What is causing international student visa-processing delays?

International students in South Africa whose study visa applications are still pending were granted a blanket extension of their current visa status until 30 June 2022. If any of these applicants elect to abandon pending applications, they are allowed to leave South Africa by this date without being declared undesirable. But what is causing visa-processing delays?

In a context of internationalisation of higher education, a successful visa application process involves a well-informed student applicant, the smooth and efficient running of several government departments and engaged and knowledgeable university staff who know how and when to intervene to ensure that an international student can legally register at an institution away from home.

In South Africa, a popular study destination, visa controversies have arisen in higher education circles and, often, the immediate assumption is that the South African Department of Home Affairs (DHA) is at fault. However, delays and other difficulties may be the result of several factors. In this article, some pertinent questions about the process are addressed.

Why are there current delays in visa processing?

The visa-issuing machine remained on-site and inaccessible to DHA employees during lockdown and visa renewals could not be processed. As such, there was a significant backlog to be processed once COVID restrictions ended.

How has DHA supported students in South Africa affected by the backlogs?

A series of exemptions were issued and extended as necessary, permitting universities to register their students for the 2022 academic year with a proof of the receipt showing their application for their visa renewal.

Phindiwe Mbhele, the director of corporate accounts at DHA explained: “Since the declaration of the National State of Disaster in March 2020 to prevent and combat the spread of COVID-19, the minister of home affairs had gazetted directions in terms of which visas which expired during the state of disaster were extended.

“On 2 February 2022, a further extension was granted, which extended the validity of visas until 30 April 2022, to accommodate individuals whose documents expired during the period of the National State of Disaster and who had applied for a waiver in terms of the Immigration Act, 2002.”

Subsequently, in a circular forwarded to universities in early May 2022, applicants whose study visa applications were still pending were granted a blanket extension of their current visa status, until 30 June 2022. Furthermore, if any of these applicants elected to abandon pending applications, they were allowed to leave South Africa by this date, without being declared undesirable.

In addition to the above, travel was permitted to neighbouring countries during the April festive season and students could be admitted back into South Africa, by presenting their receipt from the Visa Facilitation Services (VFS) at the port of entry and proceed with their studies while awaiting their visa outcomes.

Applicants who originate from countries that are visa restricted had to obtain a port of entry visa in advance, and present their receipt from the VFS, in order to re-enter South Africa.

These exemptions and concessions permitted the students, already inside South Africa, to proceed with their studies and South African universities to legally register the students, while the DHA continue to catch up with the backlog of study visa-related applications.

What about the international students applying from outside South Africa?

Unfortunately, the students caught outside the country, whose visas have expired, must embark on a completely new visa application process, and are not covered by the exemptions granted to the international students, who are inside the country. They face a range of other issues, some of which are covered below.

Had there been progress in the processing of students visas prior to these recent delays?

The South African DHA study visa renewal system itself had generally improved, over the last decade, prior to the COVID-related setbacks, when the visa processing was again significantly delayed.

University staff, who belong to the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA), have engaged in a formal and constructive relationship with DHA, under several ministers, for many years now.

Through this well-established relationship, university staff in international offices came to understand the immigration process, the reasons for delays and the temporary solutions that may be agreed, when there are systemic problems beyond the control of the student or the university.

Not every problem can be resolved immediately, and visa application processes are inevitably tedious the world over, but an in-depth understanding helps with proposing temporary solutions as and when required.

What does it take to get a South African study visa and what are some of the things that can go wrong in the process?

While COVID disruptions and backlogs explain some of the contemporary issues, delays in a student acquiring a visa can be caused by the knock-on effects of several other delayed processes while collecting documents in preparation to submit a visa application.

Once a student has applied for and been offered a place at a South African university, a student may then proceed to apply for a study visa. However, applying for a student visa requires the collection of a variety of other official documents, some of which can take time to process.

Delays in acquiring any of the full list of documents required, may delay students submitting visa applications.

The challenge for the student is to get all the documentation together, within the tight timeframe needed to apply for a visa, to allow for a normal processing time of six to eight weeks, and to get the visa in one’s hand, before the annual registration deadline of their chosen university.

This is especially important for undergraduates, who need to be physically attending scheduled classes. Postgraduates who are researching independently can sometimes have a little more flexibility.

A valid passport is essential

A student must have a valid passport, which expires in no less than 30 days, after the intended date of departure from the Republic of South Africa.

International students should apply for a passport well in advance of when they need to apply for a visa. A visa can only be issued up to the end date of the passport. If a passport is going to run out after a year, a student could be advised to apply for a new one to ensure that a visa can be sought for the full duration of the degree.

Exceptional delays in acquiring passports for Zimbabwean students included a period in Zimbabwe, where there was a shortage of the paper needed to print passports, which had the knock-on effect of delaying students acquiring passports in time to apply for their visas.

A Letter of Offer and a Letter of Undertaking from the registrar is a prerequisite

An official Letter of Offer is required, which includes a specific Letter of Undertaking from the Registrar of the university, confirming provisional acceptance or unconditional acceptance at that learning institution and specifying the duration of the course.

The dates on this letter determine the duration of the visa. Occasionally, clerical errors might lead to a visa having incorrect dates, which impacts on the student.

Increasingly, SA embassies phone universities in South Africa to verify these Letters of Offer, managing the risk of fraud.

However, if the caller does not make contact or the wrong person picks up the phone, and is unaware of the application, a visa can be rejected without further engagement, leaving the student in an invidious position.

Proof of financial means and accommodation is compulsory

International students are supposed to be able to sustain themselves on arrival in South Africa. Proof of financial means includes three months’ bank statements from sponsors, parents or guardians containing details of the person as well as the account type, with a bank stamp on each page.

COVID has affected employment and family income and not everyone can get their proof of financial means together in a timely fashion. A copy of the passport or identity document, or ID, of the person who provides proof of financial means is necessary as well, and it must be certified.

Proof of accommodation in advance of arriving in the country can be challenging, especially if you are not staying in campus accommodation.

International students are currently at risk of losing financial access, as banks can close their accounts, without valid visas on their passports, in spite of exemptions.

A medical and radiology report is essential

A medical report, not older than six months, is required. Furthermore, a radiology report, by a registered radiologist, certifying that the applicant has been examined and that no signs of active pulmonary tuberculosis could be detected, no older than six months at the time of its submission, is also required.

The report needs to be stamped with the practice number, and contact details including the address and signed by the practitioner. Requirements for stamping, and so on, are usually a measure to prevent fraud. Any deviation from the specific instructions can result in a rejected application.

Current medical aid cover is a compulsory component of a valid visa

Medical cover, with a medical scheme registered with the South African Medical Schemes Act, 1998 (Act No 131 of 1998) is a requirement.

Some students purchase general medical insurance that does not comply with the approved list of medical schemes and it is not accepted, which delays the visa application, or it is mistakenly accepted, and the student ends up having to purchase a compliant medical aid membership on arrival, as a condition to register with the university.

Furthermore, a letter of undertaking from parent or sponsor to continue paying for a student’s medical aid for years exceeding the year covered by the medical aid certificate is also required in addition to the medical aid membership certificate.

Police Clearance Certificates (PCC) are essential

The number of PCCs required for an application varies depending on individual circumstances. These include whether the student is applying for a visa from outside South Africa or renewing a visa from inside South Africa and the number of countries the student has resided in for more than one year since they were 18.

A first-time entry student, who has lived in one country, is required to apply at their local police station for a PCC. The PCC remains valid for six months and must be valid at the time of submitting the visa application.

If a student has completed one cycle of study in South Africa and leaves the country but then decides to pursue further studies in South Africa, a physical PCC for the time you have already spent in South Africa must be obtained from inside the borders of South Africa, when applying for a new visa in their home country. Securing police clearances can create delays in the visa application process.

What delayed students registering in South Africa in 2022?

In early 2022, there were lengthy delays in students getting paper copies of PCCs from the South African Police Service (SAPS), which was a prerequisite for applying for their visas in their home country.

Without the PCCs, students could not even submit a visa application and without a visa, they could not register at a South Africa university. The police currently have a notice on their website: ‘Criminal Record and Crime Scene Management is currently experiencing a backlog with the issuing of police clearance certificates which has extended the waiting period for finalisation’.

The police are working to address the backlog. Various reasons for the delays were cited by students and reasons given in recent articles, including lack of electricity, indicative of the negative impact of load-shedding on the efficiency of government departments, and delays in the payment of rent.

A recent article claimed that there was still a backlog of more than 85,000 applicants.

For some students, registration for the academic year in 2022 was delayed or postponed due to the PCC delays. Some students gave up and others eventually managed to register, with concessions from their universities.

What are the benefits of applying for a study renewal from within South Africa?

The impact of delayed PCCs, which, in turn, delay the visa application process, can be mitigated if students who are already in South Africa apply for their visa renewal from within South Africa as, in this case, only the South African PCC is required.

The assumption is that all other PCCs would have been presented when the first visa was acquired, and that only criminal records in South Africa need to be checked. PCCs may now be obtained and paid for on the spot at the Visa Facilitation Centres (VFCs) in South Africa, which is a more convenient option and has saved students an enormous amount of time, compared to when they had to apply for and wait for paper copies from the central criminal records section of the South African Police Service.

If students know they want to study in South Africa for a further programme of work, applying for a visa renewal in South Africa is a simpler, more convenient process and to be recommended.

Delays due to occasional human error

When students are finally issued with a visa, occasionally there may be mistakes with the dates on the visa, for example. This type of error may be rectified via a VFS, rectification process, which is free of charge.

Another pitfall may occur at the port of entry, where the stipulated exit date on the stamp received is different to the departure dates stipulated in the visa itself. The student should always check the stamp placed on their passport at the port of entry.

If there is a mistake, it needs to be rectified there and then, at the port of entry. If the error is only picked up afterwards by the university, the student will have to travel back to that port of entry to rectify that mistake.

Minimising the risk of delayed registration due to visa issues

• Students need to read the requirements on the VFS website and any guidance issued by their universities. If anything is not clear, request clarity from the universities, in advance of travel.

• Always check the DHA website for up-to-date advice before travelling.

• Universities need to ensure that someone has responsibility for advising their students on visa matters.

• Generally, this knowledge resides in the international offices.

• If this specific expertise is not present in an individual university and the university is a member of IEASA, they may liaise with IEASA. IEASA remains current about any developments pertaining to students’ visas and invites the DHA to provide their members with regular updates.

• IEASA can also put members in touch with other members, who may have specialist expertise.

Orla Quinlan, was the president of the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA) from 2019-20. She is the current director of internationalisation at Rhodes University, South Africa. Her role, during the past decade, has included pre-registering thousands of international students and assisting them resolve visa issues. She has provided advice and presented workshops on immigration issues, via IEASA, in collaboration with the South African Department of Home Affairs.