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South Africa’s ground-breaking new e-visa system

Government has its sight firmly set on boosting international tourism numbers to the country as the innovative new electronic visa (e-visa) system is introduced.

After months of development, the Department of Home Affairs launched a trial of its new e-visa system in November. The initiative is an exciting step towards reducing the red tape that travellers face when they want to travel to South Africa and, at full implementation, the system is expected to significantly boost economic opportunities.

Thanks to the new system, authorisations for trusted travellers and returning South African nationals will be processed electronically, eliminating the need to interact with immigration personnel.

The need for an e-visa system

Tourism continues to be a significant contributor to our economy. However, as international tourist numbers have not been growing at the desired rates, President Cyril Ramaphosa prompted government departments to introduce new initiatives to boost tourism.

In his State of the Nation Address in June, President Ramaphosa said that through these interventions, government will seek to double international annual tourist arrivals to 21 million by 2030.

“This will be achieved through the renewal of the country’s brand, introducing a world-class visa regime, and a significant focus on Chinese and Indian markets and air arrivals from the rest of our continent,” he said.

The e-visa system will make the entire process of applying for a visa and managing visa applications far more efficient for tourists and the Department of Home Affairs, as everything is managed online.

“Countries that benefit the most from increased visitor flows and revenue are those that have liberal visa regimes that nevertheless ensure that they are not exposed to undue risk. We want to be such a country,” President Ramaphosa said at the launch of the e-visa system in October.

How is the e-visa process being implemented?

The e-visa system saves travellers significant time and money, as there is no need to go to an embassy or consulate to complete the application process.

All information can be submitted online, including names, addresses, dates of birth and passport details. Applicants are required to have a valid passport, an email address and a debit or credit card. Once a traveller’s application has been approved, it will be sent to the email address the applicant provided.

Department of Home Affairs spokesperson Siya Qoza said the entire application process should take only 20 minutes, provided the applicant has all of the necessary supporting documents ready for submission. “Should one of the required documents be missing, applicants can resume the process exactly where they left off, at a later date,” he said.

The e-visa system is in its pilot phase, with e-visa applications open to Kenyan residents at present, explained Qoza. “The pilot will be conducted with Kenya first, at the OR Tambo and Lanseria Airports. We will then evaluate the project and look at which other countries to expand the e-visa system to,” he said.

This phase of the project will enable the department to identify any issues with the system and find solutions. After the trial period, the department will consider rolling it out to countries from which a high number of visa applications are received, such as India, China, United Kingdom, Unites States, Canada and Nigeria.

Tourism associations have lauded the move. David Frost, the CEO of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association, said the e-visa system will remove a major obstacle to tourism. “As an industry, we need to eliminate as many barriers to inbound tourism as we can to grow tourism to South Africa,” he said.

Other visa changes to boost tourism

The department has made additional changes to the visa system, to further boost tourism to the country.

In November, Home Affairs Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi signed a waiver which allows foreign children to enter South Africa without carrying additional supporting documents, such as birth certificates and consent letters. “This improvement in our admissions policy builds on the work the department has been doing to contribute to economic growth and investment,” Minister Motsoaledi said.

He also highlighted successes in lowering turnaround times for visa applications, saying that turnaround times for critical work skills visas are now issued within four weeks, for 88.5 percent of applications.

Government has also recently waived visas for travellers from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, New Zealand, Cuba, Ghana, Sao Tome and Principe, while talks are underway with a number of countries to allow visa-free access for South African citizens.

Minister Motsoaledi has made it clear that all changes to visa regulations are being carried out with sufficient regard to the safety and security of South Africa. “The Department of Home Affairs is constantly reviewing its operations to ensure that we relax entry requirements, without compromising our responsibility towards the safety and security of our citizens.”

Airport e-gates on the horizon

The Department of Home Affairs also confirmed that government is working alongside the Airports Company South Africa to pilot e-gates at South Africa’s airports.

The e-gates will allow South African passport holders, who are travelling internationally, to access self-service immigration clearance, including biometric verification, passport authenticity and checking against the Biometric Movement Control System risk engine – a system which tracks travellers with criminal records or a history of overstaying visas.

“The broad objective of the project is the facilitation of low-risk travellers, through a self-service solution, hence freeing capacity for the assessment of high-risk categories by an immigration officer,” said the department.

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