <3

    Reply
    • 2summers

      We could definitely talk for hours, if not days. I wish you Godspeed on the outcome of your visa. FYI I didn’t get into this in my post (too much to say) but I overstayed my previous visa while awaiting the outcome of this one, which was very anxiety-inducing but in hindsight I’m glad I didn’t spend a bunch of money to leave and come back again. It’s all so stressful 😩

      Reply
  17. mayetsworld

    Interesting post. Thanks for sharing. I am an Attorney practicing in Johannesburg & I honestly had no idea of the difficulties with obtaining a visa in my country. I’m not an immigration lawyer so your article was very insightful

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks! Yeah most people don’t know except for the foreigners 🙂

      Reply
  18. Milena

    Thank you so much for sharing, Heather! You’re a great example that perseverance does pay off. 💪
    I am in the process of gathering application insights for a temporary retired person visa and was wondering if one is informed of the reason in case of a rejection. Are you able to share why the retirement rout didn’t work out for you in the past (acknowledging that requirements might have changed in the meantime)?

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Hi Milena, thank you for the comment. It’s a bit complicated to explain, but I was given a reason: Because the funds I have were not in the form of a pension or rental income. (At the time my savings was all in investments/mutual funds.) This reason doesn’t really make sense, as the amount of money I had still fulfilled the requirements at the time, but that is the reason I was given. Very frustrating.

      Reply
  19. Kathryn Cleary

    Hi there, I am in a VERY similar sticky situation and will be applying for this visa in July. Could we connect and chat a bit more in detail? I’m an award-winning journalist and I’m convincing myself that I need to write a book in order to get this visa, and I’m already thinking about how many of my former/current editors/professional connections I need to support my application lol.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Hi Kathryn, sure feel free to send me a message via my Contact page. If you have a decent body of work and a legit project to work on in SA I think you should be fine! But the more documentation you provide, the better.

      Reply
  20. Mac

    Hello, thank you very much for your article.
    It’s said that ” Artists must document their ability to support themselves financially for the proposed duration of their stay ”
    I would like to know how much savings I need in order be eligible for this visa, please ?

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Hi Mac, I feel like I remember my immigration consultant answering this question but I can’t remember what she said. I think it’s pretty vague…I think it might be a good idea to consult a professional on that.

      Reply

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