I thought Malawi was the easy one on this trip. Long visa-free for many nationalities, I was first into the immigration hall, had my yellow fever vaccination certificate open to flex to the health official and then ran into a wall of confused people with lines from a row of visa booths extending into immigration lines in the cramped arrivals hall in Lilongwe.
We were told effective October 1 Malawi had a new visa regime. Fill out the form and go to the first booth. Then the second booth to pay $75 and get a full-page visa. Then wade back to an immigration line. The process took over an hour. For good measure, customs officials checked every bag, some cursory, some item by item. What happened?
I asked several of the agents, in a friendly way, the reasons for the new regime. All I got was that there is a new government. I don’t know when they announced this, the notice from the Malawi Embassy in Washington went out on October 2, while the US State Department updated their travel info on September 30. The prime hint is, “…will not exempt any country where Malawians are required to pay visas except for.”
Both notices recommend getting a visa in advance, and both indicate visa on arrival should still work, with the caveat that individual airlines potentially can deny boarding without proof of a visa. South African Airlines was not checking visas on departure from Johannesburg so they haven’t gotten the memo. Best to check Star Alliance Timatic to see what airlines see.
There is a claim that an e-visa system is in the works. Study the examples of other countries for the likely timeline and ease of use.
There was no indication to me that visa on arrival was a problem or going to be a problem, though that may be due to the process just starting. I encountered a similar dilemma with Mozambique, which announced last fall it would not grant visa on arrival for nationals in countries where there is a Mozambique embassy. I found conflicting reports online so I got a Mozambique visa in advance at great expense. Upon arrival in Maputo there was a desk with a camera that I presumed to be for visa on arrival. It was not staffed and there was no signage. The immigration officer who stamped my passport did not respond to a greeting so I did not pursue conversation.
Back to Malawi, I can understand why they are instituting a reciprocity system, though I believe it is self-defeating. Countries like the US get away with onerous visa policies because many people will come anyway. Malawi, however, is not easy or cheap to reach by air or land, even from its neighbors. The people have a justifiably friendly reputation, tourist lodges have been increasing on Lake Malawi and parks are being restocked with wildlife. It was building a reputation as a ‘next thing’ for those who have tried safaris in the major destinations like South African and Kenya. This will not help word of mouth. Guaranteed arrival hassle and potential to need a visa in advance makes it hard to recommend Malawi’s subtle charms to all but the most determined.