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, the following steps should be taken:
- Get a valid passport.
Although a passport is usually good for ten years, getting a valid passport can take several weeks, so start working on getting a valid passport today. http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english.html
If you are in an emergency situation and need a passport immediately, there are options. Consult the National Passport Information Center at the link above.
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.
In order to travel abroad, please note the following:
- You must have a current passport. You will not be allowed to board the plane if your passport has expired.
- 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 free pages. If your passport is full, use the URL above to contact the US travel department. Add pages to you passport before you start your visa process.
- You must have current Yellow Fever Vaccination card.
If you do not have a current Yellow Fever vaccination card, you will not be allowed onto 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”. For reasons unknown to me, finding YF vaccinations can be quite difficult. Drug stores that offer immunization shots may offer YF vaccinations, but in my personal experience, do not trust the person answering the phone to know what they’re talking about. Make sure they personally take the time to view their inventory and confirm that they really and truly actually have the inventory in stock. (I’ve wasted several 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).
- Get a visa.
(NOTE: If you are traveling with us on one of our scheduled trips, it is easier for everyone if we get your visa. Contact us for details.)
About two months before you travel, send your passport, Yellow Fever card, application and 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: Their application process is convoluted and VERY confusing!! Last time I used them, I had to 1) send my application fee to a 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 $500 in the process because the embassy dragged their feet.
- Chad: http://www.chadnow.com/chad_travel_guide_information/chad_documentation.php
- Democratic Republic of Congo: http://www.ambardcusa.org/visas.html . 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)
- 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.The general process for getting a visa is similar for most of the countries listed above:
- Fill out a visa application form and send it (along with a money order, your 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 a week, they will send your passport back to you, using the pre-paid envelope you gave them.
- 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.
- Please note: the Nigerian visa process is very confusing. The embassy for the Democratic Republic of Congo has been known to take over a month to return visa
If you’re traveling to the eastern section of DR Congo (eg, Bukavu, Goma, Uvira), you’re better off getting a “Multiple Entry for One Month (M/M)” visa. The roads connecting Bukavu and Uvira, for example, are so bad that you’ll have to leave the country and drive through Rwanda to travel between the cities. For this purpose, you’ll need a multiple entry/exit visa.
- Nigeria: http://www.nigeriaembassyusa.org/index.php?page=visas
- 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.
– 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.
The largest single-ticket item is the air travel. Use a website like www.fareboom.com for real-time quotes.
|Yellow Fever Vaccination||$160|
|– KIGALI (Inbound)||–|
|Visa for DR Congo||$155|
||$1,500 – $2,000|
|Kigali Hotel (1 night)||$25|
|Daily Meals in Kigali||$15|
|Daily Taxi fare in Kigali||$20|
|Bus from Kigali to Bukavu||$15|
|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|
|Kigali Hotel (1 night)||$25|
|Meals in Kigali||$15|
|Taxi in Kigali||$20|
|– TOTAL (ballpark number)
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 (Hint: 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.)
- GSM-capable cell phones that use SIM cards (eg, older AT&T phones. Older Verizon phones cannot get a signal in Europe or Africa. Older Sprint phones do not have SIM cards, but they will get a signal ($$$). African SIM cards and cell phone minutes are incredibly cheap, even for calls to the USA). 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).
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 in their rush to aid the “less fortunate among us”. This book uses 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), do not expect vendors to accept a credit card. Banks and ATMs will gladly accept your cards at a hefty fee. Don’t even bother with American checks.
- Countries like the DR Congo use American US dollars for their 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 4 or 5 years, 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! (As of this writing, DR Congo merchants and banks do not accept US bills printed prior to 2009). 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 water varies in quality! The bottled water drunk by locals will usually make Americans’ throats feel funny. Merchants will 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, 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 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.)
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. 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 not near police stations, government buildings, and border crossings.).
- 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 a trusted local.
- 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 your US doctor prescribes you 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 roaming American phone numbers in Africa are extremely expensive! It is far cheaper to buy an African SIM card ($2-3), and put it in your GSM-capable phone (eg, AT&T phones are fine, but not older Sprint or Verizon phones. Older Verizon phones do not get any cellular service at all outside North America. Regardless of your carrier, if your phone is a smartphone capable of 4G service, then you should be fine. If in doubt, open the back of your phone’s battery case. If it has a SIM card, you’re good to go – provided the phone is “unlocked”.) When using an African SIM card, calls to the US are pennies per minute, and text messages are even cheaper. Because of the drastic cost difference between American phone cards and African phone cards, if you’re planning on making calls to the USA, it’s worth bringing a GSM phone, even if you have to borrow one from a friend.
- 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.
- African phone networks are about as stable as their electrical networks – that is, not very stable. 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.)
- Before going overseas, double-check with your US carrier to see if your phone is “unlocked”. This will allow your phone to be used on a different cellular network. If your phone is locked, you won’t be able to use it with any cellular provider other than the one you signed up with. If your phone is locked, your phone provider can unlock it for you. (If your phone is second-hand and locked, search eBay for an unlock service. Popular phones cost about $1 and 24 hours to unlock. I’ve done this for a dozen phones.)
- Most African SIM cards are “standard” size. If your phone requires a mini or nano sized SIM, expect to pay a couple extra dollars for a mini or nano SIM card.
- In larger cities, Internet service and Internet Cafes are easy to find, but service is unpredictable. For the cities we frequent, the most common method for personal Internet access is by cell phone, and like voice calls, the payment method is pay-as-you-go.
- When you buy minutes for your SIM card, tell the seller that you want both voice/text AND Internet service. Depending on your phone carrier, you may be required to purchase your “airtime” (ie, voice and text) separately from your data.
- 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 SIM card. Again, when buying minutes for the SIM card, be sure to tell your vendor that you want data. And make sure the mobile hotspot device is unlocked.
- 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 asked me when I wanted the Internet delivered. Ugh. Not only did they not have Internet, they never had it, and figured they could just call someone to bring it over.)
- 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 US is 110v, but 220v in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The overwhelming majority of laptops, tablets and cell phone chargers use switching power supplies and will work just fine on 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.
- Larger 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 electrical 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 travel store near you or look online.
- 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 $10. NOTE: These power strips do not convert the 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). 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 the occasional house fire.
- Electricity is not nearly as reliable in Africa as it is in the US. Expect that the voltage to vary throughout the day. 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, consider bring a solar charger.
- 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 or 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, and you need to expect to have your priorities challenged. 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.