Everyone who’s been following along on Instagram during our recent travel to South Africa and Botswana keeps asking what the heck happened that landed us at the embassy and stranded for four days.
The truth is, the story was too much and too long to share on the gram, which makes it a perfect candidate for a blog post!
This post will share our personal story of why we were refused entry into South Africa from Botswana, our experience at the American embassy in Botswana, and how you can make sure this doesn’t happen to you.
The real purpose of sharing my story is to try to prevent this from happening to you. Because while we were safe in our experience, it certainly wasn’t any fun. And, this mistake cost us a whole lot of money, time, and dampened our overall trip due to the inconvenience of it all.
So, if sharing my story can help even just one of you during your travel to South Africa, Botswana, or any country really- then it was well worth it.
Preparing Your Travel Documents When Traveling Africa
Let me preface this by saying I’ve been traveling for over a decade. I spent most of my adult life living out of a backpack running around Africa and Asia. I’m no stranger to traveling. I understand the importance of paperwork and visas. And still, I made this huge mistake that cost us a lot of time and money.
First things first, you need a passport. I believe even people who are entering from countries that are visa exempt (as some neighboring countries are), still need a passport. At the very minimum, these visa exempt countries will need official identification.
I’m from the US, so I can only speak from my experience of being an American entering South Africa and Botswana. If you’re not from the States, then I highly recommend checking the specifics for your country of origin, as the requirements do change based on the passport you hold.
Expiration Date In Passport
Having a passport isn’t enough to get you in the country. Most countries also require that you have at least 6 months until your passport expires, as well. Again, this varies from country to country, and it also varies depending on your country of origin. Make sure to check based on exactly where you’re going, and where you’re from.
Blank Visa Pages In Passport
In your valid passport you’ll also need a set amount of blank pages in order to enter. Every country in Africa has different requirements for the number of blank pages. In our experience entering South Africa and Botswana, you needed at least two blank visa pages to enter.
I’d like to emphasize that these pages must be VISA PAGES. Please see the photos for reference, because this was our huge mistake.
We had blank pages in our passports, but they were endorsement pages. These pages are found at the back of your passport, while the visa pages are clearly labeled with the word VISA on the top.
Countries aren’t meant to stamp endorsement pages, but I’d had previous entry stamps on other endorsement pages in my passport, so I really didn’t notice the difference. If you don’t have two fully blank visa pages, you will be denied entry to South Africa and Botswana, as well as many other countries around the world.
You will need a visa to enter African countries, unless you’re traveling with a passport that makes you visa exempt. Please check this based on your country of origin. If you’re traveling with a US passport, then you’ll always need a visa to enter.
The visa requirements vary depending on which country you’re going to, how long you’re staying, where you’re country of origin is, and what you plan on doing there. Assuming you’re going for tourism, the visa process is typically quite simple and accessible. Many visas can be obtained on arrival, but it’s always best to check well in advance of your trip.
What Happens If You Get Denied Entry
Here’s the thing, you shouldn’t even be let on the flight in your country of origin if you don’t meet the entry requirements of the country where you’re headed. I honestly don’t know why they even let us board the flight to South Africa from San Francisco. Because they could clearly see we didn’t have the correct blank pages in our passport.
I’m also extremely confused that they let us enter South Africa from the US without any issues. No one questioned our lack of correct blank pages, or made any note of it- leaving us continually unaware.
It wasn’t until we were leaving South Africa to go to Botswana that they flagged my passport in particular (although my wife’s had the same issue, they didn’t seem to care about hers). They asked how long we were going to Botswana. And if we were planning to come back to South Africa.
They didn’t like that I didn’t have the correct blank pages. But I also did still have stamping space on other visa pages, so they let me go in the end without much fuss. They also didn’t mention that this was a strict requirement for re-entry back into South Africa, as well.
Once again, I entered Botswana without question or concern with my pages. The immigration officer barely even glanced at me. It wasn’t until we were leaving Botswana that the issue exploded, and we were denied entry onto our flight back to South Africa.
Fly Home Immediately
As much as we begged and pleaded and cried our eyes out, they were clear in not letting me onto that flight. I’m not sure why they only cared about my passport. Because my wife’s had the same issue- but for some reason that went unnoticed.
They gave us two choices: we could fly home (as in back to the States) from Botswana. Or, we could go to the embassy and get an emergency passport to continue our travel onward.
We had left a big suitcase in storage in Cape Town, because we packed light for our week safari in Botswana. Although the items in that suitcase were replaceable if push came to shove, we didn’t want to lose the value of what was in there on top of the cost of changing all of our flights and hotels.
Plus, we’d already been in Botswana for a week, and didn’t have much interest in staying longer. We were ready to clean up from safari, and enjoy some of the comforts that Cape Town has to offer.
Go To The Embassy
This is why we chose the second option- going to the embassy to get an emergency passport. Here’s the thing, this was a Saturday, and the embassy was closed. Which meant we had to wait until Monday for it to open.
Oh, and the embassy was in the capital city, Gaborone, which was about 10 hours away from where we were. When we inquired about flights, we found out all the flights were booked until Wednesday. And truthfully, we couldn’t afford to stay there until Wednesday. Because my wife had to be back in the States for work the following week.
Which left us with no option other than driving from Maun to Gaborone the following day, even though the last thing we wanted to do was be cooped up in a car for 10 hours. It took several hours to find a car and a driver, as we didn’t feel comfortable driving ourselves without service. This cost $300.
We definitely could have taken the bus, which we heard was super comfy. But we wanted to get there fast, and the bus added another 2 hours to the existing 10 hour drive. Although the bus would’ve been cheaper, we were happy with our decision to rent a car.
And, we lucked out with the sweetest guy who drove us. He happened to drive like a maniac, which got us there in 8 hours instead. Bonus!
I should also mention that this particular embassy only offered the emergency passport services on Mondays from 8 am – 12 pm. So, while we weren’t lucky in many ways, we did score in timing. Imagine if this happened in the middle of the week, and you had to wait until Monday to get sorted. Brutal.
Passport Size Photos
After arriving in Gabs, we got a hotel (another $200) and cleaned up for an early morning start on Monday. We needed two passport size photos before our embassy appointment, which neither of us were traveling with.
During the days when I was living out of a backpack, I’d always travel with a sheet of passport size photos, because they’re actually required for some visas and/or other entry conditions. Somehow the Covid era seemed to erase all of my traveler savvy after being stuck at home for a year, and I just forgot about it.
I’d highly recommend always traveling with passport size photos in your passport holder if you don’t already. It can save you time and effort of finding a photoshop in a foreign country, and trying to explain your needs.
Once we got our photos, we jetted to the embassy. There were actually two other American guys there who had the exact same issue. In fact, one of the complaints from the Botswana immigration was that “this only happened with Americans,” which made me feel instantly ashamed.
But then I realized that it’s probably because of the whole airline issue I mentioned before. If they got a hold of the requirements beforehand, then we never would’ve been allowed to leave the States at all. Ugh.
Regardless, the four of us filled out the paperwork, and talked to the incredibly kind consulate who walked us through the steps of what they needed. The paperwork was simple, and the turnaround time was only an hour until we got our emergency passport.
The emergency passport is valid for one year, and looks exactly like a passport only a different color and much fewer pages. You’ll have a brand new passport number, photo and expiry date from your original passport. It cost us $150 each for the new passport.
The consulate should give you documents to fill out in order to get your permanent passport once you’re back in your country of origin. You’ll want to do this within the year, before your emergency passport expires.
Discontinue Your Original Passport
Once you get your emergency passport, they’ll punch holes in your original passport as a super duper official way of saying this is no longer a valid document.
DO NOT THROW YOUR ORIGINAL PASSPORT AWAY!
You’ll want to keep traveling with your original passport alongside your emergency passport to get out of the country that you’re currently stuck in. Of course if your passport is lost or stolen and you can’t travel with your original passport, then just the emergency passport is fine.
The reason you’ll want to travel with both (if you can), is to show your entry stamp when you’re in the country. Beyond the exit of the country that you’re stuck in, you shouldn’t need to show your original document again.
What It’s Like Traveling With An Emergency Passport
Minus the long drive and extra few days, the whole process was super seamless. We felt great after getting our emergency passport, because we were one step closer to getting back to Cape Town.
Although the turnaround time for the new passport was only 1 hour, we decided to book a flight for early Tuesday morning just in case there were any delays. This also allowed us another full night sleep before the travel ahead.
We managed to extend our entire trip by two days (even though the change fee was $800), to make up for the lost time. But unfortunately we lost more money with our booking in Cape Town due to our late arrival. And that was a pretty penny.
I’m sharing these costs so that you have a solid grasp on the fact that this hiccup ended up costing several thousand dollars. I’m not saying this for pity. Because we didn’t exactly go the backpacker traveling on a shoestring budget route. I’m sharing this to emphasize the gravity of this mistake so that you can avoid it!
We got to the airport early on Tuesday morning, showed them our documents at the check in desk, and guess what? We were denied. Again.
Know Your Embassy’s Phone Number
Here’s where it’s vital that you have your embassy’s phone number, and emergency off-hours phone number, on hand. If you don’t know it, simply Google it. We would not have been able to leave the country if we didn’t have this phone number.
What To Do If The Country Doesn’t Accept Emergency Passports
To summarize a very long several hour ordeal, the Botswana immigration officer we were speaking to said that South Africa doesn’t accept emergency passports for entry. And there is some truth to this, in that South Africa doesn’t accept emergency travel documents for entry.
However, an emergency passport holds the same power as a regular passport in South Africa. It is true that some countries don’t accept emergency passports at all, but this isn’t the case for South Africa.
If you’re traveling through a country that doesn’t accept emergency passports, then you just won’t be allowed outside of the airport. You’ll have to stay in transit.
When you’re just trying to get back to your country of origin, then you’re probably fine staying in transit anyways, because you’re only passing through to get back. We, however, needed to get that freaking suitcase which was in a locker outside of the airport.
Plus, we’d just spent hundreds of dollars to change our flight and hotels, which we’d not only lose- but have to pay more– if we needed to reroute again. We needed to get into that damn country.
Let Your Consulate Help You
Remember that sweet angel consulate who helped us in the embassy? Well, she came to the rescue again at this moment.
We called her (in tears again, of course), and told her what was going on. She was appalled, and told us this had never happened before. Ever.
You know those other two American guys who were with us in the embassy? Well, they left the evening before, also with emergency passports. And guess what? Zero issues. So why now, less than 12 hours later were we being denied?
It comes down to people on power trips and misinformation, really. There were some officials we spoke to who were sweet, but firm in saying no…probably because they didn’t want to get in trouble either.
But then there were others who were not only rude, but downright scary to deal with. These are the moments you need to call your consulate or embassy and let them help you. Not only will they have connections with the highest up officials possible, but they’ll also help to keep you safe should anything happen.
After hours at the airport in Botswana
We finally got cleared which was chalked up to a “misunderstanding.” Was it discrimination because of Alix’s obvious gayness? Or was it because we were easier targets as women? Maybe it didn’t have to do with anything like that and it was just bad luck. We’ll never know, we were just happy to get out.
I wish I could say the story ends there, but when we landed in South Africa things took a turn for the worse. The immigration officer we had in Johannesburg was one of the scariest men I’ve ever dealt with.
“Go back to America, you can’t come here with these! What are you thinking?!” He started screaming in our faces right away, waving our documents in disgust.
We were baffled, as we thought this nightmare was over now that we’d finally landed in South Africa. Instead, he insisted on dragging us into the detainment office, yelling at us the entire way, despite our pleas.
Again, that emergency number came in handy, and at this point we had it on speed dial.
Before we could even get through, his boss came out and cleared us to go, because our consulate had already phoned to let him know about our arrival. She called before we even got there to ensure that we didn’t have any problems getting in. I’m telling you this woman was an angel.
At this point I’m crying (yes, again), and fucking terrified that we’re about to be detained in Johannesburg- which isn’t a place you want to be detained as a foreigner, or otherwise. I should also mention that I was newly pregnant, which only added another layer of emotions and panic.
Thank the lord his boss was not only rational, but actually incredibly jovial and kind. He whisked us away, and I’m pretty sure fired the guy right after- because even he was horrified by his behavior. I’m telling you, it was like he was strung out or something. So scary.
And finally, finally- we were let in the country.
All over those damn visa pages.
So, check your passports before you go. Please. Save yourselves the tears and money that will inevitably ensue. Learn from our (very stupid) mistake.
Most of all, have fun!