A guide to work visas for South Africa
Many foreigners wish to work in South Africa. It’s super beautiful and has an awesome standard of living if you earn well, which they usually do as expats or with rare skills that can’t easily be found in SA. Work visas for South Africa, though, are tough to obtain, due to a poorly performing Department of Home Affairs (DHA).
Due to this, most companies and individual workers opt to pay a service provider (usually an immigration lawyer) to prepare their application, assist them in lodging it and also help with the application process in general, until collecting the outcome and representing them in the case of an incorrect rejection (this happens often!).
If you are not South African and you want to work in the country, you must apply for a work visa. You cannot start working until you obtain one of the work visas for South Africa. All the work visas now contain a company name on the visa itself, and moving to a new company requires a new application process.
The main types of work visa
First off, the wording is work visa and not permit. Permits are the word used for permanent residence permits. All temporary documents are called visas. If you work in South Africa for 5 years or longer on work visas, you can apply for a permanent residence permit on this basis. (Some work visas [e.g. critical skills] allow you to apply straight away.)
There are four main kinds of work visa and the others are mentioned below them in the last few paragraphs of this post. However, most of them will not apply to you and the vast majority of people can only apply for the first two.
- Critical skills work Visa
- General work visa
- Intra-company transfer work visa
- Individual corporate worker Visa
The most important visa to focus on is the critical skills work visa, which is easiest to obtain and affords you the most benefits if you qualify for it. To find out if you do, read further and check your skill on the critical skills work visa list. Of all the other work visas for South Africa, perhaps the best ones are those where you basically relocate within the same company.
Critical skills work visas
This is the work visa you want. If you don’t qualify for it, then your options are limited, although not exhausted. But it is by far the most advantageous visa to have if you look at all the work visas for South Africa. The most important reasons are:
- It can be obtained without a job offer
- It can be renewed or extended
- It is valid for up to 5 years
- It counts towards permanent residence [PR] (and sometimes allows you to apply for PR immediately)
- It can be obtained relatively quickly (if applied for outside of South Africa at certain consulates/missions)
- It does not require you to jump through as many hoops to obtain
Although you still have to re-apply if you move to a new job at a new company, your chances of success at that are much higher if you already have a critical skills work visa in your possession.
So, do you qualify? If you have the right skills, you do. Check the Critical Skills Work Visa list and search for your skills or one that you qualify in. The exact business title is not important at this stage (although it is when you apply), just make sure you have experience in the skill mentioned.
From there you can look to see how you can prove you have it. Qualifications matter, as does experience. For example, if you are a Human Resources Director with a degree in commerce or business, you may notice a category for “Corporate General Manager” where you will probably be able to qualify. Later, you may need to change your business title to Corporate General Manager – HR to satisfy a clerk at the DHA, but that is something your immigration lawyer can advise you on.
You also need to be sure you can register with an organisation or industry body relevant to your skill. For programmers or developers, for example, it is the IITPSA (Institute of IT Professionals South Africa). you may never have heard of this organisation, even South African workers probably haven’t, but you have to register. For some professions, this does cause a problem. Engineers, for example, have to register with ECSA (Engineering Council of South Africa), which takes a long time (sometimes over a year), whereas the IITPSA takes only a few days.
Once you are ready to apply, you set an appointment with your local consulate (if you are abroad) or if you can apply within SA (check first that you really can!) then with VFS (Visa Facilitation Services). Applications submitted abroad for temporary visas are usually in much shorter queues and I have seen visas done in 3 days at the South African embassy in Denmark, for example. Some job seekers even fly back to their country to apply for and obtain the work visa, then return to SA to start working.
A critical skills work visa without a job offer allows you to look for work for 12 months in South Africa. Once you find work, you have to re-apply with the signed job offer and then receive a new work visa with the company’s name on it. If you don’t find work in 12 months, you may not get a renewal, as clearly your skills are not that critical after all. If you change to a new job at a new company while on a critical skills work visa, you have to re-apply with the new company job offer and you’ll get a new work visa issued. This is all very tedious and not advised – choose your job wisely! The work visas for South Africa all require a company name on them, so there is no getting away from that (in the past one could). Worth reiterating is that you are not allowed to start working without a valid work visa already in your possession.
With 5 years working experience in your field and an offer of permanent employment from a company, you can also look to apply for permanent residence later once you have the critical skills work visa. This is another kettle of fish worth asking an immigration lawyer about.
General work visas
This visa category has become a dinosaur, with almost no-one applying for it any longer. It is the equivalent of the work visa most countries have that forces you to prove that the company couldn’t easily have found a local incumbent for the position. To prove this, however, requires you to jump through numerous hoops, one of which involves applying to the Department of Labour (DoL) to adjudicate your skills and they inform the DHA as to whether or not you can apply. Unfortunately, the DoL is yet another slow-moving and incompetent government department, and few if any general work visas ever make it to a positive outcome.
It would be insane to try and apply for this unless you have ample time and money, which no-one really does, let alone any company who needs your skills soonest. The advice here is clear – stay away from this work visa type. Even immigration lawyers choosing between the work visas for South Africa are saying they will not help you if you wish to apply for it.
Intra-company work visas
These are for employees of overseas companies that are moving to the South African branch of the company. The employee must have worked for the firm for at least 6 months by the time of application. Most work visas for South Africa have very few benefits and this one is no exception. It doesn’t count towards permanent residency and it is very difficult to extend in the event you need to stay longer. It was originally devised for companies that require expats or project workers for a longer period than the 90 days that a visitors visa allows.
These are well managed and usually successful if applied for correctly, although there are many hidden traps and tricks to getting them. If you qualify under this South African work visa type, your company usually gets involved and the process is typically faster and cheaper (for you). Advise your organisation to use an immigration lawyer to be sure of a result.
Individual corporate worker visas
If your company has a corporate visa, which allows them to hire a certain amount of a certain skill in a certain time period, and you are one of those skills they are hiring, they will help you apply for an individual corporate worker visa. You are bound to the company, of course, and this visa also isn’t easy to renew or extend. If you wish to move to a new company, you’ll need to apply for a new work visa for South Africa in the right category.
“Spousal” work visas (and your family)
There is no such visa as a “spousal visa”. If you are married to or in a permanent relationship with a South African, you can apply for a relatives visa (on which you may live in SA, but not work). You can then apply for a work endorsement on this visa, for which you only need a permanent contract of employment. Once you receive the endorsement, your visa will be a visitors visa with the ability to stay longer (up to 3 years), live with your spouse and work in a specific company. While this sounds great, and is, know that banks do not allow visitors visa holders to hold accounts, so you’ll have to work around that.
If you have a valid temporary work visa, you can apply for a further visa for your wife, children and any other relatives within the first degree of kinship (e.g. your mother or father). However, you do need to show that you can support them, since on their visas (a temporary accompanying dependant relative visa), they may not work. Your children may or may not need study visas to go to school or university.
If your relative wants to work, they would need a work visa of their own as per the above options. If you have permanent residence in South Africa, your spouse can apply for work much more easily and does not need to qualify as above, other than having a signed permanent contract of employment.
Other work visas for South Africa
There are some other work visa options, such as short-term work visas that are literally for people like film crew or those coming to work in South Africa for a few days only. Usually they come in on visitors visas and get endorsed with a letter at the border entry point. There are diplomatic work visas and those for workers coming in on ships, but again, these probably don’t apply to anyone reading this article. If you have the need for a work visa for South Africa not described on this page, please add it in the comments and I’ll gladly include it.
Paying for immigration services
In my opinion, I would pay to get this all done. And I have done so for someone in my past. The main reason is that you don’t know what you don’t know. There are a million ways that the process can go wrong and suddenly you sit with a company that isn’t interested in hiring you any longer. Immigration lawyers know people within Home Affairs and other places who are often key to get things moving.
The only other piece of very important advice is that you only deal with an immigration lawyer. Not a “consultant”, “agent”, “specialist”, “practitioner” (practitioners are no longer recognised in the Immigration Act) or “”. If they do not have a lawyer in their company, end the call, put down the phone and find a proper immigration law firm. The cost is not prohibitive and worth every single cent. Usually, immigration lawyers charge a fixed fee, so you don’t have mounting legal bills and know how much it will cost upfront. The costs are mostly within the ZAR10,000 to ZAR15,000 (just under $1,000 in January 2017) range for the full process.
Trust me, don’t try and do it yourself. You will read many stories of people who have successfully received their visas on their own – they do not know how lucky they are. Because for every story of a success, there are thousands of failures. The Department of Home Affairs regularly rejects visas that do qualify and the poor person then has to represent themselves somehow or return home – the risk is just too high.
All in all, to recap, the critical skills work visa is the way to go. If you don’t qualify and have no relatives in South Africa, or work for a company already based in the country, it will be very difficult for you to get work in the country, unfortunately. There may be other options for you in terms of works visas for South Africa: through a business visa or retirement visa – get hold of my assistance on the contact page and I can direct you to some very good immigration lawyers.
Read more! Here is a link to a follow up article on hiring foreign developers for South Africa, due to requests I have had for it from companies and recruiters.