FACTSHEET: What are the different types of residence permits available in South Africa?

This factsheet explains the different types of residence permits available to foreign-born migrants in South Africa.

The requirements for entering South Africa differ from country to country and, as many parents coming into the country recently discovered, are subject to change from time to time. Passport holders from around 130 countries are currently exempt from requiring a visa for travel and business purposes, for periods of between 30 and 90 days. For non-residents (and their relatives or dependents) wishing to stay longer, or who intend to work, study, retire or receive medical treatment in South Africa, and for refugees seeking asylum, separate permits must be applied for.  

Temporary Residence Visas & Permanent Residence Permits

Aside from visitors’ and transit visas, the Department of Home Affairs offers eight categories of temporary residence visas (TRVs), which cover applications ranging from business, study, work (there are several sub-categories), medical treatment, retirees, and permits for direct family relatives of applicants. Faith Munyati, an attorney at Lawyers for Human Rights’ (LHR) Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme, says that holders of relatives’ visas cannot work or study in South Africa, unless they apply for their own separate visas.

Foreign-born spouses or life partners (this includes same-sex partnerships) of South African citizens or permanent residents can apply for a “spousal” support visa if they do not qualify for a visa in their own right.

Refugees who have applied for asylum protection are required to follow a slightly different application process but may also apply for permanent residency if their refugee status is recognised. Asylum seekers are permitted to work and study in South Africa while their application is being evaluated or being adjudicated.

The Zimbabwe Special Dispensation Permit (ZSP) and Lesotho Special Permit (LSP) have recently been introduced for citizens of those respective countries.

Work Visas & Special Permits

South Africa has four different categories of work visas: a general work visa; a critical skills visa (which combines the older categories of ‘exceptional skills’ and ‘quota’ work visas); intra-company transfer visas, where for example an employee of a multi-national company is transferred to work in South Africa; and corporate visas.     

Manson Gwanyanya, a legal researcher on migration policy at the Legal Resources Centre, says obtaining an individual work permit is “very difficult in South Africa, unless you have some critical skills.”

The critical skills visa is issued in accordance with a regularly updated list of skills deemed critical for the country, determined by the minister of home affairs – the list ranges from sheep shearers to quantity surveyors, IT specialists, engineers, and even scientists studying cosmology and astronomy (thanks to the SKA project) – and requires applicants to prove their qualifications, professional experience, and registration with relevant professional bodies. This type of visa is valid for up to five years and may be renewed.

“The other route would be what we call a general work permit,” says Gwanyanya. “It’s also a very long process which requires that you have a letter of employment beforehand, and an employer must go through the Department of Labour and show that they couldn’t employ a South African citizen.”

General work permits are also valid for up to five years, and can be renewed.

While the critical skills and general work visas are for individuals, the intra-company transfer and corporate visas look to address companies’ operational needs. For intra-company transfers there is no need to prove that a South African citizen or permanent resident couldn’t be employed. In the case of corporate visas, however, employers must fulfil several requirements including demonstrating the need for foreign workers and proof that at least 60% of staff are permanently employed South African citizens or permanent residents. These companies must also ensure that their [non-resident] employees leave the country on completion of their duties (i.e. they cannot apply for permanent residency on the basis of these visas).

Foreign citizens who wish to work at a business they intend to establish or invest in need to apply for a business visa, which usually requires a capital investment of at least R5-million, a letter of recommendation from the Department of Trade and Industry, and guarantees that the business will employ at least 60% South African citizens or permanent residents.

The Zimbabwean Special Dispensation Permit (ZSP) was announced in August 2014 and launched in January 2015, replacing the older Dispensations of Zimbabweans Project (DZP) permits. The ZSPs were introduced in order to address the large number of Zimbabweans working and living in South Africa without the correct documentation. They are valid for up to three years and will expire at the end of 2017, after which all Zimbabweans will be required to apply for regular study, work or other permits or visas.  

The only other special permit available to citizens from SADC countries is the Lesotho Special Permit (LSP), also introduced in response to incorrect or fraudulent documents. Lesotho nationals who have been working, studying or doing business in South Africa without the correct permits since before 30 September 2015 are eligible. Applications for the LSP were recently extended from 30 June 2016 to 30 September 2016.

Permanent Residency

People who wish to legally remain in South Africa beyond their TRV’s validity period – or in a different capacity – must apply for a permanent residence permit (PRP).

“A residence permit is a document which will allow a foreign national to stay in the country permanently. Upon receiving it, you can apply for a South African green ID book,” says Bernard Toyambi, director of People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP).

Permanent residence applications are usually informed by the type of TRV that was held, and are processed in terms of the Immigration Act of 2002. There are 13 PRP categories, including for workers, business owners, dependents and relatives, retirees, and refugees.

Direct residence permits apply to “foreigners who have been residing in South Africa on the basis of their work permits for a minimum period of five years, their spouses and also to dependents of South African citizens/permanent residence permit holders”.

If you have a permanent work offer, “exceptional skills and qualifications”, intend to establish a business, are financially independent, are a relative of a South African citizen or PRP holder, are retired, or you qualify as a refugee, you may be eligible for a residency-on-other-grounds permit.

Immigration consultant Rod Maxwell says that, despite stipulations in the Immigration Act guaranteeing citizenship to children born to a South African parent, children with one foreign parent are not always automatically granted citizenship or a PRP, and may be required to remain in the country for an uninterrupted five-year period (in possession of a valid TRP) before qualifying for citizenship. Where one or both parents are foreign nationals with PRPs, a waiting period of 18 months for their children to receive a PRP is common.

Toyambi added: “A child born to a parent with South African citizenship or a PRP is not granted permanent residence automatically, but will be issued with an unabridged birth certificate similar to South African children. Then at the age of 16 he/she can apply for an ID book.”

Birth certificates contain an ID number that indicates whether or not you are a citizen.

Gwanyanya says that children whose parents are both foreign nationals, and who live in South Africa, are only granted citizenship at age 18, provided they have been residing in the country for the last 18 years.

The Application Process

Since October 2014, the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) has contracted service company VFS Global to receive and manage all visa and permit applications (including applications for the ZSPs and LSPs).

VFS Global has 12 visa and permit centres in 11 South African cities. According to its website, “non-South Africans” who have legal residency in South Africa can apply for a visa or permit at any of these centres. Applicants who do not reside in South Africa (or, presumably, who do not have the correct permit – those applying for a PRP need to have a valid TRV, for example) are required to return to their country of origin and submit their applications via the nearest South African embassy or diplomatic mission. To accommodate high demand in specific countries, the Department of Home Affairs has also established supplementary Visa Application Centres (VACs) in India (currently nine VACs, set to increase to 13 by the end of 2016) and in nine cities in China. VFS requires that all visa and permit applications and payments are made online, in advance, after which you will be given an appointment to obtain biometric data. Registered immigration practitioners, attorneys, or advocates may apply on your behalf, but applicants will need to appear in person for their appointment.

Completed visa and permit applications are then submitted to DHA for assessment. Applications require “a minimum average processing time of 8-10 weeks for the decision to be returned”, although Maxwell says the current department of labour review process “takes around nine months for work visas, and the department of trade and industry review process [for business visas] up to six months.”

A full list of all the documentation required for each type of visa or permit category is available on the VFS website.

In South Africa there is a standard DHA application cost of R1520 (refugees, and spouses and dependents of general work permit holders are exempt from this), and an additional VFS service fee of R1350 per application. Individual applicants can reduce the waiting time for an appointment by paying an additional R500 for VFS’s “Premium Lounge” service. There is also a Premium Visa & Permit Services Centre in Sandton, Gauteng, for pre-approved corporate clients.

Edited by Nechama Brodie