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).

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