Cape Town - If you’ve been within an inch of a Home Affairs office lately, you’ll know the pain associated with applying for any sort of official travel document.
South Africa’s roll-out of its new visa rules have caused a few headaches for many a traveller, with the two key requirements of an unabridged birth certificate for all minors when travelling; and for applicants to appear in person to provide biometric data – and to do so in their country of origin when renewing a visa, being the key culprits.
So while all passports around the world may roughly be the same size at 125 mm × 88 mm – its power ultimately boils down to whether or not you need a visa to visit certain countries or not.
Many of us can only dream about the freedom to travel without any visa restrictions and while South Africans enjoy one of the widest ranges of visa-free travel options on the African continent – with its visa-free access extending to 97 of the world’s 194 countries - the slow progress in the approval of something like a Uni-visa for Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries only serves to add more pipe than pleasure.
So who has the most powerful passport?
Henley & Partners has analysed the visa regulations of all the countries and territories in the world and topping the global ranking of international travel freedom is the United States (Click here to see how to apply for a US visa), with the United Kingdom, Finland, Germany and Sweden closely chasing its heels.
According to the Henley Visa Restrictions Index (HVRI) each of these countries has the freedom to travel to an unbelievable 174 countries. Canada and Denmark follow very closely behind, with access to 173 countries.
The HVRI reveals that tourism-rich Seychelles (129 countries visa free), Mauritius (125) and South Africa (97) have all improved their positions in the global rankings, although as a whole, the power of African passports have declined - dropping a total of 25 spots in the rankings.
But would you want to swap your green mamba for one of these countries passports?
According to Henley & Partners data, an increasing number of South Africans are taking up dual citizenship, either for business, travel or lifestyle reasons.
Andrew Taylor, Vice President of Henley & Partners said, “Among the several countries now offering investors the chance to acquire citizenship or residence through investment, the programmes in the European Union offer the ability to live and work in Europe, attend European educational institutions and allow visa-free travel to more countries.”
Taylor adds that countries like Malta and Portugal, which Henley & Partners offers programmes for, are also high up towards the top of the list of the world’s most powerful passports.
Henley & Partners also offer residence-by investment programmes, such as Portugal’s Golden Residence Permit Program (GRP), which issued more than 1 000 residence permits last year.
“The key benefit of this programme is that Portugal is a full member of the EU and therefore residence here allows you to travel visa-free to all the notoriously difficult Schengen area countries, as well as to work, live or study in Portugal,” said Taylor.
“The investment required for the GRP is a €500 000 (about R7.3-million) property purchase. The processing of a residence permit is relatively quick, in approximately 90 days; and after six years of residency (during which only 35 days of actual residency in a five year period is required), an investor is eligible to apply for citizenship.”
Once citizenship is obtained, the Portuguese passport affords the bearer access to 172 countries visa-free.
The snag with this Schengen visa work-around is of course that you need to be especially well off in order to take advantage of it.
Another interesting Schengen visa development for South African passport holders is that France will now fast track SA applications, submitted with all the required documents, to see it delivered within 48 hours.
According to Capago.eu, "South Africa is one of the few countries to benefit from this fast track' procedure at no extra costs as a result of France’s will to simplify the visa application procedures for South African nationals".
Some general rules of thumb for South African passport holders going to the Schengen area, according to Henley & Partners include the fact that you can’t apply more than three months in advance for the visa; you need a detailed daily itinerary; you always apply through the country in which you plan to spend the longest time on that trip, and if you are spending equal time in more than one, the country you enter first issues the visa. (Click here to see how to apply for a Schengen visa)
It is also important to note that a new UK transit visa criteria came into effect on 1 December 2014 – allowing for simpler airside and landside transit visa requirements for South Africans if they are holders of a US, Canadian or New Zealand visa.
Since 2009 South Africans have required a visa (estimated at £30 or R535) or exemption document to transit the UK, whether they are transiting airside (without passing through border control) or landside (passing through border control possibly to collect luggage or change airports).
Isabel Potgieter, a spokesperson for the British High Commission in Pretoria, said it was important to note that routine validity has also been extended to two years for genuine and frequent transit travellers, but could not confirm if Schengen visa's would be added to the exemption list for South Africans in the future.
With that said, the rigorous process required to attain the two-year document is lengthy and can take a min of 10 working days to clear. An additional priority visa fee of £53 (about R956) is required if you want your UK visa issued sooner. (Click here to see how to apply for a UK visa)
Also see - The Amazing Passport Race...
So, which are the most difficult countries for South Africans to obtain visa access to and why?
Europe has only a few destinations South Africans can enter without visa, namely Ireland, Kosovo and closer to home, the French Indian Ocean Territory of Reunion Island. According to Taylor, North America (Canada and the US) visas are a definite front-runner for this title, but there are a few other rather hairy visa application requirements to note for South Africans.
“If you want to visit Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iran, Libya, Kuwait or Sudan, but previously visited Israel and have an Israeli stamp in your passport, you will be denied entry. This is because most Arab countries do not recognise the Israeli state," said Taylor.
“If you wish to visit Iran, you need to be aware that the Minister of Foreign Affairs has to approve every visa application. This can be an extensive process. Also you need to know that there will be virtually no communication during the application process, and that you could be asked for finger prints when you arrive.”
Additionally, travel to Saudi Arabia is also especially difficult for South Africans.
“Women under the age of 30 are not allowed to travel alone; they need to be escorted by a husband or brother. Meanwhile unmarried couples are not allowed to travel alone together, but may travel within a group to ensure they are not perceived as a couple."
Most expensive visa permit application fees for South Africans revealed
With application fees in most cases being non-refundable if the visa is denied, travelling abroad can be a financial gamble for South African passport holders, said Taylor.
While the cost of visa applications varies widely, a travel visa for Europe will cost South African passport holders over R600, and more than R1 000 for the UK and the US.
But surprisingly the most expensive visa for South Africans is the Nigerian visa.
"All first-time visa applicants are required to pay a deposit of R6 000 directly to the Nigerian Embassy. The payment is known as a repatriation fee and is refunded to you upon returning to South Africa."
A close second is the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, which levies a US$250 (about R2 910) daily tariff on visitors in an apparent effort to discourage hordes from spoiling its pristine scenery.
Those planning on visiting Russian should also expect to fork out R1 300 for a short stay, single entry visa or R 3 300 multiple entry visa.
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