N.B.: Apologies for the delay in posting updates. The last couple of weeks have been pretty much non-stop sightseeing and meeting up with friends and family abroad … culminating in flying back to the United States! Now that we’re done traveling (for now, at least), we’ll have plenty of time to post about the rest of our adventures in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe!
Here’s something that we learned the hard way: If you’re an American, you can’t just pop into the Sudanese embassy in Addis Ababa and leave with a visa.
You may recall that our original itinerary had us traveling overland from Southern Africa to Cairo. We made the hard decision to skip Kenya, but we still planned to travel through Sudan on our way from Ethiopia to Egypt.
Official information on obtaining visas for Sudan is hard to come by, but we Marc spent an inordinate amount of time searching the internet for clues, and we felt that we had a good understanding of the process. We understood that it could take weeks or even months to process a full tourism visa, and that such a visa required a letter of invitation, so we planned to seek more easily obtainable transit visas, which would grant us two weeks in Sudan.
The internet produced a good amount of anecdotal information that suggested we could get a transit visa from the Sudanese embassy in Addis Ababa if we produced an already-obtained Egyptian visa.1 Fellow Americans, take note: while this may be true (we never got a straight answer on that question), it’s hardly simple.
Blissfully optimistic, we made a beeline for the Egyptian embassy on our first day in Addis Ababa. We were greeted by a sign stating that visa processing time was three business days – except for Americans and Canadians. For those North American nationalities, the visa processing time was 15 business days, i.e., three weeks. Even on a trip as unstructured as ours, that seemed like an enormous amount of time.
Because Americans can easily obtain a visa upon arrival in Egypt, the woman behind the counter in the embassy suggested we do just that. We explained our predicament: we needed the Egyptian visa to get the Sudanese transit visa, and we didn’t want to kill three weeks hanging around in Addis just to get the Egyptian visa. She was not unsympathetic, but was unable to help us. If we could not get the Sudanese visa any other way, she suggested that we could come back and perhaps the consulate might be able to shave a couple of days off the processing time for us. It didn’t sound hopeful.
But we’re gluttons for punishment, and so we went to the Sudanese embassy anyway. The hours posted by the door said it closed at noon – we arrived a few minutes after noon, but we were ushered inside anyway. We explained that we wanted a transit visa, and the gentleman behind the glass told us to get a letter of invitation and then come back. “The letter can be from anyone in Sudan,” he told us. “Anyone.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon emailing hotels and guesthouses in Khartoum, enquiring whether “anyone” could write us a letter of invitation, if we made a booking. By evening, one guesthouse had sent us a PDF of a stamped letter of invitation.
Armed with a printed copy of the same, we returned to the Sudanese embassy the following morning. One woman in the visa section glanced at the letter and instructed us to wait for her boss.
Ninety minutes later (during which time I had to rescue our invitation letter and passports from a small child who was gripping a pen and who, according to her parents, “likes to write”), the boss summoned us to his window. He glanced down at our proffered letter and informed us that (i) a printout of a PDF was insufficient, and moreover (ii) the original letter needed to be sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Khartoum for processing. He refused to commit to any sort of time table, but he did say that, once he had received an official copy of the invitation letter and a visa authorization code from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we could have the visa in as little as 24 hours.
This was the very process about which we had read such discouraging things on the internet, but we began emailing various hotels and guesthouses in Khartoum again to inquire whether they could send an invitation letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on our behalf. The guesthouse that had sent us the invitation letter never responded to these further inquiries, but another hotel offered to help.2
After further correspondence, however, the process still seemed opaque, and we doubted that we would get the visas in any reasonable time period, if at all. The hotel then offered an alternative suggestion: we could fly into Khartoum and they could help grease the wheels to get us a visa upon arrival. This option appeared to be the only way that we could ensure we would visit Sudan on this trip, but, after many calculations and considerations, we decided that it was prohibitively expensive. (Just obtaining the visas would cost us almost $500 each, to say nothing of the expensive flight to Khartoum.)
Instead, after nearly a week of visits to various embassies, countless emails with hotels and guesthouses in Khartoum, and way too many hours of lost sleep over the whole situation, we decided to give Sudan a pass and book (the much cheaper) flights from Addis Ababa to Cairo.
1 You can follow along on this Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum post that Marc started, as our request for updated information on the visa application process first gets a hopeful response from a fellow independent traveler and then descends into despair was we later recount our own failed efforts on the ground.
2 Of course, to help, they needed a substantial amount of money wired to them to cover the costs and fees. After having struggled to send a wire transfer from our American bank to an African bank once already on this trip, we weren’t eager to repeat the process.