When moving to a new country, there’s a lot of preparation that needs to take place before you actually get onto a plane…

In Rocky II, Rocky’s trainer Mickey emphasised the need for adequate preparation for his upcoming rematch against World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed.  “For a forty-five-minute fight, a boxer needs to train for forty-five thousand minutes.  Forty-five thousand!”

While relocating to another country is probably not on the same scale as getting into shape for a world title fight, preparation is nonetheless just as important.  An emigration is a bit like implementing a major corporate IT project or building a World Cup stadium – the rule of thumb is that whatever you initially calculate to be the cost and time that the undertaking will involve, double both!

In my case I resigned from my employment three months before my intended departure date, and treated my relocation preparations as a full-time job.  In hindsight, I could have done with more time, but finances did not permit this.  In the end I managed to do 90% of what I felt I should have done, and I’m not convinced that an extra month or two would have necessarily got me much closer to 100%.

What follows below is how I approached my own relocation from South Africa to the United Kingdom.  Bear in mind that I’m no expert, and in hindsight I made more than my fair share of blunders.  Also, each person’s situation is unique to themselves and their families, so don’t see this as a blueprint.  Rather, it is hopefully an indication of what you can expect to face – and if nothing else, will empower you concerning the sort of questions that you need to ask.  So here goes…

Getting your affairs in order before you leave is critical if you want to avoid major problems (and costs) later. Sorting out passports and visas are particularly important.
Photo by Mpho Mojapelo on Unsplash

Passport requirements for leaving South Africa

The first step may sound blindingly obvious, but do you have the necessary passport to enable you to leave South Africa in the first place?  Bear in mind that when you pass through the airport, the officials will check whether you have the necessary credentials to leave South Africa, as well as those required to enter your destination country.

Many people in this situation make the mistake of thinking that they only need to meet the requirements of the destination country.  This is not the case – you will not be permitted to leave the originating country (in this case, South Africa) unless you meet its requirements as well.

For South African citizens (whether you solely hold SA citizenship or dual citizenship with that of another country), you are required by law to leave South Africa on your South African passport.  This applies even in cases where you have no intention of returning to South Africa.  If your SA passport has expired or you don’t have one, you need to submit a passport application to your local Department of Home Affairs office.

If you are not a South African citizen, it is presumed that you have a permanent residence permit issued by the Department of Home Affairs.  These permits were previously stamped / inserted in one’s passport, but Home Affairs discontinued this practice several years ago and issued letters instead.  If you are a foreign citizen and do not have this letter, contacting Home Affairs should be your first port of call.  Don’t make any other arrangements until you have this letter in your hand, as turnaround times cannot be guaranteed.

Immigration requirements for your destination country

The second step may also sound blindingly obvious – to get into the country to which you are intending to relocate, you also need to satisfy that country’s requirements.  Using the United Kingdom as an example, I was in the fortunate position of being a dual SA / UK citizen, so all I needed upon arrival was a valid UK passport.  However, if you are not a citizen of your intended destination country, this is where things get a fair bit more complicated.

I’ll use the situation of my South African wife as an illustration, but each country has its own immigration requirements and you need to study these carefully.  The best place to access these is the official government website of the intended destination country.  Visa applications can be horrendously expensive (especially with SA’s weak exchange rate against major currencies – all application fees are payable in the destination country’s currency), and in the case of unsuccessful applications, such fees are usually not refundable.

Turning to my own situation, for three of the four members of my family, things were straight-forward:

  • My mother is British-born, is a citizen of the UK, and had lived in South Africa on a permanent residence permit since 1974.  Her UK passport had expired, but applying for the renewal thereof was simple as it is done online.  The cost was £72.50 (since increased to ₤75.50 for online applications and ₤85.00 for paper applications), and her passport was delivered in SA by courier within 10 days of application.
  • I was born in the UK, having immigrated to South Africa with my parents at the age of 5.  I was automatically naturalised as an SA citizen at age 16 when applying for my first adult ID book, and accordingly have held dual SA / UK citizenship since then.
  • My son was born in South Africa, and with both my wife and I holding SA citizenship, he was registered as South African shortly after his birth, as required by Home Affairs.  He also became automatically entitled to British citizenship by virtue of one of his parents (me) being British-born.

This leaves my good lady.  Born in Johannesburg to two South African parents, she has no claim to the citizenship of any other country, whether through the ‘ancestral visa’ route or otherwise.  However, the UK’s immigration laws provide for a non-British person to be sponsored by their British spouse, provided that the following conditions are met:

  1. The British spouse must hold valid British citizenship – without this, the process is a non-starter.
  • Evidence of a valid, permanent relationship needs to be submitted with the visa application.  In my case, our marriage certificate alone was insufficient (despite having been married for 26 years at the time of our application) – we needed to include a declaration that we were not separated with the intention of dissolving our marriage; evidence of a shared household (bills, photographs, etc.); and – given that I had gone to the UK to establish accommodation and employment – evidence of ongoing communications between ourselves (e-mails, WhatsApp calls, mobile phone records, etc.).
  • The British spouse needs to be able to prove that they meet the following financial requirements in order to sponsor their non-British spouse:
  • Be able to provide permanent accommodation (whether owned or rented) that is adequate to house themselves, their non-British spouse, and any dependent children who will be accompanying them; and
  • Provide evidence of annual earnings of at least £18 600 (R344 100 at an exchange rate of £1 = R18.50).  If any of your children (under the age of 18) are not British or EU citizens, further annual earnings of £3 800 (R70 300) for the first child and £2 400 (R44 400) for each child thereafter.  Acceptable evidence for SA earnings would include your latest income tax returns, payslips from your employer, financial statements of your professional practice, etc.; whereas to meet the UK earnings requirement, an appointment letter from a UK employer where the remuneration meets the earnings requirement will suffice.
  • Note that only the earnings of the British sponsor are considered – those of the non-British spouse are ignored.  This can be problematic in cases where the non-British spouse is the primary breadwinner.
  • Although English is one of the most widely-spoken languages in South Africa, only just under 9% of the SA population speaks English as their first language.  Accordingly, the non-British spouse needs to provide evidence of English-speaking proficiency in the form of an approved English language test at CEFR level A1 in speaking and listening.  If the non-British spouse has a UK NARIC-recognised bachelors’ degree from an English-medium South African university, the test requirement is waived.
  • For non-British spouses from certain countries (which includes South Africa), a tuberculosis screening certificate also needs to be submitted.
  • In addition to the visa application fee of R29 419 (payable in rands from South Africa), your non-British spouse also needs to pay a surcharge of £400 (R7 400) for each year or part thereof for which the visa is required (the initial visa is issued for 2½ years) to be entitled to benefits from the National Health Service.

As you can see from this example, applying for a spousal visa is a tedious and incredibly expensive exercise.  In my case, it also included a six-month separation from my family as I had to physically move to the UK ahead of time in order to secure temporary accommodation, then employment, followed by permanent accommodation – all before my wife’s application could even be submitted … but more about that in the next Letter From A Small Island.