Earlier this month, we enjoyed an unbelievable trek through Africa with boat rides, camping and a lot of animals. The trip included so many highlights! Our first night we went camping inside a rhino sanctuary in the Kalahari Desert. We did a sunset cruise on the Chobe River and watched a family of elephants bathing at sundown. We wrapped up in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. To be cliche, we felt truly #blessed during the entire experience. That was until the last day of our tour when we would head to Cape Town. There, we would spend four nights on our own before returning to Copenhagen. Unfortunately, this was impossible due to an issue meeting South African passport requirements.
Getting into South Africa
Our two-week adventure began in Johannesburg, South Africa. There we met an old friend and checked out the countryside and the Apartheid Museum. South Africa visa requirements were not on our minds as we traveled. Americans are permitted visa-free entry in South Africa. We received one stamp in our passports when we arrived and thought nothing of moving through security at the airport. I knew my passport was close to full, but I believed I had four empty pages and several other pages with space for new stamps. With no issues, so far, we enjoyed our first few days in Johannesburg. Our plans included joining our tour group and beginning our travels into Botswana and then Zimbabwe. We felt confident moving around Africa as all three nations allow visa-free entry for Americans.
The issue with South African passport requirements
Sure, we got into South Africa with no problem a couple weeks earlier. However, the problem occurred when we attempted to reenter. On the last day of our tour, we made our way to the Victoria Falls Airport. Once there, we approached Kenya Airlines to get our boarding passes. We were excited to fly from Victoria Falls to Cape Town South Africa. We were shocked when the agent examined my passport and said, “Unfortunately, Mr. Derek cannot fly to South Africa today.”
We first thought this was a joke. There was room in my passport and I already traveled there with no issues. Then the panic began to set in. We thought this was perhaps a scam and someone looking for cash in order to print out our boarding passes. The agent walked us to the manager of the airline and he reinforced what the desk agent explained.
He told us that the problem was not with them, but with South Africa’s requirements for entry. Although Americans do not need a visa to enter South Africa, there are specific requirements that I did not meet. If I boarded the plane and was denied entry to South Africa, the airline would be responsible to fly me back to Zimbabwe. Specifically, the South African passport requirements are as followed.
Machine readable valid passport with at least two (2) unused (blank) pages labeled Visa when presented at the Embassy or Consulate; one page for affixing the visa or permit by the embassy/consulate and the other page for endorsement of entry/departure stamp by the South African Immigration Services. Passport must be valid for 30 more days after the intended return date from South Africa.Port of Entry Visa (Tourist Visa): Section 11(1) – 90 days or less
What to do when you can’t board a plane
The issue I had was a lack of empty pages in my passport. I had two blank pages in the rear of my passport. Unfortunately, there were not labeled “visa” and I didn’t know there was a difference. So did I just live in Zimbabwe at that point?
The managers suggested that we travel to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, and seek emergency documents to enter South Africa. Unfortunately, it was Saturday, so this would be impossible for the next two days. Complicating things even more, Zimbabwe does not have a currency and the ATMs do not have cash. This makes even common transactions difficult and we did not feel comfortable taking the risk of being stuck in Harare.
We also considered alternative flight options, but knew we would be denied entry to South Africa. Aside from flying back to Copenhagen early, there were few flight options available. We ultimately decided to head back to our resort and contact Qatar Airways, the airline flying us home.
Making the most of the situation
It was crucial for us to remain calm as things started to crumble. We returned to the hotel and the staff at Shearwater Village helped us reset our trip. They were fantastic! They made phone calls for us and helped us secure a room there as long as we needed one.
There was also a silver lining, as we were able to enjoy one final night with most members of our tour. We enjoyed a sunset river cruise (with open bar) and it was the perfect goodbye. The next day, many of our friends from the tour moved on. We also used the extra time to embark on some adventure tours that make Victoria Falls famous. This included white water rafting, zip lines from Zambia to Zimbabwe and bungee jumping into the Victoria Falls gorge. It wasn’t our original plan, but we would have missed out on these experiences had we not been kept in Zimbabwe.
Besides the extra time in Victoria Falls, we were able to add a stop in Doha, Qatar on our way home. Qatar Airways has a fantastic tourism program in conjunction with the government of Qatar. They provide 24-72 hour layovers for tourists to see Doha visa-free. This was a cool way to end our trip, with a day relaxing by the pool of our hotel, swimming in the Persian Gulf and dinner in Souq Waqif, the old market of Doha.
What you need to know about South African passport requirements
There’s a lot to know before you travel. Of course, you should be aware of travel advisories and warnings, vaccination requirements and most importantly visa and passport requirements wherever you are traveling.
My mistake was twofold. First, I believed that visa-free entry meant all I needed was room for a stamp in my passport. This was sadly not the case, as South African passport requirements are different and mandate 2 consecutive blank “visa” pages. Americans can search the countries they are visiting on the US State Department’s online database under “quick facts.”
Also, I wrongly believed that the blank pages in the rear of my passport would be accepted upon entry. I still have not figured out what the endorsement pages are used for, but I now know that a “visa” label is crucial for entering some countries. I also learned the hard way that Zimbabwe will apply a full-page visa sticker to your passport and that one Botswana passport agent will stamp on the first open page he sees. That also limited my available pages compared to my arrival in Johannesburg airport.
Through this experience, I learned that you can ask passport control where in your passport to apply a stamp. I also learned that when you get down to 5 pages, you should just get a renewal. Within a week of being home, I went to the US embassy in Copenhagen and had my old passport sent away for the processing of a new one. The new passport arrived quickly. I luckily received the “extra-page passport” with 52 pages (including endorsement pages).
Maybe we learned a lesson the hard way, but it worked out well in the end. I know I will be more careful in the future. My passport will never get that full before I request a new one and I will always check the requirements before traveling. We will have to return to South Africa in order to experience Cape Town, but we will be certain of the South African passport requirements then.