E-visas: What are they and how do they work?

A visa is an authorization for the holder to travel to the issuing country, where local immigration authorities decide whether to allow the traveller to enter. A visa generally takes the form of a stamp in the traveller’s passport; it is often issued in a diplomatic representation office outside the country of destination, and the traveller must present it to local immigration authorities upon entering the country, at which point the authorities retain the right to refuse the traveller entry. 

There are different classes of visa (transit visas, tourist visas, work visas, etc.) and countries use different procedures to issue them. In the past, travellers were almost always required to obtain a visa before travelling to their country of destination. Nowadays, e-visas are reducing the administrative burden associated with travelling abroad. They are making it easier for travellers to apply for and obtain a visa before leaving home, and are simplifying the visa-issuing process for immigration authorities in the traveller’s destination country. 

An e-visa is a paperless version of a traditional visa for which a traveller can apply from the comfort of their home, office, or other location, before travelling. To apply for an e-visa, the traveller uses a dedicated online portal, where they fill out an application form digitally and upload electronic copies of their supporting documents, such as their passport, proof of funds, and proof of insurance coverage, as needed. 

The number of African countries to have adopted an e-visa system more than doubled between 2016 and 2019, when it rose from 9 to 21 countries. The number rose again in 2020, to 24 countries, and has since remained unchanged except in 2022, when it fell to 23 countries. 

Of the 20 countries that rank the highest on the 2023 AVOI, eight have adopted an e-visa system. Another four have dispensed African travellers from visa requirements altogether.

A word of caution

While e-visa systems can ease the travel process, they are not a panacea for the visa-related burden faced by many African travellers. Among other things, the time saved by an e-visa depends on access to a computer with a stable internet connection, and the degree to which the visa application platform is mobile-friendly. To truly ease travel, e-visa systems must be fully compatible with prevailing web browsers and platforms, offer secure connections, be reliable, and provide high uptime.

As for governments, e-visa systems require public investments in IT infrastructure that is secure and reliable. They also require efficient administrative processes for managing and streamlining the information that travellers submit digitally. Ideally, e-visa issuing systems are automated enough to shorten turnaround times. 

That said, a smooth e-visa system offers numerous benefits both to prospective travellers and to the country of destination. The best way of easing travel and travel-related administration, however, remains the abolition of visas altogether: that is, visa-free entry.

Benefits of the e-visa

  • Convenience 
    Travellers apply for an e-visa online from wherever they are: they do not need to apply in person. Because travellers do not hand their passport over to a visa office or agency, they can keep travelling while their visa application is being processed.
  • Reduced risk 
    The traveller no longer needs to relinquish their passport or other travel documents while their visa application is being processed. This reduces the likelihood of delays and the risk of their documents getting lost. 
  • Less cost 
    Applying for a visa online dispenses the traveller from having to send or deliver their passport to their destination country’s diplomatic offices. This eliminates shipping and travel costs. It also means that travellers do not need to take unpaid leave to deliver their passport in person or pay someone to deliver it on their behalf. 
  • Efficiency 
    For the issuing country, an e-visa system reduces the need to dedicate consular resources to visa-processing tasks (paperwork, filing, scheduling appointments, interviewing applicants, etc.). Some countries’ e-visa systems are fully automated. 
  • Better data capture
    E-visas allow the issuing country to capture travellers’ data electronically, store it safely, and process it centrally. With more and better data, a country can better analyze traveller-related risks and see trends in visitor profiles. 
  • More visitors 
    E-visas can speed turnaround times, encouraging business trips and leisure travel.

The importance of data security

To instill trust, e-visa systems must treat data carefully. Prospective travellers want to be assured that the data they submit—everything from biometric data to medical and bank records—is secure. Issuing countries have their own concerns: they need an e-visa system that detects forged documents, encrypts data securely, and is run on IT platforms that meet modern standards of security and uptime redundancy.