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FACTSHEET: How to travel with children into and out of SA (and what is an unabridged birth certificate?)

This article is more than 8 years old

On 23 October 2015 the South African cabinet eased some of the immigration regulations for travelling with children. This factsheet has been updated to reflect that.

In June 2015 stricter requirements were put in place for children under the age of 18 and travelling to or from South Africa, whether they are citizens or from abroad. In many cases they have to carry their full, or “unabridged”, birth certificate when crossing South Africa’s borders.

Until early 2013, when a child was born in South Africa, they were issued as standard with an abridged birth certificate that showed only their mother’s name. Children born since then have been issued with an unabridged certificate showing the names of both parents.

Foreign children travelling to South Africa were initially required to carry with them a legal document, issued by the relevant authority in their home country, containing information similar to South Africa’s full birth certificate.

These requirements were part of large-scale changes to South Africa’s immigration laws that came into effect in May 2014. Following pleas from the tourism sector, Home Affairs minister Malusi Gigaba extended the requirement for children until June 2015 to afford parents more time to prepare.

Government said the change was necessary to combat child trafficking. Others have complained that it will not deter criminals and hurt tourism.

Who needs to get a full birth certificate?

Every South African child who is going to travel internationally and was born between June 1995 and 4 March 2013, when the department of home affairs started issuing full birth certificates only, needs to get one.

When travelling, the original birth certificate must be carried and not a certified copy, Tshepiso Modupi at Home Affairs’ customer service centre, told Africa Check. (Note: There is contradicting information on this requirement with Home Affairs' official leaflet stating: "All documents must be original or copies certified as a true copy of the original by a commissioner of oaths or the equivalent commissioning authority, should commissioners of oath not be a practice in the country concerned." Several Africa Check readers have also confirmed they were able to use certified copies.)

Parents can apply at any Home Affairs office for a fee of R75 and need to take their identity documents and the child’s abridged birth certificate. South Africans abroad can apply at their closest embassy.

The process takes between six and eight weeks, said Modupi.

For children from abroad, the requirement to carry a similar document to South Africa’s full birth certificate was relaxed in October 2015 to deal with the law's "unintended consequences". (Read: A drop in tourist numbers.)

Before 4 March 2013, South African children were issued as standard with an abridged birth certificate that only showed their mother's details.

Home Affairs wouldn't provide Africa Check with an example of the unabridged birth certificate so we created our own by disguising a relatives's documents.

Legalities and potential pitfalls

If both parents are not travelling with a child, more documents will need to be presented at South Africa’s ports of entry. This is compulsory in the case of South African children. Children from visa-exempt countries are strongly advised to carry these documents as necessary, while children needing a visa will have to present it during the application process where it applies.

When only one parent is travelling with a child: The parent staying at home must provide an affidavit providing consent to the child travelling with the other parent, as well as copy of their identity document or passport, Pretoria immigration attorney Julian Pokroy explained to Africa Check. The affidavit may not be older than six months.

When couples are divorced: The Immigration Amendment Act is not entirely clear on the requirements in the case that parents are divorced. Pokroy suggested that a certified copy of the divorce order should be carried in addition to the letter of consent from the other parent and a copy of their identity document. If the parent not travelling with the child has refused to give consent, then the other parent will have to get a court order, he said.

When one parent has died: If one of the parents has died, a certified copy of the death certificate must be taken along.

When the father is unknown: The mother will need to show an affidavit saying that she is solely responsible for the child, said Mayihlome Tshwete, spokesman for the Minister of Home Affairs.

When parents are the same sex: The full birth certificate allows for same-sex parents. “This is called A and B parents,” Home Affairs minister Malusi Gigaba tweeted recently.

When children are travelling without their parents: The Immigration Amendment Act states that the child must carry an affidavit from his parents confirming that he has permission to travel without them – whether alone, or with a relative, school group or friends – as well as copies of his parents’ identity documents and contact details. When travelling with a relative or another adult, a copy of the unabridged birth certificate can be used.

When a child is travelling alone to South Africa: The child must carry a letter from the person that will be receiving him in South Africa, containing the person’s address and contact details, as well as a copy of the host’s identity document or passport. In this case, the Immigration Amendment Act makes no mention of carrying a birth certificate.

Complaints against the new requirement:


  • It will hurt tourism


An open letter from twenty international airlines last year called South Africa’s new immigration requirements – including the need to apply for a South African visa in person – a “tourism, PR, economic and political disaster”.

It is not, of course, possible to say today whether or not it will be a disaster. However, Cape Town immigration attorney Craig Smith told Africa Check that he has “never come across a country that doesn’t have a full birth certificate”. Smith also said that in his experience a letter of permission is often required for children travelling with only one parent in most countries.

Africa Check contacted the US embassy, known for its strict immigration requirements. The embassy said that the US Customs and Border Protection agency “strongly recommend” an authorisation letter that is notarised.

“While [the border protection agency] may not ask to see this documentation, if we do ask, and you do not have it, you may be detained until the circumstances of the child traveling without both parents can be fully assessed,” the agency’s website explains.

“Adults traveling with children should also be aware that, while the US does not require this documentation, many other countries do; failure to produce notarised permission letters and/or birth certificates could result in travellers being refused entry [to said country].”

  • It won't prevent child trafficking


Liesl Muller and Patricia Erasmus, both attorneys at Lawyers for Human Rights, said in an email to Africa Check the measures will not prevent child trafficking.

“Real human traffickers don’t follow legitimate and documented methods of travel but cross the border in illegitimate and clandestine circumstances. The regulations won’t prevent this.

Therefore so-called ‘innocent’ people may be on the receiving end of regulations intended to target human traffickers,” they said.

Muller and Erasmus added: “The unabridged certificates are useless if the authenticity cannot be verified at the border.” (Note: Spokesman Tshwete did not respond to repeat queries about the security features of the full birth certificate.)

The director of the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria, Professor Ann Skelton, said her centre thinks the new requirement is “far too broad and that the inconvenience to ordinary people far outweighs the actual risk of trafficking”.

She said reports of huge numbers of child trafficking victims are not backed up by hard research, as Africa Check has previously found. - 03/09/2015

Additional information

Home Affairs customer service centre: 0860 60 11 90

FACTSHEET: Understanding human trafficking

Are 30,000 children really ‘trafficked’ in South Africa every year? The claim exaggerates the problem

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