South African Work Visa Explained


First thing’s first. The SA government wants you to visit. They’d love for you to spend your money on a safari all day every day because what developing country wouldn’t want you to spend your money on them? No visa is required for any Americans/Canadians vacationing for up to three months.

That’s where the easy stuff stops as getting a work visa is a completely different story. Of the many many people that I’ve talked to that have gone to work abroad for long periods of time, I didn’t hear ONE story where they praised the swiftness of their destination country’s embassy in processing their visas, first world or third world for that matter. All recounts were the same; the process took ages and was was so inefficient, it made getting your drivers license at the DMV seem like a day spa.


The Process and the Required Forms

South Africa has a huge unemployment problem. Johannesburg itself suffers from a 25% unemployment rate (mainly in unskilled and semi-skilled workforce). Compare that to the 8% we have in the US which consumed the narrative of the last election, and you can get an idea how bad it is in South Africa. Therefore, they make it incredibly hard for foreigners to work in the country since it wouldn’t look good if we’re taking all the jobs that they could potentially give to the locals and help lower the unemployment rate. If you must work in South Africa however, there are a few different types of work permits:

  • Quota work permit: As part of its economic growth plan, the government has made a pre-determined number of visas available to address skills shortages in certain occupations, such as engineers, artisans and technical skills.
  • General work permit: Issued to foreigners with general qualifications who intend to work in South Africa
  • Exceptional skills work permit: This is for highly skilled or exceptionally qualified foreign nationals who want to work in South Africa.
  • Intra-company transfer work permit: Granted to those who are being transferred by their company to work in a South African branch
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Their official website can be found here. The one I applied for was the General work permit (can’t imagine I’d have any exceptional skills that one of the 50 million South Africans didn’t have). Once I finalized the contract with the SA office, I was then put in contact with a 3rd party consultants that specialized in the visa process. For the sake of professionalism, I will refer to them as “the consultants” for the rest of the post.

The first thing they had to do was put my job description out to the public to gauge demand and make sure there weren’t many people that can do my job, which I think is actually quite standard with most countries and getting a work visa. I’m sure there are many many people in SA that can do my job but  I won’t argue with them, and just let them do their thing. Then comes the endless amounts of paperwork I had to submit to the consultants. These include

  • 255$ certified check & 2 passport photos
    Pretty standard. Any work visa application will require passport photos and a certified check of some amount.
  • Medical Certificate
    There will be forms as a part of the whole visa package from the South African Government, and this is one of them. You have to just take this to your local doctor, and he will stamp it if you seem to be in good health. This should be easy.
  • Radiological Report
    You must go to the radiologist to get your chest scanned (this is for tuberculosis), and the results will be sent back to your doctor, see above, and if he likes the results, he’ll stamp it.
  • Original USA Police Clearance Certificate (if you’re an American citizen)
    This was a huge pain in the ass to get. You must go to your local police precinct and get fingerprints done old school style in ink. You’ll have a form that the people preparing your visa should give you, you then bring this to the precinct and ask for the fingerprint person to get it done. This cost me 25$ and you MUST get a certified check. The actual process was awful, the people here are very unfriendly and you feel like you might as well be a criminal. Call ahead of time to make sure their fingerprint specialist is in before going. About a month later, you’ll receive an FBI report that states you have a clean criminal record, this will then be included in the visa application.
  • Passport copy
    Pretty straight forward. Just photocopy your passport ID page.
  • Certified copy of Signed Employment Contract
    On your contract, initial every page and sign the contract, PDF it and send it through.
  • Copy of your University degree and academic record
    This part caused me some serious headaches. Never in my life has any company I’ve worked for ever ask me for my transcript or my diploma. Even my first employer out of college didn’t ask for anything. I could have attended community college and majored in dance for all they cared but they didn’t. The South African government does. They need two things for the SAQA, a certificate that the government issues to determine what tier of education you have. This certificate is then submitted with your visa application to make sure what you’re being compensated somewhat in line with what people make in SA. So you must submit a photocopy of the bachelor’s, masters, or doctorate diploma depending on how educated you are probably framed and mounted at your parents house (who would have thought you’d ever need this thing after graduation), and you must submit an official copy of your transcript. I initially submitted an unofficial copy of it thinking that would be fine but nope, they REQUIRE official transcripts and you must request these straight from your school. Have the school mail it to you and you can break the seal, don’t worry, and then send a scanned copy to your consultants. They just need to see a copy of your transcript that doesn’t have any sort of watermark saying it is unofficial.
  • Copy of CV
    Pretty standard, update your resume somewhat and submit accordingly.

The SAQA form that you will need to have for your application.

These are just the forms that YOU are responsible for obtaining. There are other forms that must be filled out by your company or whomever they hired to prepare your visa. This includes filling out the actual visa form, putting an ad out in a South African newspaper to advertise the job and subsequently receiving resumes from applicants that otherwise will prove to the government that there is no one qualified enough to take this job besides yourself. Again, you do not need to worry about this part.

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Once I submitted all my forms to the consultants, they will then apply for the SAQA certificate and this can take upwards of 1 month to attain. During this time, they will also put the advertisements in the newspaper and take care of that whole process. 1.5 months after I initially made contact with the consultants, they finally sent me my application which included all the visa forms, the SAQA certificate, an actual South African newspaper with my job posting, photocopies of everyone’s passport that was involved in preparing your application. You’ll then take this to the South African consulate in NYC (38th and 1st) and if they like your application, they will accept it and your visa will be ready in 1-2 months (hopefully). To reiterate, this application is for a US Citizen applying for a South African general work permit in NYC.


The First Trip to the Embassy

The outside of 333 East 38th

The outside of 333 East 38th

On the first of many trips I would make to the embassy, I got a good look at the building that I’d be coming back to numerous times in the next few months. The building is located on 333 East 38th Street 9th floor (38th and 1st) and couldn’t be located in a more inconvenient location. You’ll tell the front desk you’re here for the SA embassy and when you get to the 9th floor, the front desk there will have you sign in on a paper notebook and then you’ll be buzzed into the waiting area for the consulate. You will never speak with the consulate but rather some officials that work for them. They may seem unfriendly when you first talk to them but after going back numerous times, they are nice people. The consulate is only open Monday-Friday from 9am-1pm, you must go during this time to do anything related to visas.

After waiting for my turn, I am greeted by a lady that asks for my documents. Handing her the package that was mailed to me by the consultants, she spent about 5 minutes looking them over and told me one of the documents was not acceptable. This was my “offer letter” from my company in South Africa. The person that made the offer letter was not a South African citizen but rather an Australian on a work visa, and this is against policy. I was very distraught at this point because I had already delayed my trip for so long that I pleaded my case to her telling her I’ve been just sitting around in NYC doing nothing, waiting to depart for the UK which brings me to the next section…

Leaving the Country While Applying for South Africa Visa

One very important thing to note is that you must contact the consulate you’ll be submitting your application to if you have any questions at all. The consultants doing my visa specifically told me that I may not leave the country until I’ve submitted my application IN PERSON to the consulate. I was slated to leave for the UK as that was where my training and new team was so I had to continually delay my trip because the application had not been sent to me by the consultants.  After visiting the consulate with my application in hand, I told them just for shits and giggles that I have been waiting for this application for weeks and have been so delayed because I’m not allowed to leave the country before submitting the application.

The consulate was perplexed by this statement and specifically told me “There’s no reason that you should have stayed around; we know people need to travel for work or see their families, there’s no reason for us to require you to submit it in person. In fact, we have people coming in every day submitting applications on others behalf’s  I’m surprised you actually came in person.” This really blew my mind when I heard this because this means you DO NOT have to even go to the embassy to submit your application. Someone else can just drop everything off and you never have to see them. This meant I could have left for the UK at any point but instead I delayed it for a month!! The only time you must be in the country is when the visa is READY at which point, you will hand them your passport for a day or two so they can stamp it accordingly.

Again, make sure you call your local consulate because it may be different but the NYC consulate in particular, did not care to see me in person.

So after being denied on my first visit, I went back to my people with the news to which they took care of accordingly. I also told everyone of the news that I could leave the country to the surprise of everyone. The next day, I went back to the embassy to confirm everything just to convince myself I wasn’t hearing anything and then I was on my way to the UK that same day. Half a week later, with the right forms, my colleague brought my application to the embassy and everything was accepted. I was already in London, where I would subsequently visit Barcelona, Budapest, Amsterdam, Rome, and Marrakech.

So the lesson here is, call ahead and have any questions answered. In fact, you can visit the embassy in person as well with questions and do not need to make an appointment.


Collecting the Visa

6 weeks after the application was received, I am finally informed by the consultants that the visa was ready for collection. All they need now is just for me to fly back to the states, go back to the embassy, submit my passport and my flight itinerary for SA, and I’ll be good. I thought that this would be done quickly. I could just go in, give them my passport and flight itinerary, they’d stamp the passport, and I’d be on my way the same day.

Nope, definitely not this easy. I go in Monday morning, I tell them I was told the visas were ready for collection which is why we’re back, and they greet me with a “we have no idea what you’re talking about”. Wow. Shocked. Nevertheless, they keep my passport and tell me they’ll look into it and will tell you when they’re done.

The South African General Work Permit Visa

The SA General Work Permit Visa

Few days letter, my consultants tell me to return saying they’ve emailed with the consulate and have written confirmation via email that the visas were done. So Friday comes along, I go into the embassy, with the email in hand, hoping everything would be done. Not so fast. They see the email, tell me that it doesn’t mean anything and to return back Friday afternoon to and it would be done. Frustrated with having to return so many times, I decide I would just wait until Monday and enjoy my weekend which turned out to be a good choice.

The following Monday morning, I return to the embassy telling them I was there to pick up the visa, and they tell me once again that it is not done and that whomever told me to come pick it up Friday afternoon shouldn’t have done so (was a different official helping me out).

They tell me return later that morning which I do, and FINALLY, on May 13th @ 11:30am, my visa is in my hot little hands. 98 days from when I first made contact with the consultants, 7 visits to the consulate, and 49 days from when I submitted the application to the consulate did I finally receive my visa. My ordeal was finally done. The visa itself looks like nothing special. For something that took so long to process, I was hoping it would be an amazing sticker that would further make my passport look boss but instead, the visa is HAND WRITTEN and doesn’t even have my photo on there. Oh well, that’s beyond the point now, I’m just glad to have it.


Words of Wisdom

Like I stated at the beginning of this post, I’ve not heard from one person raving about how painless or quick their process was in getting a visa, no matter what company they worked for or the country they were applying for. If you’re applying for the visa that I applied for, you MUST go into it with the mindset that you are the project manager. If you wait around for other people to do it, no matter how much experience they have or money they’re paid, you could be going half a year before seeing anything.

At the end of the day, the people hired to do your visa are exactly that, other people. They’re not you. They will be able to answer most questions you have about your application and the process, but at the end of the day, they are not you and will not feel the same sense of urgency, frustration, and stress that you do. In addition, they probably have many other applications to worry about.

You must also go in knowing it will be a long, and arduous process that will indefinitely yield a headache at some point. This is an experience I won’t soon forget and hopefully this post will help out anyone else in the future. Best of luck if you must apply for a visa in the future, and you’ll get it done eventually!


Timeline of Events | Full View

Showing 7 comments
  • Clay thomas

    Hey Johnny !!

    Great share !!
    f you want to work in South Africa, there are several types of temporary work visas available depending on your job situation in South Africa: general employment, inter-company transfer, highly skilled migrant or business entrepreneur.As South Africa has a growing economy and manufacturing sector, South Africa has many job opportunities for skilled workers in various positions and increasingly foreigners are finding work in South Africa. However, there are fewer opportunities for employment in South Africa in unskilled or semi-skilled positions, of which there is already a vast supply of workers. Thus, the government encourages applications by skilled workers in occupations for which there is a shortage in the country; the most recent list of critical skills lists almost 35,000 positions across 53 different categories.

    Keep posting !!
    Warm regards
    Clay thomas recently posted…Upcoming changes to accredited sponsorshipMy Profile

  • Immigration South Africa

    This is truly a great write-up of events around the process of obtaining a visa. We thoroughly agree with the part about being a project manager if you are going to apply for your visa or permit to South Africa yourself. However, naturally we don’t agree with the other part, namely that paid visa services aren’t as good or fast as an applicant can be, especially not with applying for visas to South Africa. In countries where there are numerous hurdles around the ability of those working for government, as is the case in SA’s immigration department (the Department of Home Affairs), the truth is that you are much better off using a company who has ample experience and often good contacts in the right places. Also, the changes to laws recently (May 2014) have made work visas specifically far more arduous and rejection is now a real risk.

    For tourist visas (for those who are not visa-exempt) and perhaps one or two other visa types, you could go it alone, but for work visas, business visas, etc there is simply no reason to risk a slight error on your part or a slight lack of knowledge of the new laws.

    That said, again, what a great post!

    • Johnny

      Thanks for the comment! I absolutely agree you should not attempt to get a work visa on your own but it was just in my situation, with the “experts” my company hired to do it, that I felt like I was applying for it on my own. I was without a doubt, the main project manager for the process and wasn’t getting paid for it!

      Just curious, as this post is 2 years old, what are some big differences nowadays in getting that elusive SA worik visa?
      Johnny recently posted…Cost of Living in Cape TownMy Profile

      • Immigration South Africa

        Hi again Johnny! The main differences are things such as having to apply in person (mandatory now) and being unable to change your visa status while in SA. This, with some exceptions, means that entering on a tourist visa means to get a work visa you have to return to your country of residence to do so. There are also some changes around traveling with children and some regarding amounts needed in the bank for business and retirement visas.
        Immigration South Africa recently posted…False rejection of SA visas problematicMy Profile

  • Guest


  • Kelly ERMIS

    Hi Johnny,

    I just wanted to thank you for taking the
    time to write such an informative blog. I am an American who has been
    living in France the past 13 years and I am now moving to Johannesburg
    at the end of the month. I really enjoy your style of writing (you are
    also a talented photographer) and you have been a big help with all the
    logistical planning details. If it is any comfort, the visa process was
    a complete nightmare at the embassy in Paris as well. Your advice
    about being a project manager is spot on. I am so glad to read about
    your positive experiences, it is a breath of fresh air to read something
    good about JoBurg. We have visited South Africa before and love it but
    we are completely new to JoBurg, but I really have no doubts that we
    will enjoy it as much as you are. Take care and know that you continue
    to be a big help to us newcomers ! I have also recommended your blog to
    friends and family to get a good feel of what I am getting myself into
    and they too are quite impressed.

    Kind regards,

    • Johnny Chen
      Johnny Chen

      Thanks for the nice words Kelly and I’m happy I could help you out! The visa process is certainly something I won’t soon forget but it was a necessary experience. It’s been 5 months for me now and I’m still very much enjoying myself. You guys will love it here!

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