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”.
- 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 to the appropriate consular office in order to get a visa to enter the country in question.
Democratic Republic of Congo: http://www.ambardcusa.org/visas.html
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 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 form and send it (along with a money order, your passport, a travel itinerary from your travel agent or travel website, 2 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 sent
- 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.
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 drive through Rwanda to travel between the cities. For this purpose, you’ll need a multiple entry/exit visa.
- 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 has started offering competitive rates for travel to 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|
|Meals in Kigali||$15|
|Taxi 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 a package of diaper wipes)
- Hand sanitizer in a pocket-sized bottle
- Shower shoes/sandals
- Close-toed shoes for outdoor walking (due to safety and health reasons, sandals are discouraged)
- Flashlight & batteries
- GSM-capable cell phones that use SIM cards (eg, AT&T phones. Verizon phones cannot get a signal in Europe or Africa. African SIM cards and cell phone minutes are incredibly cheap, even for calls to the USA).
- Security belt/pouch to tuck your money under your belt. Purses are 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).
Other Miscellaneous Tips:
- Before traveling to an impoverished country, buy and read “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself“. Poverty is much more than simply a lack of financial or material resources and that 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 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, do not expect vendors to accept a credit card. Banks and ATMs are expensive. Don’t bother with American checks.
- Countries like the DR Congo use American US dollars for their currency. Most merchants do not accept checks or credit cards. Banks and ATMs in large cities will accept credit/debit cards, and will charge a hefty fee. Banks and merchants 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 many 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 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. (The water varies in quality. The stuff locals drink will usually make Americans’ throats feel funny. Merchants will steer you to the right stuff.)
- 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 sick.
- As a general rule, stay away from fresh vegetables. Only eat fruit if you peeled it yourself, and 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 your tooth-brush. Use only bottled water to brush your teeth.
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 might 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.
- 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 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. (DR Congo and Chad do not allow foreigners to take photos in public).
- 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 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 them being harassed 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.
- 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 your local missionary.
- Most meds that we’ve seen come from European manufacturers, and are trustworthy.
Phones and Texting
- Phone rates for roaming American phone numbers 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, and not Verizon.) When using an African SIM card, calls to the US are pennies per minute, and text messages are even cheaper.
- 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 AT&T customers.
- African phone networks are about as stable as their electrical networks (that is, not very stable).
- If you plan to bring your US cell phone and it doesn’t require a SIM card (ie, Verizon phones), try to borrow one from a friend before heading 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. Confirm your phone’s lock status prior to traveling abroad.
- African SIM cards are “standard” size. If your phone requires a mini or nano sized SIM, you will need the SIM card to be cut so it fits in your phone. Most vendors can do this for you. Alternatively, SIM cutters are available on eBay for about $10.
- 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. You can get a USB device for your laptop that allows you to use special cellular services to get online (If you intend to go this route, be sure to mention this to the person selling you the SIM card for your phone. Not all phone carriers can be used for this purpose). Usually, the pricing for the SIM card and the cellular service varies depending on whether you’re using airtime minutes for voice, text or Internet.
- Nicer hotels will have free WiFi. As with most communication services in Africa, dependability varies.
- Almost all laptop and cell phone chargers in the US use switching power supplies and 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
- If you plan on using a blow dryer or other electronic equipment that doesn’t directly 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. Be leery of any voltage converter that costs less than $20. (don’t waste your money with the cheaper voltage converters you’ll typically find at WalMart. They’ll burn up before your trip is done, and your electrical devices will be useless for the rest of your stay). 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. These power strips do not convert the 220v electricity to 110v – they merely allow you to use different country plugs (including US plugs) simultaneously. Your laptop, tablet and phone power supplies will have no problem being plugged in this way – assuming they can accept 220v.
- Electricity is not nearly as reliable in Africa as it is in the US. Expect that the electricity will go out for hours (even weeks) at a time. Pack a flashlight. The flashlights you find in Africa will almost always be cheaper (both in cost and quality) than what you’ll find in the US.
- 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. Because of voltage differences between the US an Africa, purchasing a UPS can get complicated. (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.
If you’re lacking in your necessities, allow God to use the lack to help you rely on Him and not your desire for personal creature-comforts. There are many lessons to be learned here, and many stories to be told.