Disclaimer: All mistakes I made, were preventable. Either with more preparation time or careful reading. Also I still made it to South Africa. 😉
Back in mid summer 2015 my supervisor in Rostock, Germany made me a unique offer: To travel as exchange scientist to a research group in Stellenbosch, South Africa.
As undergraduate student helper I didn’t hesitated and said yes. Normally undergraduate students, like me, are not often asked to travel abroad, so I felt and still feel very honored to do so.
But there were some struggles to overcome, before I could start my journey: First of all I had to pass my last exam (of course in my last try), which took forever to get the results for. Therefore I changed my plans to departure on the 15th January, instead of somewhen in October. At this point I thought 3 months of preparation are sufficient. (Quick forward: they are not!)
My preparation started with mailing the research group I shall visit and I also booked my flight. After this I was idling for another month before I took a look into finding accommodation. To get a bit of help there I contacted the international office and together we were quite successful. To get a dorm room I was way to late, but I found some private housing adverts, which were really promising. It’s crucial to find a flat near your university or working place, because public transportation simply does not exist in most parts of South Africa.
This was also the first time I started to think about visa application, which was in retrospective way too late.
Gathering all relevant documents was quiet difficult, because for a long term stay visa in South Africa you need 2 medical examination, a police clearance certificate, a letter of admission from the university, your flight tickets and a lot of other stuff. Therefore I was busy getting everything together for another month. From my estimated 3 month of preparation there was only one left.
Time to visit the embassy in Berlin! That’s the point everything went terribly wrong. After 2.5 hours of waiting, they said I was applying for the wrong type of visa. What I needed would have been a study visa, for which you also need a medical insurance *in* South Africa from a South African company. To keep things tuning this happened right before Christmas, so I got an insurance and applied again. This time via post (because they already seen my passport). Unfortunately I printed out the checklist again, which didn’t contained my reference number, also there was 1 day missing in my insurance. My flight back was scheduled on the 1st of August and the insurance ended at the 31st of July. I discovered both flaws only when I visited the embassy a second time. Because the package returning all my documents only contained a note to check my documents again. So my second visit was right 11 days before my departure. At this time I was unaware, that the procession of a long term study visa could take up to 8 weeks. Instead I thought it wouldn’t take longer than 10 days. (Another case, where careful reading would have saved me a lot of stress)
Even though the consultants were a lot more relaxed on my second visit, they were not at all helpful, when it comes to solving problems. “It’s not our problem” was the sentence I remember the most.
So after everything went terrible wrong I decided to split my stay into 2 parts. To stay so under 90 days mark, which allows everyone with a German passport to travel with a Visa on arrival. As the lady from the international office said, it’s actually not legal, but many student do it this way. Also she said to me, that I do not have to travel back to Germany, instead I just need to cross 2 borders (e.g. Botswana and Namibia). At the point of writing, I didn’t made decision, which “solution” I would prefer.
Actually it was quiet surprising for me how friendly and relaxed everyone here is, compared to the embassy in Berlin. Therefore don’t let the mood of the admin staff influence your view on South African people!
At the end not everything went wrong and I safely arrived in Cape Town – with a bit of delay, though.