We frequently receive questions about preparing to travel to Africa. This guide is a collection of recommendations for preparing to travel to Africa with CMD. It is based on publicly available material from the US passport website and embassy websites for various African countries. The details may change from year to year. For specific information, please consult the various websites directly.
These guide is also based on our personal experiences. Be sure to read this guide thoroughly, especially the parts about the passport, yellow fever card and cash.
When preparing to travel from the USA to Africa, you’ll need 3 things: Passport, Yellow Fever vaccination card and a visa.
- You MUST have a valid passport, or you cannot board the plane.
A passport is an official photo ID card issued by a government, certifying the holder’s identity and citizenship and entitling them to travel under its protection to and from foreign countries.
Although a passport is usually good for ten years, getting a valid passport can take several weeks, and you must have a valid passport before you can start your visa application process. Be aware that in most cases, if your passport will expire 6 months before you return from Africa, it will not be considered a valid passport. If you don’t have a valid passport, start working on getting one today. http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english.html
If you are in an emergency and need a passport immediately, there are options. Consult the National Passport Information Center at the link above.
- You must have a current passport. You will not be allowed to board the plane if your passport has expired. (We’ve had people on our team before not be able to board a plane because their passport expired. Be smart and don’t risk it.)
- If you’re so inclined, you can make your own passport photos using a digital camera and computer. They must adhere to the guidelines on the US passport website. (This only applies to US passports. Other countries often require certified photographers to make the photos).
There are third party agencies to help you process your passport needs, but to the best of my knowledge, they don’t do for you anything that you can’t do yourself.
- If you’re getting a visa to enter a foreign country, be sure to read the Visa section below for some critical information.
- You MUST have current Yellow Fever Vaccination card if you’re traveling to Africa and other “developing countries”.
Yellow Fever vaccination cards are proof that you’ve been vaccinated against Yellow Fever. They’re good for life – but you must have a card proving that you’ve received the YF vaccination. If you do not have a Yellow Fever vaccination card, and your final destination requires that you have Yellow Fever vaccination, you will not be allowed to board the airplane.
Use Google to search for places near you to get vaccinations for Yellow Fever. Compare prices, and be sure to ask the clinic if they charge for “consulting” (this can cost $70 or more). For reasons unknown to me, finding YF vaccinations can be quite difficult, even in a large city. Drug stores that offer immunization shots may claim to offer YF vaccinations, but in my personal experience, the well-meaning person answering the phone usually will merely guess about whether they have YF vaccinations in stock. Make sure they personally take the time to view their inventory and confirm that they really and truly actually have the inventory in stock before you drive out to their pharmacy. (I’ve wasted many hours on the phone trying to track them down in my metropolitan city, only to run into dozens of staffers who thought they had them in stock but really didn’t).
- For most countries, you MUST get a visa, or you may not be allowed to enter the country.
(NOTE: If you are traveling with us on one of our scheduled trips, it is easier for everyone if our team leader gets your visa. Contact us for details.)
Countries do not allow all foreigners to enter. You must first get permission from them. That permission is called a “visa”. But before you can apply for a visa …
- Your passport must not expire sooner than 6 months after your expected return date. For example, if your return date is in June, and your passport expires in July, you will not be able to get a visa.
- Your passport must have at least 3 blank pages. If your passport is full, use the URL above to contact the US travel department and have them add more pages to your passport before you start your application process.
- About 90 days before you travel, send your valid passport, Yellow Fever card, visa application and and visa application funds to the appropriate consular office in order to get a visa to enter the country in question.
- Nigeria: http://www.nigeriaembassyusa.org/index.php?page=visas
Word to the wise: At the time of this writing, their application process is convoluted and VERY confusing!! Last time I used them, I had to 1) send my application fee to a special 3rd party payment processing facility; 2) get a receipt from the payment processing facility; 3) include the receipt in my application package that I sent to the embassy; 4) Call the embassy every other day to pester them for the status; 5) receive my passport and visa 2 days after my flight departed – thus missing my flight and losing over $500 in the process because the embassy dragged their feet. And no, they did not bother to refund my application fees.
- Chad: http://www.chadembassy.us/index.php/visa-information
- Democratic Republic of Congo: https://ambardcusa.org/consular-services/. Expect delays!!
- Burundi: http://www.burundiembassydc-usa.org/pages/consulate.html (at the time of this writing, a visa can be purchased at the airport at Bujumbura, but this is not always guaranteed)
- Rwanda: No visa needed for US citizens, but you’ll pay $30 for a transit visa at the airport when you get off the plane. If you are not a US citizen, check with their consular office.
- Nigeria: http://www.nigeriaembassyusa.org/index.php?page=visas
The general process for getting a visa is similar for most of the countries listed above:
- Download and fill out a visa application form and send it (along with a money order, your valid passport, yellow fever card, a travel itinerary from your travel agent or travel website, 2 extra passport photos, and a pre-paid return envelope) to the embassy in question. The travel itinerary can be simply a printout of an airfare quote from a travel agent or travel website.
- Within two weeks (if all goes well), they will send your passport back to you, using the pre-paid envelope you gave them. (In our experience, you need to allow much longer than 2 weeks for the Nigerian and DRC embassies to process visa applications)
- If your passport expires sooner than 6 months after your return date, or if you do not have 3 free pages in your passport, your passport will be returned to you WITHOUT a visa. You’ll have to update your passport and send it back, and your initial application fee may not be refunded.
- The Nigerian visa process is very confusing, and if you’re not careful, can result in delays. (See above)
- The embassy for the Democratic Republic of Congo has been known to take over a month to return visa applications, and you may need to call them daily if you don’t get your passport back after 3 weeks.
About a month or two before you travel, purchase your tickets.
Until recently, major US travel websites did not offer competitive rates on airfares to Africa. Sites I’ve used in the past are www.bt-store.com and www.fareboom.com. Their rates are consistently better than even missionary travel agency services I’ve used in the past. Recently, Orbitz.com and Google have started offering competitive rates for travel to obscure locations in Africa. Check them all.
– If you’re comparing prices between a lot of websites, you’ll see the rates start to creep upward after a few days. When you’ve identified the ticket you want to buy, start a new private browsing session. Look up the tickets in question, and you’ll see that they’re suddenly cheaper. Basically, the airlines watch your price shopping and when their servers think you’re focusing on specific dates, they may try to increase the cost of your ticket. The private browsing session makes their server think you’re a new person just inquiring. I’ve seen this technique save hundreds of dollars. Literally!
– Compare prices over several days. Depending on where you’re flying to, rates and itineraries can change drastically from day to day. One day, you’ll find that the cheapest fare is through South African Airways, the next day you’ll find it’s cheapest through Ethiopian Airways, etc.
The cost for traveling to Africa can vary widely, depending on many factors (destination, transfer points, time of year, number of travelers in the party, etc). The following price guide represents a typical trip from the USA to the Democratic Republic of Congo for our annual Congo Bible Camp. While this can be a useful guide to help you plan your trip, please bear in mind that prices are in constant flux, and that in an underdeveloped country such as the DR Congo, unavoidable changes to your plans can be sudden, unexpected and expensive. The costs listed below are per-person, listed in the chronological order.
|Yellow Fever Vaccination||$160|
|– KIGALI (Inbound)||–|
|Visa for DR Congo||$200|
|$1,200 – $2,000|
|Kigali Hotel (1 night)||$20|
|Daily Meals in Kigali||$15-$20|
|Daily Taxi fare in Kigali||$20|
|Bus from Kigali to Bukavu||$15-$25|
|Bukavu Hotel (7 nights. $30-$45 per room, per night)
|Meals in Bukavu (7 meals. $10/meal)||$70|
|– KIGALI (Outbound)||–|
|Bus from Bukavu to Kigali||$15-$25|
|Kigali Hotel (1 night)||$20|
|Meals in Kigali||$15|
|Taxi in Kigali||$20|
|– TOTAL (ballpark number)||$2,400|
Handy Things to Bring
- An extra week of any medications you regularly take
- Over-the-counter medicines for headaches, diarrhea, upset stomach, etc.
- Hearty snacks (trail mix, beef jerky, canned or individually-packaged tuna/chicken)
- A roll of toilet paper (depending on where you travel, be prepared to use a squatty-potty or a toilet bowl with no seat or lid)
- Sanitary hand wipes or a package of diaper wipes. (Bring extra diaper wipes if you prefer to clean a toilet prior to using it).
- Hand sanitizer in a pocket-sized bottle (TIP: carry it with you everywhere!)
- Shower shoes/sandals and towels.
- Close-toed shoes for outdoor walking (due to safety and health reasons, sandals are discouraged)
- Flashlight & batteries. (Consider solar chargers if you’re going to the Congo.)
- Unlocked GSM-capable cell phones that use SIM cards and phones that use G4. Not all American phones work in Africa, and most times, you do not need a special “world” phone. See the section on phones below.
- Security belt/pouch to tuck your money under your belt. Purses are easy to grab and therefore discouraged.
- If you have an expensive camera, leave it at home and bring a cheap camera instead. (Unless you’re going to a very tourist-friendly country like South Africa or Egypt, don’t bring a camera you don’t want to get confiscated or stolen). We strongly recommend that non-Congolese do not take photos in public.
Other Miscellaneous Tips:
- Before traveling on a mission trip to an impoverished country, buy and read “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself“. This cannot be over-emphasized!
Poverty is much more than simply a lack of financial or material resources. It takes much more than donations and handouts to solve the problem of poverty. If you are being guided by only your feelings, you will invariably hurt yourself and the very people you seek to help. We see this time and time again when well-meaning people ignore Biblical principles and quote Matt 25 while rushing in to aid the “less fortunate among us”. This book uses solid Biblical precepts, documented studies and real-life experiences to guide you on how to keep your feelings in check so that you can do the most amount of good for others and yourself. Highly recommended!
- Cash talks. In Africa, you will have no problem finding places that will gladly exchange your US dollars for local currency. Unless you’re in a modern city (ie, Johannesburg, Cairo, Kigali), do not expect average vendors to accept a credit card. Banks and ATMs will gladly accept your US cards at a hefty fee. Don’t even bother with American checks.
- Countries like the DR Congo use American US dollar bills ($5 bills and larger) as their local currency. Banks, merchants and exchange offices are VERY picky about the quality and condition of the US dollars they accept. They will NOT accept bills older than 2013, and will NOT accept any USA bills with tears (even tiny tears!) or heavy wrinkles. Prior to leaving the USA, make sure all your bills are crisp and new, or you will not be able to use your cash, not even at a bank! (As of this writing, DR Congo merchants and banks do not accept US bills printed prior to 2013). Few things are more maddening than being stuck in a poor foreign country with a fist-full of US currency that not even the banks will accept.
Food and Water
- Expect to buy and drink lots of bottled water each day. It’s cheap (less than $1 per liter), but the cost adds up. Bear in mind that the bottled water varies in quality! The bottled water drunk by locals will usually make Americans’ throats feel funny. If you ask, merchants will reliably steer you to the right stuff. (Eg, All things being equal, Rwandan water is noticeably better than Congolese water.)
- Water and food are not always clean. And not everybody has the same standards of sanitation that Westerners expect. In short, don’t put anything in your mouth unless you know where it came from and you know that the hands that prepared the food used soap and clean water to prepare their hands. You’d be surprised. ..and you might get very, very sick. (We have friends who have been plagued by parasites they got in China, India and Nigeria. These parasites caused them a great deal of grief, thoroughly perplexing their [expensive] Western doctors for years.)
- As a general rule, stay away from fresh vegetables. Only eat fruit if you peeled it yourself. And if you insist on eating fresh fruit, don’t touch both the peel and the flesh of the fruit or you will contaminate the flesh of the fruit.
- NEVER let tap-water touch your mouth or touch anything that will touch your mouth (ie, tooth-brush, etc). Use only bottled water to brush your teeth. (You’ll find such notices posted on the walls of 4-star hotels in Cairo.) If you only have tap water around, boil it for over 10 minutes to kill the parasites in it, and/or run it through a filter that is designed for use in Africa.
Cameras and Tourism
- Not all countries understand tourism, so the first rule of thumb is try not to stand out. Expect some unusual looks, comments and questions if you’re in a place where Americans don’t normally travel. As a general rule, you do NOT want to attract attention to yourself! Wear modest clothes, and only wear shorts if you’re playing sports, or hanging out in places where locals are expecting Westerners to be found. If you stand out, you could complicate matters for yourself and those traveling with you. You can easily become a bribe-magnet, and attract the eye of an official with a hankering to make a few bucks by making your life miserable. We have known missionaries that have spent a few days in remote jails because an official saw a US passport and thought he could get a few hundred dollars by making the missionary’s life difficult. (It’s not uncommon for foreigners to get robbed or kidnapped in chaotic countries like the Congo.)
- Not all countries allow foreigners to take photos in public places. Be sure to check before you travel. Some countries will allow you to apply for a special “photojournalist certificate” to take photos in public. It is our opinion that unless you’re with a large government group, purchasing a photojournalist certificate will be a waste of time and money. (Countries like the DR Congo and Chad do not allow foreigners to take photos in public. Egypt and Rwanda, on the other hand, understand and welcome tourists, so they don’t mind cameras in public. But don’t take photos if you’re near police stations, government buildings, and border crossings, or you will be detained and questioned.)
- If you’re using a camera, use discretion at all times, and be prepared to hide it and/or have it confiscated! We have known missionaries who were harassed extensively by police officials because they took indoor photos while attending a private seminar. If you want photos and videos, we recommend that you give your camera to a trusted local resident and let them take photos or videos for you. The chances of locals being harassed for having a camera are essentially non-existent. When in doubt, ask a trusted local.
- Do NOT have your camera out any time you are near a government building or a border crossing. It will be confiscated, and you may be detained and accused of being a spy. (Personal experience!)
- NEVER travel at night unless you’re with trusted local friends.
- Pharmacies abound. For about $5, you can buy medicines to cure you of most common ailments. You don’t need a doctor’s prescription to purchase meds in Africa.
- If you have a US prescription for a particular antibiotic (eg, to combat malaria), you can probably buy it for pennies on the dollar at an African pharmacy. Check with a local missionary.
- Most meds that we’ve seen come from European manufacturers, and are (more or less) trustworthy. Some may have odd side effects, so be sure to read the labels.
Phone Calls and Texting
- Phone rates for American phone numbers roaming in Africa can be extremely expensive! It is far cheaper to buy an African SIM card ($2-3), and put it in your GSM-capable phone. If you use your phone a lot, it’s worth bringing a GSM phone, even if you have to borrow one from a friend. More and more Africans are getting smartphones and getting on the Internet. Most cellphone carriers allow free facebook messages, and is rapidly becoming the communication platform of choice, and is more preferable than SMS texting. But in order for your American phone to work on Africa’s networks, two conditions must apply:
- It must be a GSM-capable phone. If your phone can support 4G networks and has a SIM card, you’re most likely fine. But check with your carrier to confirm before you head overseas. As a general rule, most AT&T phones are fine, but older Sprint or Verizon phones either won’t work, or will force you to use International roaming plans, and will cost you a pretty penny.
- It must be ‘unlocked’ so that you can use it on other cellular networks. You’ll definitely need to check with your cell phone carrier to confirm that your phone is unlocked. Usually this free process requires that your carrier gives you a special 16-digit number that you’ll type in to your phone in order to unlock your phone. Once it’s unlocked, you can use that phone on any cell network around the world that supports your phone’s frequencies and protocols. But until it’s unlocked, you can only use your phone on your carrier’s network, and/or must pay exorbitant fees to use the phone off-network. (If your phone is second-hand and locked, search eBay for an unlock service. Popular phones cost about $1-$3 for an unlock code and 24 hours to unlock. I’ve done this for a dozen phones – but be advised that not all phones will work in Africa!)
- Text messages to the USA are not always reliable. When texting from Africa to the US, I find that messages to US Verizon customers are less likely to go through than text messages to US AT&T customers. You’re better off using a network-independent communication app such as WhatsApp, FaceBook Messenger, etc. Your party on the receiving end must have the same app, but it’s far more reliable than regular texting.
- African phone networks are about as stable as their electrical networks – that is, not very stable. At all! If you’re going to be in an area for a while, check with locals to see which carrier offers the best coverage and service. (Unfortunately, in my experience, I’ve found that many locals don’t quite understand the question, and will heartily recommend whatever service they use, thinking it’s better than other networks.)
- Most African SIM cards are “standard” size. If your phone requires a mini or nano sized SIM, you might find that you’ll need to pay a couple extra dollars for a mini or nano SIM card. In previous years this was an issue, but these days you can get mini and nano SIM cards just about everywhere.
- The most common way to get online is via smartphone, and like voice calls, the payment method for Internet service is pay-as-you-go.
- When you buy your SIM card, make sure the seller understands that you want to use your smartphone for both “airtime” (phone/text service) and Internet (sometimes called “giga” or “data”). Depending on your cell carrier, you may need to purchase your data package separately from your airtime package. Don’t be surprised if you run into street vendors that are not clear on what you’re asking or what they should sell you.
- In larger cities, Internet service and Internet Cafes are easy to find, but service is entirely unpredictable.
- If you’re bringing a smartphone to Africa, check and see that it has a mobile Wi-Fi option that you can use when you’re abroad. I have no problem putting an African SIM card in my USA Verizon Samsung S7 and then using the phone’s mobile WiFi option to share WiFi with friends and family. (Just remember that your Internet service is metered, so your bandwidth is “pay as you go”).
- If your team/family uses the Internet a lot, consider purchasing a mobile WiFi hotspot. Devices like the Huawei E5372 allow you to set up a personal WiFi hotspot, connecting you and your friends to the Internet through your African SIM card. Again, when buying minutes for the SIM card, be sure to tell your vendor that you want data (“giga”). And make sure the mobile hotspot device is unlocked. Mobile WiFi hotspot devices are fairly easy to find in large cities in Africa, but if they’re ‘locked’, then you can only use them with the cellular service they’re locked to. (My Huawei E5372 was from an AirTel store, but a friend of mine paid a phone vendor to unlock it so I can use it with a SIM card from any cellular service)
- Nicer hotels will have free WiFi. As with most communication services in Africa, dependability varies. Considerably! (I’ve stayed in hotels that claimed to have Internet service, and when I got there, they promised me they’d have a guy run to the market and get me Internet first thing in the morning. Ugh! )
- Almost all laptop and cell phone chargers in the US can can directly support the 220v outlets you’ll find in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (read the fine print on your phone and laptop power supply. If it says something like “Input: 110-220v”, then you’re good to go). For these kinds of chargers, you don’t need an expensive voltage converter. All you’ll need is a special (cheap) adapter that allows the US flat plugs to plug into the European/African round outlets. You can buy them on eBay for $1.
Electricity, Chargers and Generators
- Electricity in the USA and Canada is 110v, but around the rest of the world it’s 220v. The overwhelming majority of laptops, tablets and cell phone chargers in the USA use switching power supplies and will work just fine on either 110v or 220v. (When in doubt, check the fine print on your power supply. If it says “Input: 110-220v”, then you’re fine to plug the device directly into a 110v (US) or 220v (foreign) outlet.) To use these devices overseas, you will not need a special charger or voltage converter to change your voltage from 220v to 110v, but you may need a special plug. These “American to European Foreign Power Plug” adapters cost about $1 each on Amazon or eBay. If you plan to have several devices plugged in at the same time (smartphones, tablet, laptop, etc), consider buying a “universal power strip” that has a European plug. It’s cord will plug into most African outlets, and will allow you to plug in multiple US devices. Again, make sure your devices can accept 220v, since the power strip does not convert electricity from 220v to 110v.
- Larger electrical appliances are more critical about their electrical input. If you plan on using a blow dryer or other electronic equipment that doesn’t support 220v, you’ll need an international travel voltage converter to convert international 220volts to US 110volts. Look for converters that can support high-wattage devices like blow-dryers. Expect to pay $35 or more for a robust converter that can support 1500 watts (typical for a blow dryer). Be leery of any voltage converter that costs less than $20. (Personal experience: don’t waste your money with the cheaper voltage converters you’ll typically find at WalMart. The converter will burn up before your trip is done, and your 110v devices will be useless for the rest of your stay. With any luck, your valued electronics won’t burn up in the process). Check a bona-fide travel store near you or look online for good-quality voltage converters.
- Upon arriving in Africa, you can easily find a power strip that allows multiple types of plugs and devices to be plugged in simultaneously. They can be purchased for about $15. NOTE: These power strips do not convert 220v electricity to 110v – they merely allow you to use different country plugs (including US plugs) simultaneously, and will send 220v to everything plugged into them. Most USA laptops, tablets and phone power supplies will have no problem being plugged in this way (again, check your power supply’s fine print to make sure it supports 220v). If these power strips feel cheap, it’s because they are. So don’t pile a bunch of laundry on them unless you don’t mind your house catching on fire.
- Electricity is not nearly as reliable in Africa as it is in the USA. Expect that the voltage to vary throughout the day. Depending on your location, expect that the electricity will go out for hours (even weeks!) at a time. Pack a flashlight. Or two. The flashlights you find in Africa will almost always be cheaper (both in cost and quality) than what you’ll find in the US. If you’re paranoid like me, pack a hefty 32,000 mAh PowerBank, capable of charging laptops, tablets and smartphones simultaneously. If you’re going to the Congo, the electricity is less reliable than Rwanda and Burundi, so consider bring a solar charger if you’re going to be staying a while.
- If you plan on running a laptop or mini-projector on a powerbank, make sure you get a reliable powerbank. Stay away from powerbanks that don’t have a recognized name brand and/or don’t offer a line of different powerbanks. PowerAdd, Anker, and MaxOak are good name brands. Be advised that the smaller name brands and no-name brands will flagrantly lie about the power output, and since you’ll want 30,000mAh or higher to run a laptop, a reliable name brand will be critical for you. Traveling with a large powerbank can be an issue: Technically, any powerbank that is over 32,000mAh is too large to bring on an airplane, but most inspectors don’t know what they’re looking for in a powerbank. That sword can cut both ways, unfortunately, and someone looking through your bag may think your 32,000mAh powerbank is too large and may try to confiscate it. The comments section on Amazon is helpful if powering a laptop (or mini-projector) is important to you.
- Generators abound. The place where you’re staying will likely have a generator. However, just because your place has a generator is no assurance that the generator works properly or even has gas. If you have electrical devices that are sensitive to voltage spikes (TVs, projectors and other solid-state electronics), strongly consider using a UPS along with the generator. Because of voltage differences between the US an Africa, purchasing a UPS can get complicated, so be sure to ask a knowledgeable local.
LAST, BUT NOT LEAST…
When you’re on a mission trip, remember that you’re not there to be a tourist or an observer – you’re there to serve the Lord! He and the people you serve must come first in your mind, heart and actions. Everything else – including modern American conveniences like hot showers, sanitary food, flush-able toilets and clean facilities – is secondary. That doesn’t mean you squander your life and throw caution to the wind – it means that you use your head, and you need to expect that God will use the environment to challenge your sense of priorities. Keep them in their proper order. If you’re lacking in your necessities, allow God to use the lack to help you rely on Him instead of your desire for personal creature-comforts.
There are many lessons to be learned here, and many stories to be told.