- International travel is slowly reopening to South African passport holders.
- But months of pandemic-induced travel bans, coupled with reduced staffing at processing centres and embassies, has led to a major backlog of visa applications.
- Both the United States and British High Commission in South Africa have warned of long delays in issuing visas.
- For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
International restrictions imposed on South African travellers are slowly lifting – but a serious visa backlog still hampers overseas journeys.
South Africa, thanks to expertise in identifying new coronavirus variants, has been battered by travel restrictions throughout the pandemic.
Omicron-induced travel bans, criticised as being unscientific, discriminatory, and ineffective at curbing the new variant's spread, are now being reversed. North America, parts of Europe, and Australia have reopened to travellers from South Africa.
But getting to these open countries isn't an easy or quick task for South African passport holders. Months of ongoing travel bans, coupled with reduced staffing capacity at processing centres and embassies has led to a backlog of visa applications.
Almost all countries in Europe require South Africans to get a visa. The same is true for Canada, and the United States. Entry to Australia, which only recently reopened to South Africans after banning foreign travellers since the start of the pandemic, is only open to those holding a specific subclass of visa.
These respective embassies have been inundated with visa applications. Not all of these embassies are operating at full capacity, with reduced on-site staff in line with Covid-19 safety measures, and applications are piling up. This is also being experienced at visa processing centres in the private sector.
"As lockdowns and restrictions across South Africa slowly lift and international borders start to reopen, VFS Global is resuming services in a phased manner for its client governments," VFS Global, the world's largest visa outsourcing firm, told Business Insider South Africa.
"Reopened visa application centres are now operating with limited capacity by adhering to the mandated health and safety guidelines, local government directives, and mission requirements. Customers may encounter longer waiting times, as this may include limited appointment slots for some countries and only in certain cities."
Embassies are ultimately responsible for the issuing – or denying – of a visa after receiving the application from VFS Global.
"Turnaround timelines for assessment and the final visa decision remain the sole prerogative of the Embassy/Consulate," said VFS Global.
"With the high demand for visas that is being experienced now, it may take longer to process applications in some cases."
The US, since reopening to South African travellers at the end of December, confirmed a backlog of visa appointment requests, noting "that it may take several months to schedule an interview appointment."
"Please note that the rescission of P.P. 10315 [presidential proclamation prohibiting travel] does not necessarily mean that your local US embassy or consulate is able to immediately schedule all affected applicants for visa interviews," noted the US bureau of consular affairs on 28 December.
The British High Commission issued a similar warning after it removed South Africa from its red list in mid-December.
"We are experiencing extremely high demand on our visa services globally as we work through existing and new applications," noted the British High Commission in South Africa.
"Now that we can resume processing applications, we will do so as quickly as possible – but we regret the interruption to our services may mean significant delays."
Australia also reports a backlog of visa applications, with access generally limited to skilled, student, humanitarian, working-holiday traveller, and provisional family visa holders. These processing times, range from around four months to more than a year, dependent on the type of visa applied for.