Most people relocating to South Africa will require a visa. Citizens of visa-exempt countries such as the UK, Canada and the US  are allowed to remain in the country for 90 days as long as they are there for tourism or business purposes.

Anyone who is not from a visa-exempt country, as well as anyone wishing to stay in South Africa for a longer period with the intention of studying, volunteering or working, needs to apply for a visa at their nearest South African embassy beforehand.

Immigration regulations in South Africa have been known to change almost overnight. Therefore, anyone planning a move is advised to keep an eye on the latest updates from the Department of Home Affairs.  

Despite some improvements to the system, South African immigration processes are notoriously slow and regulations are often open to interpretation. Because applications are not points-based, but rather assessed on a case-by-case basis, it is increasingly difficult to navigate the application process. Expats  may wish to consult a registered immigration practitioner who will be familiar with the latest developments in this area and be able to offer the best insights.   

Expats planning on staying in South Africa for a period longer than 90 days will need a temporary residence visa. There are a variety of options available depending on a person’s reason for being in the country and what they intend to do while residing there. Temporary residence visas include the following: spousal visas, life partner visas, dependent visas, retirement visas, student visas, critical skills and general work visas. These visas are granted for a period between two and five years. 

Not every type of temporary residency visa will allow the holder to take up employment in South Africa.

Because South Africa has high rates of unemployment, being employed as a foreigner isn’t a straightforward process. The main criteria to obtain any sort of work visa is that a South African citizen must not be qualified to perform the job at the same capacity as the applicant. The documentation needed to prove this is a grey area and the success of an application is often at the discretion of the Department of Home Affairs. For this reason, it is best for applicants to have their employer sponsor and organise their visa application.

The main types of work visas are as follows.

In order to apply for a General Work Visa, expats must have a job offer from a South African employer. These visas are issued for the length of a work contract, up to a maximum of five years.

Employers need to prove that they were unable to find a South African or permanent resident for the position. Expat employees are also required to provide proof of their skills and qualifications. Furthermore, expat employees are not allowed to earn less than the average salary and benefits earned by locals employed in similar positions. 

This visa enables foreigners working within certain industries to enter South Africa without an offer of employment as long as they have the necessary qualifications listed on the government’s critical skills list.

Like the General Work Visa, Critical Skills Work Visas can be issued for a maximum of five years. Expats in possession of this type of visa need to prove to the authorities that they’ve obtained employment within 12 months of being issued the visa. Sectors identified on the critical skills list include agriculture, architecture, specialised financial jobs, information and communications technology, science and medicine. 

Expats being relocated to the South African branch of a multinational business will need to obtain an Intra-Company Transfer Visa. This visa is granted up to a period of four years. Required documentation includes an employment contract and letters from both the transferring office outside South Africa and the receiving office in the country.

This is a fairly straightforward visa to obtain as most companies applying on behalf of an expat employee will have had plenty of experience of doing so in the past. 

After expats have been living in South Africa for a certain period of time, they will become eligible to apply for permanent residency. The process varies depending on a person’s reason for wanting to remain in South Africa. In general, a permanent residency application can take anywhere between one and three years, but there are many reports of even longer processing.

The major benefit of having permanent residency is that it is valid for life and doesn’t require any further renewal once it is obtained.