The True Cost of Travel Visas: South Africans weigh visa complications agony, mostly refused for UK and US applications

2019-08-05 12:23
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If you've gone through the rigmarole of applying for a travel visa, it's remarkable how care-free - perhaps even worrisome if you're wired like that - the lack of stress a visa-free destination can seem before you jet off on your adventure. 

A recent survey by TravelStart shows about 49% percent of South African travellers say they consciously select overseas destinations with no visa requirements or those that issue a visa on arrival. 

READ: Visa-free = Hassle-free: 2019's most significant visa changes for SA

With some 101 countries offering locals visa-free access - truth be told the financial and time cost of travel visas to the other popular destinations like Australia, New Zealand and the United States is increasingly onerous for South African passport holders.

More than 900 South Africans responded to the study by the online booking site between April and July in 2019 - with South African passport holders representing 91% of responses and 48% said they have applied for a visa in the past 12 months.

According to the research, most refusals are issued by the United Kingdom, USA and the Schengen area respectively.

READ: How-to-apply-for-a-Schengen-visa-20140803How to apply for a Schengen visa 

While processing authorities aren’t obligated to give reasons for vetoing a visa, primary motives for visa denial vary from failing to provide sufficient reasons for the purpose of a visit, inadequate proof of funds (to support stay in destination) to irregular travel histories, unfavourable visa histories and lack of a travel itinerary.

Additional reasons for a rejection can include past and current criminal convictions, damaged passports and inadequate travel insurance, although none of the survey participants said they were denied for these reasons.  

READ:  How far your visa fees would get you in countries South Africa just scrapped visas for 

Tricky documentation requirements, distant visa application centres and drawn-out turnaround times only add to the headache of navigating a visa submission.

Despite the inherent inconvenience of visas, South Africans are willing globetrotters.  

The cost of visa refusal

Several South African passport holders said visa application complications have led them to postpone travel (22%), lose money (17%), cancel an entire trip (10%) and miss flights (6%).

The research offers further insight into barriers to entry for obtaining a visa.

Negative sentiment is dominated by visa costs, excessive documentation requirements and vague application guidelines, which ranked ahead of lengthy application processes, lack of visa payment options and far distances to travel to the nearest visa office (which carries its own cost implications for people residing outside major cities).

Appointments & processing times

There is no straight answer in terms of the availability of visa appointments, and in most cases the speed in which a decision is reached remains out of applicants’ hands. While some authorities take less than one week to process a visa, others can take more than six weeks.

How quickly a visa is granted often hinges on whether the Embassy or Consulate is suffering from a backlog of applications. Some local travel agents report waiting up to six months to secure an appointment at the Consulate General of the United States.

READ: US Embassy sees heavy visa demand, warns SA travellers to apply 'as early as possible'

While recent US Consulate processing times are unusual, appointment access is likely to improve. Travelstart’s research found that 31% receive a decision on their visa within two weeks of applying and 28% receive a decision in less than one week. UK and Schengen visa turnarounds are inconsistent, but applicants can expect an estimated turnaround time of between two and four weeks. 

Some countries and application centres offer an express service when the circumstances of travel are urgent, however, this option attracts higher processing fees and availability isn’t guaranteed. 

Passport & visa tips

  • Ensure your passport is valid beyond your return date (at least three months) and that it contains enough empty pages for new visas and immigration stamps before beginning a visa application.
  •  Familiarise yourself with the visa regulations of the country you are applying to visit as there is no one-size-fits-all guideline. 
  • Apply as soon as possible ahead of your departure date.
  • While international flights that include a stopover are frequently cheaper than flying direct, multiple stops can present challenges such as transit visa requirements. Even if your end point is visa free, the rules governing stops in between must be checked to avoid delays and disappointment.
  •  Your online and social media presence is a decisive factor when it comes to job applications and the same applies to visas. The US State Department now requires visa applicants to submit their social media usernames, previous email addresses and phone numbers. Maintain a clean online presence and don’t let ancient tweets or an ill-considered Facebook post count against you when decision-makers scrutinise your application.

TRAVEL PLANNING: See detailed Quick Guides for each of the visa-free destinations for South African travellers here.  

Visas remain a necessary evil and the knowledge that most travellers’ globetrotting ambitions are at the discretion of an anonymous authority, does nothing to ease pre-departure anxiety. 

On the plus side, most South Africans complete visa applications without a hitch, however, those who refuse to submit to the fuss should not be put off from seeing the world. 

Among the visa-free destinations we are able to explore are Botswana, Brazil, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, Israel, Kenya, Mauritius, Qatar, Singapore, Zambia, Zimbabwe - all these countries offer exceptional tourism opportunities and, depending on the airline you choose, are accessible on non-stop flights departing from at least one of South Africa’s three major airports. 

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