We break down everything you need to know for a great trip. Here is our list of the top 12 Do’s and Don’ts when visiting Africa.
1. DO Verify Whether You Need a Visa and Vaccinations
A visa is an endorsement placed within your passport that grants you official permission to enter, leave, or stay in a country for a specified time period. US citizens can visit 14 African countries visa free, but most require a visa and they’ll cost you anywhere from $20.00 to $275.00. It varies by country, but visas can be obtained in advance, either online or from an embassy or consulate your home country, or upon arrival at the airport or at a land border crossing. Similarly, some countries, primarily in West and Central Africa, require all visitors to be vaccinated for the yellow fever vaccine and to present a “Yellow Card” as proof. The lack of a visa and/or evidence of vaccination can result in you being denied entry, so you should always verify the visa and vaccination requirements of the country you’re visiting. The CDC Traveler’s Health site is the best source of information about required and recommended vaccines and medications.
2. DO Respect the Local Culture and Customs
You will be immersing yourself in a culture likely different from your own and it is important to observe the local customs and traditions. You should study some of the local traditions and taboos before travel. Greetings are important in African culture and it is considered rude and disrespectful not to greet when meeting someone or engaging in any transaction. Likewise, respect is very important, particularly for elders and chiefs who hold positions of honor and status. Elders and dignitaries should always be greeted first and in some instances, you may be expected to genuflect before them. Finally, African societies tend to be more traditional and conservative than Western ones (though it can vary by country and region based on religion and culture). Most local men wear pants and shirts or traditional wear. Most local women wear dresses or skirts that fall below the knee and tops that don’t expose shoulders or cleavage. Tight and revealing clothes will stand out and may be frowned upon. Out of respect, you may want to leave the low-cut tops, midriffs, spaghetti straps, short shorts, and miniskirts at home.
3. DO Carry Tissues and/or Wipes
On occasion, you might find that some public restrooms lack toilet paper or there is a nominal fee for a small ration of paper. You should always carry tissue or wipes in case the restroom doesn’t have them. Hand sanitizer is also useful.
4. DO Get Over Your Fear of Bugs and Critters
Many of these countries have tropical and subtropical climates where bugs and critters thrive (especially flies, mosquitos, lizards, and roaches). There’s a chance that you may see a critter in your lodging or at a restaurant and it doesn’t necessarily mean the place is unclean. Most facilities have bug spray available, so ask if needed.
5. DO Visit Both the City and the Village
Contrary to some media portrayals, Africa is about more than poverty and safaris. African cities have gleaming skyscrapers, modern malls, museums, and fancy hotels and restaurants. They’re vibrant and fast-paced with many people selling goods and going about their daily business. The streets stay busy day and night, and the sounds, activity, bright clothes, and strong food aromas will thrill and entice you. By contrast, the rural villages are typically quieter and slower-paced, and the people live in more modest housing. But it is here where traditional customs, dance, and religions shine and you’ll have the best opportunity to immerse in the culture and interact with various ethnic groups. Be sure to spend time in both the city and the village to see the diversity and experience the contrasting lifestyles and cultures.
6. DO Be Open and Willing to Learn a New Way of Life
Africa’s countries are developing and you should not expect everything to operate like at home. Infrastructure for transportation, electricity, water, phone service, or internet might not be up to your country’s standards. Sanitation and waste disposal may be poor. Food may be prepared unlike you’re accustomed and people may eat with their hands. You will likely need to avoid tap water and drink bottled water instead. You may have to pay a small fee to use public restrooms. You may find that there are no set prices and you have to haggle and negotiate for the best deals. You may see street vendors dashing thru traffic and selling everything from snacks to phone chargers and pillows. Addresses aren’t common, so you may encounter difficulty finding a building and need to use nearby landmarks. Weather, power outages, loss of hot water, traffic jams, or other conditions may cause inconveniences or unanticipated delays. Don’t be rude or disrespectful if you encounter any of these circumstances, as they are a part of everyday life on the continent. Embrace the experience and learn from your new environment.
7. DON’T Wear Camouflage Clothing
It is illegal for civilians to wear camouflage clothing in at least 12 African countries, including Benin, Cameroon, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. If you decide to wear it, make sure to verify it’s legal in the country you’re visiting. When in doubt, leave it at home.
8. DON’T Photograph Children or Adults Without Their Consent
Not only is it rude to snap a person’s photo and share it on social media without their permission, it may also be culturally inconsiderate or even illegal in some countries. In Senegal, it is against the law to photograph children without their parents’ permission. In Ethiopia, consent is required to publish a photo of a person in a public place. Culturally, some consider photos taboo because it is believed that capturing a person’s image is stealing their soul. Similarly, some strict Muslims believe that photography is forbidden by Islam and would take great offense to being photographed. Even still, certain tribal customs require you to ask first and provide money or a small gift for taking photos. For all these reasons, it is best to ask first and respect the answer given.
9. DON’T Photograph Police Officers, Military Installations, Airports or Government Buildings
Most countries prohibit civilians from photographing police officers, military installations, or airports. Some even prohibit photographs of government buildings. If you’re caught, a uniformed officer may demand that you erase your photos or surrender your memory card. In the worst-case scenario, you may be fined or arrested. When in doubt, ask first or forgo the photo.
10. DON’T Use Your Left Hand
Because the left hand is used for personal hygiene and bathroom functions, it is considered rude and dirty to use your left hand in interactions with others. To be respectful, you should always shake hands, handle money, pick up or pass items, and eat food with your right hand.
11. DON’T Expect Everyone to Speak English
Africa is a huge and incredibly diverse continent. But while it has 54 countries, there are only 25 in which English is spoken as a primary, secondary or official language. And only about 240 million of its 1.2 billion people speak English. Thus, while you will find some English speakers in the major cities of non-Anglophone countries, most will not speak English especially in rural areas. The majority of Africa’s population speak one or more of 2,000 traditional and other languages, with Swahili being the most widely spoken language. To better interact and communicate, you may want to learn a few words of the primary language in your host country.
12. DON’T Stress About Time
Africans generally lead a more relaxed and less rigorously scheduled lifestyle than Westerners. You may find that service is slower than you’re used to and events may start later than scheduled. Stores may open later or close earlier than listed hours of operation. This laxity about time is jokingly called “African Time” and you will almost surely experience it during your time in Africa. Know that everything runs at a slower pace, so just chill and enjoy your time out of the rat race.
US citizens can visit 14 African countries without a visa. Learn which ones they are.
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 14 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.
Updated: July 2021
Effective February 24, 2020, U.S. citizens entering Cabo Verde (aka Cape Verde) for tourism for less than 30 days do not require a tourist visa.
Cape Verde is Africa’s 5th smallest nation, comprised of 10 islands in the Atlantic Ocean: Santiago, Sal, Boa Vista, Santo Antão, São Vicente, São Nicolau, Santa Luzia, Maio, Fogo, and Brava. It’s located in West Africa, about 350 miles west of Senegal. Its capital and largest city is Praia on the main island of Santiago, which is also considered the most African of the islands. Cape Verde has a spectacular annual Carnival which is like a mini-version of Brazil’s Carnival. Like Brazil, it’s also a Lusophone country, meaning Portuguese is an official language. Each of the islands has a different landscape and cultural vibe and tourists frequently island hop to visit several islands in one trip. Visitors are drawn to the variety of activities, white and black sand beaches, water sports, mountain trekking, hiking, historical sites and architecture, street art, music, local cuisine and wines, and even an active volcano.