Africa is a magnificent continent with 54 diverse countries and island nations. Most require visas for foreign visitors, with policies that range from easy online visas or visas on arrival, to those with time-consuming documentation, interview and biometric requirements. Visa costs can also be an impediment for some travelers, with fees ranging from $20 to nearly $300 USD. Luckily, US citizens can visit the following 13 African countries visa free:
Morocco is the 25th largest African country by size and one of the native homelands of the indigenous Berber people. Rabat is the capital and Casablanca is the largest city. Other popular tourist cities include Marrakesh, Fes, Chefchaoen (aka the Blue City), Tangier, Essaouira, and Meknes. Tourism in Morocco is mostly focused on its culture, including ancient cities with Roman ruins and Islamic architecture, colorful bazaars and souks, opulent palaces, and bustling medinas and town squares. Morocco is also famous for its natural beauty, with golden beaches, desert landscapes and mountain peaks. The official languages of Morocco are Arabic and Berber. French is also widely spoken. Morocco’s climate is diverse, varying by region and season. Temperatures can range from 41˚ to 95˚. To avoid the heat, the best times to visit are April to early June and September to November.
Tunisia is the 35th largest African country and one of three countries where the Sahara desert can be visited. Tunis is the capital and largest city. Other popular tourist cities include Mahdia, Carthage, Sousse, Sfax, and the island of Djerba. Tunisia is known for its Mediterranean beach resorts, historic medinas, ancient Roman and Carthage ruins, salt pans of the Chott El Jerid, and beautiful desert and mountain landscapes. Arabic is the official language and French is also widely spoken. Tunisia is a majority Muslim country, with nearly 98% of the population practicing Islam. Due to its traditional and conservative culture, dress code is important, particularly for women. Tunisia enjoys a combination of African and Mediterranean climates, with high temperatures throughout the year. The best times to visit are spring, from April to June, and autumn, from September to October.
**TRAVEL WARNING: Travel to the regions adjacent to the Algerian and Libyan borders is not advised due to terrorist activities and kidnappings which have been reported in those areas.
Botswana is the 22nd largest African country, famous for its spectacular landscapes and wildlife reserves. Nearly 70% of Botswana’s landscape is covered by the Kalahari Desert. The capital and largest city is Gabarone. The Okavango Delta, one of the largest inland deltas in the world, Chobe National Park and Moremi Game Reserve are Botswana’s most popular attractions. Other popular tourist destinations include Tsodilo Hills, distinguished by their natural hues of mauve, orange, turquoise and lavender, and more than 4000 prehistoric rock paintings; Gewihaba Caverns, a site of linked two-story caves that are home to breathtaking stalactites and stalagmites; Lake Ngami, a famous disappearing lake popular with bird lovers; and the Linyanti Wetlands, which are home to large populations of elephants and big cats. Botswana is a year-round destination, but the dry winter season, from May to October, is the best time to visit Okavango, Chobe and Moremi.
eSwatini (formerly Swaziland)
eSwatini is one of the smallest countries in Africa, 48th in size, and one of the last absolute monarchies in the world. Its king, Mswati III, has ruled since 1986. eSwatini is known for its stunning landscapes, wildlife reserves, rich cultural heritage and handcrafts industry. Mbabane is the capital and the tourism hub of the Ezulwini Valley, while Manzini is the largest city. Lubombo is home of the Lubombo Mountains and most of the country’s wildlife reserves. Popular tourist destinations include Mantenga Nature Reserve and Falls, the Swazi Cultural Village, House on Fire – the site of the annual Bush Fire music festival, Ngwenya Glass, and the Swazi Candles Centre. eSwatini’s wildlife sanctuaries offer a range of activities, including mountain bike riding, horseback riding, game drives, guided bird walks and walking/hiking trails. Adventure activities are also popular, from caving in a subterranean cave system, to white water rafting on the Usutu River, to zip lining in the Malolotja Nature Reserve. Swaziland is a year-round destination, but to see wildlife the best time to visit is May to September. To see green scenery, the summer months of October to April are best, though the weather will be hot and humid.
Lesotho is one of the smaller African countries, 43rd in size, and completely surrounded by South Africa. Due to its high elevation, Lesotho is known as the Mountain Kingdom and it is the only independent state in the world that lies entirely above 3,200 feet. Getting to Lesotho can be an adventure in itself. Many tourists use the Sani Pass, an infamous winding mountain pass that rises 4,300 feet from South Africa to Lesotho. Lesotho is known for its beautiful mountain landscapes and Basotho pony trekking tours through the mountains. Popular tourist destinations include the Highest Pub in Africa, located in Mokhotlong; Thabana Ntlenyana which is the highest point in the country; the Liphofung Caves, a historical site with ancient rock art; and Maseru, the capital and site of the KatseDam, the Thaba-Bosiu cultural village and national monument, and Maletsunyane Falls. Lesotho is cold in the winter and snow is common in the highlands from May to September, making it a popular winter ski destination. For the warmer weather, the best time to visit is October to November and March to April. January and February are the rainiest months.
Namibia is the 15th largest African country and the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa. It is home to the Namib desert, considered the oldest desert in the world. Windhoek is the capital and largest city. Similar to South Africa, Namibia has a history of apartheid, which didn’t end until 1990, and it is also a multi-ethnic society. Namibia is known for its spectacular landscapes, indigenous cultural tribes like the Herero and Himba, and its multitude of adventure activities like sand boarding, quad-biking, hot air ballooning, dune skiing, skydiving, kite surfing, paragliding, and power kiting. Popular tourist destinations include Fish River Canyon, the largest canyon in Africa and the second largest canyon in the world; Sossuvlei and the sand dunes of the Namib desert; Sesriem Canyon, a natural canyon carved by the Tsauchab river; the Skeleton Coast, a site of the skeletal remains of shipwrecks; Swakopmund, the adventure capital; and Etosha National Park, a nature conservation area and game reserve. Namibia is a year-round destination, but during the summer temperatures can reach up to 104˚ in the desert. To avoid the heat, the best time to visit is May to October, which also is the best time for game viewing.
South Africa is the 9th largest and the southernmost country on the African continent. While South Africa is best known for its history of apartheid, a legal system of racial segregation and discrimination that ended in 1994, today it is a democratic and multi-ethnic society. Popular tourist destinations include Cape Town, known for the iconic Table Mountain and Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned; Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa and home to Soweto township and many other important sites from the anti-apartheid freedom struggle; Durban, home of the picturesque Valley of 1000 Hills and the Golden Mile, a popular stretch of beachfront frequented by surfers, swimmers, bikers, and skaters; and Mpumalanga province, home to Kruger National Park, South Africa’s premier safari destination, and Sudwala Caves, the oldest caves in the world. Since the seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere, the best times to visit is during summer from October to April.
Senegal is the 34th largest African country, located at the westernmost point on the African continent. It is the only country in West Africa that can be visited visa free by US citizens. Dakar is the capital and largest city. The official languages are French and Wolof. Senegal is best known for its West African history of oral storytelling by griots, sabar drummers, traditional Senegalese gris gris wrestling, and its tasty cuisine. Popular tourist sites include Goree Island, the former slave trading post; Lake Retba, also known as Lac Rose, a naturally occurring pink lake; the African Renaissance monument; Saint-Louis, the French colonial town and site of the Saint-Louis Jazz Festival; the Petite Coast, a sweep of beach resort towns; and Dakar’s lively markets. The best time to visit is during the winter dry season from November to March.
Central African Republic
Central African Republic is the 20th largest African country, located almost at the exact center of the continent. Current travel involves significant risk, but spectacular wildlife and several World Heritage sites await visitors. Popular attractions include Bayanga rainforest, Nouabale-Ndoki National Park, and Sangha Trinational, where three countries (Cameroon, Central African Republic, and Congo) and three national parks meet.
**TRAVEL WARNING: Most Western governments have issued stern warnings not to travel to Central African Republic due to ongoing civil unrest.
Equatorial Guinea is the 44th largest African country and the only Spanish speaking country on the continent. It is divided into two parts, the Rio Muni mainland and 5 volcanic offshore islands. The capital, Malabo, is on Bioko island. Equatorial Guinea is a big oil producer and one of the richest countries on the continent, but its tourist infrastructure is relatively sparse. Still, there are several interesting tourist attractions, including hiking trails, beaches, wildlife reserves, waterfalls and a rainforest in the Luba Crater Scientific Reserve. Bioko island is known for its Spanish colonial architecture and is popular during its dry season (December to February) when butterflies congregate on its Arena Blanca beach. The Sofitel, the first luxury hotel in the country, boasts a private white sand beach and stunning sea views.
Mauritius is the third smallest African country, located in the Indian Ocean. It consists of the main island of Mauritius and several outlying islands. The capital and largest city is Port Louis. Tourism in Mauritius centers around its beautiful beaches, water sports, and tropical flora and fauna. Popular attractions include the Seven Coloured Earths, a small area of sand dunes comprised of sand in seven distinct colors; Le Morne Brabant mountain, a basaltic mountain and UNESCO World Heritage site; Black River Gorges National Park, the largest national park; and Ile aux Aigrettes, an off-coast nature reserve and sanctuary. The best time to visit Mauritius is from May to December when the weather is cool, dry and sunny.
São Tomé and Príncipe
São Tomé and Príncipe is the second smallest African country, located in the Gulf of Guinea. It is comprised of two islands, São Tomé and Príncipe. São Tomé and Príncipe are best known for their sandy beaches, forest vegetation, and volcanic peaks. Popular attractions include Bom Bom Island, Obo National Park, Jao Ecolodge and sea turtles; LagoaAzul (aka Blue Lagoon), Boca de Inferno, a blowhole popularly called Hells Mouth; and Cascata Sao Nicolau, a jungle waterfall. The best time to visit São Tomé is from June to September, while in Príncipe it is from mid-June to mid-September. Though it is often cloudy, these are the driest months when it rarely rains.
Seychelles is the smallest African country, comprised of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean. Seychelles is famous for its fabulous beaches, endemic flora and fauna, and Creole houses. The three main islands are Mahé, Praslin and La Digue. Mahé is the largest island and home to the capital Victoria and the Morne Seychellois National Park. On Praslin, tourists will find the picturesque Anse Lazio beach, Praslin Waterfall, and Vallée de Mai, described as a medieval forest with endemic coco de mer palms. La Digue is popular with nature lovers and those wanting to experience a slower pace and traditional island life. Hiking, diving and rock climbing are also popular things to do on La Digue. Curieuse Island, accessible by boat from Praslin, is also popular for its colony of giant tortoises. The best times to visit are April to May and October to November.
Africa has long been stereotyped as the “dark continent”, a place rife with poverty, disease, and violence. Owing to this negative image, Africa was often overlooked as a desirable vacation destination. Luckily, times are changing. Many have taken a renewed interest in Africa, particularly black Americans and others across the African diaspora. If you’re one of those lucky people planning a first trip to Africa, here is a list of considerations to help with your trip planning.
1. CHOOSE A COUNTRY
Africa is not country, but a continent with 54 diverse countries and island nations offering a variety of landscapes and activities. Deserts, mountains, canyons, beaches, waterfalls, historical sites, adventure activities, wildlife safaris, and traditional villages — Africa has got it all. The vast landscape and multitude of attractions can make choosing which country to visit difficult.
To narrow down your search, you may consider whether you’d like to visit North, South, East, West or Central Africa, or one of the island nations. Many black Americans and West Indians choose a West African country as their first stop on the continent since most of their ancestors hail from that region.
Language is another consideration. English, French, Portuguese, and Arabic are widely spoken across the continent, along with 1,500+ indigenous languages. Some travelers prefer to visit an English speaking country to avoid a language barrier. Others enjoy the challenge of learning to communicate in a new language. You might also consider whether a visa and/or travel vaccines are required. Some choose visa free countries. And some elect not to be vaccinated and avoid countries where vaccines are required.
One of the most important considerations is where your interests lie. Do you prefer laidback vacations with gorgeous beaches or do you wish to go on safari? Do you want to see waterfalls, mountains and other natural landscapes or are you more interested in visiting historical sites and museums? Do you want to enjoy adrenaline rush activities or would you rather experience village life and learn about the people and their culture? These answers can help you find the most suitable country and itinerary for you.
If you want help selecting a country, join the Travel Africa Movement Facebook group to see pictures and videos, review travel guides and articles, and discuss country options with other travelers.
2. HAVE A VALID PASSPORT THAT MEETS THE SIX-MONTH RULE
A passport is a travel document, usually issued by a country’s government, that certifies the identity and nationality of the holder primarily for international travel. The United States issues both passport books and passport cards. A passport book is required for travel to Africa.
An application for a new passport book can be submitted online, with supporting documents, photos and fees ($145 as May 2018). Processing typically takes 4 to 6 weeks and the passport is valid for 10 years.
Most countries follow the Six-Month Rule and will not permit a traveler to enter their country unless the passport expires six months or more after the final day of travel. Most also require the passport to have at least two blank pages. Be sure to verify that your passport meets these requirements.
3. VERIFY THE HOST COUNTRY’S VISA REQUIREMENTS
Currently, US citizens can visit 13 African countries without a visa: South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), Botswana, Senegal, Equatorial Guinea, Morocco, Central African Republic, Tunisia, Mauritius, São Tomé and Príncipe, and the Seychelles. The other 41 countries require a visa.
A visa is an endorsement on a passport which grants the holder official permission to enter, leave or stay in a country for a specified time period. The most common visa types are tourist, student, work and transit visas, and they can be valid for single or multiple visits.
Some African countries require visitors to obtain visas in advance, either online or from an embassy or consulate in their home country. Others issue visas upon arrival at the airport or at a land border crossing. These visas range in price from $20.00 to $275.00. If the country you plan to visit requires an advance visa, be sure to follow all documentation requirements and allow ample time for mailing and processing of your visa application (recommended at least 4 to 6 weeks).
4. DETERMINE WHETHER VACCINES AND/OR ANTIMALARIAL MEDICINES ARE REQUIRED
While some countries have a risk of tropical disease due to their positioning in tropical and subtropical regions, all do not. Contrary to popular belief, vaccines and medicines are not required in all African countries. Routine childhood vaccines (i.e, MMR, DPT) are usually recommended, but others vary by country. The CDC website is the best source of information regarding recommended and required vaccines and medications for each country.
Common diseases include Hepatitis A, Cholera, Typhoid Fever, Malaria and Yellow Fever; symptoms can range from mild to severe. Hepatitis A, Cholera and Typhoid Fever are spread by contaminated food and water. They are prevented by vaccine, as well as by avoiding undercooked food and unclean water. Malaria and Yellow Fever are spread by mosquitos. Malaria can be prevented by antimalarial medications and/or other precautions, like wearing mosquito repellant with DEET, light clothing, and long sleeve shirts and pants. Yellow Fever is prevented by the yellow fever vaccine.
Some countries, typically in West and Central Africa, require the yellow fever vaccine for all visitors. Others only require the vaccine for visitors who are transiting or visiting from a country with yellow fever risk. If you are visiting a country where the yellow fever vaccine is required, you must get it at least 10 days before travel in order to allow time to develop immunity. Once you get the vaccine, you should be given a stamped and signed “International Certificate of Vaccination” (aka Yellow Card). The Yellow Card becomes valid 10 days after vaccination and is good for a lifetime (previously 10 years). The Yellow Card must be presented as proof of vaccination and should be carried with your passport.
**There is limited availability of the yellow fever vaccine in the USA, so allow enough time to find it in an alternate location if it’s unavailable in your area.
TIP: The yellow fever vaccine can be expensive (i.e., $250+) in the United States, but is free or low cost (i.e., less than $20) in other countries like Mexico, Cuba, Panama, Jamaica or Colombia. If you plan to travel to a Caribbean or Latin American country in the near future, it may be worthwhile to receive the vaccine there.
5. FIND AN AIRFARE DEAL
No longer do you have to pay $1,500+ to travel to Africa. Airfare has significantly decreased in recent years and you can often find round trip flights for less than $700, especially to popular countries like South Africa, Kenya, Egypt and Morocco. If you’re lucky, you can even find round trip flights as low as $450. The Middle East airlines – Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad – provide excellent service and quality, and often have the most affordable fares. Several African airlines – Southern African Airways, Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines – also offer service from the USA.
The cheapest flights from the USA to Africa typically depart from New York or Washington DC. If you’re not lucky enough to live in either city, you can often travel there from your home city and realize significant savings over the cost of departing from home. Another option is flying through Europe. Flights from Europe to Africa are significantly cheaper than flights from the USA. If you can snag a flight deal from the USA to a European country, you can purchase a separate ticket from there to an African country. In both instances, calculate the price of all options to determine if the time and cost savings are worthwhile.
Google flights is great for searching fare pairs to and from various African cities. Google will also monitor prices for you if you set an alert. Other popular flight deal sites include Secretflying, The Flight Deal, Airfare Spot and Airfare Watchdog. On those sites, you must be ready to purchase quickly because the deals don’t always last long.
6. FIND SUITABLE ACCOMODATIONS
Accommodations on the African continent range from basic, backpacker hostels to mid-range B&Bs, guest houses, and apartments, to 5-star luxury homes, hotels and lodges. In short, there is lodging to suit every travel style and budget.
For those looking for basic and cheap accommodations and a communal environment to meet other travelers, a hostel may suit the bill. They typically offer both dormitory and private room options and include common areas with pool tables, kitchens and bars. Hostelworld provides detailed property descriptions and ratings and is a good site to search for hostels across the continent.
For those seeking more homey accommodations, a B&B or guest house might be appropriate. They are quite common across Africa and typically consist of multiple private en-suite rooms within a large home or complex. All guests have access to the common areas, like the lounge area and outdoor facilities. Breakfast is usually included in the daily rate and other meals are available for purchase. An on-site owner and staff provide daily housekeeping and food service. Another option is a short or long-term apartment rental. Unlike B&Bs and guest houses, rental apartments are typically larger single units that don’t include housekeeping and food service. Popular rental sites include Airbnb, Innclusive, VRBO, and Homeaway. Rates are often as low as $25 per night.
For those who prefer high-end accommodations, a plethora of private safari lodges, waterfront luxury vacation homes, and 5-star hotels will indulge your appetite for opulence. You can be guaranteed these facilities will be lavish with top-notch service. Five Star Alliance lists 160 of the best African luxury hotels. For those looking for deals, Luxury Link has auctions on a number of luxury resorts where you can name your price.
7. BE A RESPONSIBLE TRAVELER
Historically, travel has had many negative effects, such as displacing local inhabitants, destroying natural habitats, harming wildlife, and excluding local communities from the economic rewards. Responsible travel seeks to minimize those effects and promotes the idea that travel should make a positive impact on local communities, wildlife, and the environment. Africa offers ample opportunities for travelers to support this effort.
When you travel to Africa, find ways for your travel to benefit the local communities you are visiting. Use available space in your luggage to bring school supplies, grooming and health aids, or medical supplies. Pack for a Purpose supports a number of community initiatives and partners with providers across the continent to collect supplies. Stay in locally-owned B&Bs or guest houses. Instead of using big-name corporate tour companies, seek out and use local, African tour guides and tour companies. Visit local communities and learn about their traditional knowledge, culture and cuisine. Talk with the residents and have a meaningful cultural exchange. When shopping, buy directly from local artisans instead of souvenir shops. Avoid exploitative wildlife attractions, such as walking with lions or wild game hunts. Instead, go on a wildlife safari or visit animal sanctuaries that rescue abused and injured animals.
Being a responsible traveler will require more research and effort on your part, but you’ll be a good global citizen and have a more fulfilling experience in the end.
The Travel Africa Movement ™ (TAM) is global community of people who have traveled to or who are interested in traveling to the African continent. We offer several trips per year to introduce our members to the diverse and beautiful cultures, people, cuisines, landscapes, and activities in the 54 countries and island nations of Africa. We hope to see you on one of our upcoming trips. To learn more, visit us at www.travelafricamovement.com.