The decision was made. We had just secured a seven month house sitting gig in Haenertsburg, South Africa. Haenertsburg is a charming little mountain town in the Limpopo region of northeast South Africa. Of note, Haenertsburg is also less than two hours from Kruger National Park, where we plan to make numerous excursions. In making this decision we pushed back our plans to only spend three months in South Africa before venturing into Namibia; such is the nature of our life- rough plans subject to change.
Because our South African tourist visas are only valid for ninety (90) days, our new plans would require a trip to the immigration office to request a ninety (90) day visa extension….I know…those math whizzes out there are running the numbers and seeing that ninety (90) days is not going to be long enough….our solution after the extension expires, is to leave the country, then re-enter. This common practice is called “border jumping” or “border hopping”, though not as wham/bam/thank you…most kind border patrol agent, as it used to be. (First, you have to be out of the country when your visa expires, then come back into the country fresh with no existing visa, and hopefully get a new 90 days. Most recent blogs have stated that some border agents may give an extra week, while some may give a full 90 days. It depends on the amount of time one has been out of the country. It also depends on the border crossing- Tambo airport is no issue..Swaziland can be difficult.) Before spiraling into that cyclone, however, let’s get back to our multiple trips(s) to the immigration office.
It took four trips to the immigration office to submit our applications…..you are probably thinking…what a bureaucratic nightmare that must have been…….not so much, actually. The fourth and last time we entered the office, we took care of everything from start to finish in less than one hour. The previous three ventures were due to ill preparedness, ignorance, and a dash of bureaucracy.
Trip 1: Before heading to the Home Affairs Office (the immigration office), which is located in downtown Cape Town (Faircape Building, 56 Barrack Street, Cape Town, 8001 )
Bobbi and I did a little internet research on the procedure to apply for a visa extension. We took one blog post to heart that stated one should go late in afternoon, as the civil servants are anxious to go home and get through the queue (line) of would be immigrants. The hours of the immigration office are from 7:30am- 3:30pm. Bobbi and I were renting a condo in Blouberg-9 miles north of downtown. We left the condo at 2:00pm. We arrived a block away from the immigration office at 2:55pm. We parked across the street from a local coffee roaster/coffee shop. We were momentarily distracted….it reminded us of a Portland coffee roaster; complete with painted bicycles hanging from the ceiling, refurbished industrial space, and an almost steam punk theme…..funky, but high quality coffee. http://www.truthcoffee.com. We arrived at the front desk of the immigration office at 3:05pm. The admitting clerk informed us that the office did not accept new applicants after 3:00pm. This allowed for the civil servants to deal with everybody already waiting so that they could leave by 5 pm…..we returned to the coffee shop. Here endeth trip one.
Trip 2: We had read another blog post that confirmed a late afternoon trip to the office could be more expeditious, but also, first thing in the morning was also good for the obvious reason of being first in line. Bobbi and I left the condo at 6:20 am…..It was dark…..I arise early for a dawn game drives, but for a trip to a government office?!….Balderdash. We turned out of our neighborhood and onto the main artery into downtown. Within a half mile we were in bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic. The red string of taillights drifted into infinity. Now we knew….South Africans start their day early. We figured that by the time we would make it to the office, we would not be the early bird…..We turned around.
Trip 3: Back to “Plan A.” We left the condo at 1:45pm. We arrived at the immigration office’s not-so smiling/not-so frowning admitting clerk’s desk at 2:45pm. The clerk asked the purpose of our visit. We answered. She punched a few keystrokes on her computer and out popped two paper tickets with our respective numbers. She directed us to the stairs and told us to wait until our numbers were called. Tickets in hand, we followed several 8 1/2 x 11 printouts taped to the stairwell walls. These led us to the second floor. We crossed the threshold of institutional double doors and entered a large room bustling with important people-moving- business. The door attendant asked to see our tickets then directed us to the far side of the room and told us to sit and wait for our numbers to be called. On several walls hung flat screen monitors indicating the numbers being called and to which service counter said numbers should venture. Bobbi and I did as we were told….we sat and we waited for our numbers to be called.
After a spell, we wondered if we could begin filling out our applications. However, we only had one pen and the office did not have any loaner pens. I went downstairs where an entrepreneurial fellow was selling pens on the front steps. Back upstairs with pens in hand, we read the only instructions posted on the walls. “Make certain to have copies of all forms.” This presented our first problem as we did not have any forms. We looked around for forms. We walked around looking for forms. There were not any forms to be found. Perhaps, we needed to wait until our numbers were called, at which point we would be given the appropriate forms. We sat back down and dutifully waited for our numbers to be called…..Perhaps, we should have asked someone where to pick up the forms….but, we didn’t….we did as were told….sometimes we are not very bright.
Finally, at 4:50 pm our numbers were called. We saddled up to the appropriate counter. The clerk asked the nature of our business. The clerk then asked for our forms. We, in turn, asked the clerk for the appropriate forms….. .The clerk looked at us. The clerk pointed down to the far end of the service counters and said the forms were down there. “Where?” I asked. “Down there” was the response with a slight wave of the hand. Apparently, I had not walked “down there” earlier when I had walked all around the room looking for forms. The large room was now starting to empty out. It was 5:03pm. I looked at the last service counter; no forms. I looked at the second to last service counter that had a large “Information” sign above it. Nobody was at the counter, but directly behind the counter was a book case containing cubbies of every single immigration form imaginable.
Perhaps, I should have known that “Information” meant “Forms.” I would have known this if I had stood in the information line earlier to get information about the location of the forms. But, I did not. Perhaps, the information counter could have had a sign hanging above it saying “Forms.” But, it did not. Perhaps the door attendant could have informed us when we first arrived to pick up our forms at the information counter. But it is the information counter that dispenses information, not the door attendant. And now nobody was at this counter. And now civil servants were walking past this counter with averted eyes on their way out the door. I waited five minutes; nobody. I walked back to the service counter where Bobbi was still talking to her prescribed clerk. I told the clerk that nobody was “down there” (this being secret code for “Information counter” aka “Forms counter.”) The clerk cast a tired look and went to get our necesary forms. It was 5:15 pm. We decided to fill the forms out at home; make copies at home, and return good to go. We left the office. We went to the coffee shop.
Trip 4: This time we waited until after morning rush hour traffic….the early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese. We left the condo at 9:00am. Armed with our forms in triplicate (Bobbi wasn’t taking chances when she made copies); we once again entered the building. We were now “old hats.” We took our numbers, walked up the stairs, presented the door attendant with our tickets, strode over to the far side of the room, sat down, and waited for our numbers to be called. We waited all of five minutes….Holy cow! At the service counter we presented our forms and supporting documentation. We were also asked to provide one set of copies of the documents. The following were the required documents:
2. Bank account statement: We used screen shots of our bank balance- this to prove that we were not deadbeats seeking refuge in the country;
3. Plane tickets: We copied the email confirmation of our plane tickets- This to prove that we really did plan to leave. (*If you don’t know your exit date, or are planning on traveling overland to other countries, you may want to purchase refundable tickets. If you do not have a plane ticket, then it is possible to place a large refundable deposit with the Immigration Office. Bobbi and I did not look into this option, as we were not keen to watching a large chunk of our money slip into the bureaucratic void 😉
4. Statement of the reason an extension is necessary;
5. Photocopy of passport. Especially important is also a photocopy of the page in one’s passport that has the South African entry stamp.
The clerk was friendly and things were moving along swimmingly. She then asked for photocopies of the page of our passports that had the entry stamp…..hmmm, slight oversight. Apparently, we were not the first people to suffer this omission. The clerk told us that just outside the building on the left, there was a business that made copies. She then told us that once we had the copies, we could simply return to her counter. Down the stairs we went…..lickity split.
Five minutes later with passport copies in hand we returned to her window. Things were stamped and signed and stapled. She gave us a receipt and told us to pay the 425R ($43) application fee at the cashier’s window. We slid over to the line at the cahier’s window. Fifteen minutes later we had receipts in hand. The applications will be processed in Johannesburg and may take up to six weeks for notification of approval. Its supposed to be thirty days, but the wheels of government turn grudgingly. (Applicants must apply at least thirty days before their visa expires.) Amazingly, we were in and out in less than an hour. We went for coffee…..of course.
[UPDATE FROM BOBBI, 4 MONTHS AFTER APPLICATIONS SUBMITTED]
Trip 5: KC optimistically thought our visits to the Department of Home Affairs were behind us. We waited for a text and used the online tracking system to monitor the status of our applications, but the status never changed from “Application Received.” About 10 days before our initial visas were to expire, I called the office. The system was down … our applications were bumped to “priority” … try again in two weeks … three phone calls later, I still had no information and we were officially illegal.
On the 3rd call, I finally had to ask what I should do when I left the country for 3 days on an upcoming excursion to Victoria Falls in Zambia. The representative instructed me to return to the Cape Town office where I’d submitted the application and request a letter verifying that my application was still being processed. I had serious doubts about this, as I have the original application and another representative had told me I could LEAVE the country using the application to show they shouldn’t fine me for overstaying. But I went anyway, landed in a single queue snaking out the door and down the stairs because their get-a-ticket system was down, and – as suspected – was told by the nice man who helped me that “we don’t write letters like this.” Ah well, I got another coffee next door, anyway!
So: What happens when you don’t have your extension and you leave the country and try to re-enter? KC and I had two different experiences:
Me: I left for 3 days to visit Vic Falls with a friend. When I arrived back in South Africa (Johannesbug airport), I casually laid my application on the Immigration desk near me but handed my passport to the officer without saying anything. He glanced at those papers, asked what they were, I told him, and he proceeded to show me that his computer displayed my tourist visa extension as November 11, significantly longer than even the extension should have allowed! Go figure… all that worrying for nothing. I’ll never understand where that date came from, but it seems I’m legal until we leave on Nov 1.
KC: About a week later, we visited Swaziland by car for a few days. When KC re-entered South Africa (at the Oshoek border crossing), he had his application folded inside his passport. The immigration officer looked it over, then stamped his passport with a note saying his extension is still pending.
KC: Sept. 29, 2013. Bobbi and I just returned to South Africa from a three day trip to Zimbabwe. We endured the dreaded Beit Bridge border crossing (See Bobbi’s blog entry). When we exited SA, Bobbi had no problems. When I stepped up to the window, I only presented my passport to see whether I had been granted an extension. Apparently not, as the officer began to ask me questions about when I entered SA. I then presented my visa application receipt. He did not know what to do with it, so he asked another officer. In the end, he stamped my visa and wrote “Sec 10” (whatever that means). When we returned to SA three days later, I once again only presented my passport. This time, an immigration officer stamped my visa without issue. The expiration date stamp is December 28, 2013. It seems that I just received a new 90 day visa. I successfully, but inadvertently, “border hopped.” The same officer looked at Bobbi’s passport and told Bobbi that she still had an existing visa, so Bobbi did not get a new 90 day visa.
So for anyone going through this process and wondering what to expect: If you apply and don’t hear anything back (it’s been 4 months since we applied with no word), don’t sweat it and keep your copy of the application with you. From our experiences, it does allow you to remain in South Africa as well as travel in and out without being fined.