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Malawi - Travel and visas
A valid passport is required, with an expiry date at least six months after you intend to depart Malawi. Visas are required for travellers from any country that requires Malawians to obtain a visa, including: the USA, UK and most, but not all, Commonwealth and EU passports (a full list is available at www.immigration.gov.mw). Visas can be obtained on arrival with the exception of the countries listed on the website. Visa fees on arrival are as follows: US$50 transit visa for seven days; US$75 single entry valid for 30 days, but extendable to 3 months (visit local immigration offices after 28 days to extend the visa for a fee of US$7 per additional month); US$150 multiple entry visa for six months; US$250 multiple entry visa for 12 months.
To avoid any mishaps, it’s best to confirm these with the embassy before you embark. For a list of all Malawian embassies and consulates, a useful webiste is www.embassypages.com/malawi.
Arriving overland in your own vehicle, you need to show registration documents at the border, and must buy a Temporary Import Permit (TIP) and insurance for one month (neither is very expensive). If the vehicle isn’t registered in your name, you also need an official letter giving you permission to cross borders with it.
There are no direct flights to Malawi from outside Africa, but connecting inter-African flights are operated by Ethiopian Airlines, Malawian Airlines, Kenya Airways and South African Airways. Most international flights land at Kamuzu International Airport, 26km from Lilongwe, but Ethiopian Airlines and South African Airways both run services several times weekly to Chileka Airport, 16km north of Blantyre. International and domestic airport taxes are included in the ticket price. Good deals are often available through individual carrier websites, but flight specialists still have a part to play. Getting the lowest price will require several calls and may result in some rather complicated routing.
Malawi is a popular fixture on the overland and backpackers’ trail between eastern and southern Africa, and as many tourists arrive in Malawi overland as by air. Many such people travel independently, but an increasingly popular choice for first-time visitors is an overland truck trip, which allows you to compress several countries into a limited period. Some of the overland companies include Absolute Africa, African Overland, African Trails, Dragoman, Drifters and Nomad Africa Adventure Tours.
Malawian Airlines is the end result of the liquidation of Air Malawi and the subsequent partnership with Ethiopian Airlines in 2013. Their routes include domestic flights between Lilongwe and Blantyre. A more versatile option is Ulendo Airlink, which offers daily services to Likoma Island, Chelinda (Nyika National Park), and Mfuwe (Zambia). Private charters are also available from Ulendo. There is a US$7 departure tax on all domestic flights, payable in cash at the airport.
Malawi is fairly easy to drive around. The speed limit for main roads is 80km/h and in towns drops down to 50km/h. Although the change is not always signposted, it's best to slow down in towns and wait to regain speed until well after an inhabited area to avoid speed traps set up by the police. As in most former British colonies, and all neighbouring countries, driving is on the left side of the road, requiring an additional adjustment for visitors from North America and mainland Europe. Petrol is blended with ethanol and has a low octane rating, and diesel is now higher in price than petrol.The crippling fuel shortages that have struck Malawi in the past have thankfully gone, but smaller-scale shortages still occur, so it’s wise to always fuel up when you have the chance.
Many car-hire companies operate out of Blantyre and Lilongwe. If you decide to rent a vehicle, take a good look under the bonnet before you drive off, and check the state of all tyres including the spare. You should also be provided with two reflective triangles and a fire extinguisher, as you are legally required to carry these and police may ask for them at checkpoints. One reader has recommended you bring an aerosol puncture-repair kit with you, for added security should you have to drive on your spare tyre on a poor road.
If arriving with your own vehicle, you’ve probably made sure it’s tough and well kitted out, as driving to Malawi is worse than driving around Malawi. You don’t need a 4x4, especially in the dry season, but a robust vehicle with high ground clearance is best.
The state of the roads in 2018 was generally good, with good newer tar on many of the main arteries. The worst trunk road in the country is probably the stretch of M5 between Salima and Nkhata Bay. The hairpin bends on the way up to Livingstonia will challenge most vehicles, but the once-challenging Rumphi S103 back road to Livingstonia was being tarred at the time of writing although access is still possible.
Remember though that roads can deteriorate fast – good tarred roads develop horrendous pot-holes with no maintenance and dirt roads become impassable if not graded regularly. Rain washes roads and bridges away, causing delays and worry even if recent repairs and emergency bridges have not taken too long to complete (only days or weeks, not months or years as in the past). This is Africa, not Europe or the States, and it’s what you came for. So take care and, if in doubt, ask local advice.
Those who have never before driven in rural Africa will need to adjust their driving style for Malawi. Basically, this means driving more slowly than you might on a similar road in a Western country, and slowing down when you approach pedestrians or cyclists on the road or livestock on the verge. Drunken driving is a serious problem in Malawi, and minibus drivers tend to drive as if they might be drunk even when sober. Be extra alert to vehicles overtaking in tight situations, driving on the wrong side of the road (especially where there are pot-holes), pulling out behind you without warning, and generally behaving as if it’s their last day on earth. The police now have speed cameras as well, which are often positioned on blind curves or hills. The fine for speeding is a flat Mk5,000 (about US$10 at the time of writing, which is payable on the spot, but be sure to ask for a receipt. Don’t drive at night – night driving is extremely hazardous, largely because so many vehicles in Malawi don’t have functional headlights and cyclists, walkers and stray animals are almost impossible to see.
Bear in mind that GPS won’t be useful for predicting journey times, as it works on the basis of speed limits, and won’t take account of the poor state of some sections of road. One final tip – generally Malawians expect everyone to be driving from south to north, and position all signs to lodges and places of interest to face south. Frustrating if you’re coming from the north. Where you see a signpost riddled with holes, it’s to try to stop people stealing it for the metal.
From its foundation in 1947 to its collapse precisely 60 years later, the parastatal Shire Bus Lines was the dominant public transport provider in Malawi. Fortunately, a private company called Axa, founded in 2006 with just three coaches to its name, has stepped into the breach, providing superior coach and bus connections to most corners of the country with a fleet of 40 modern vehicles. A new kid on the block is the excellent and fractionally cheaper SoSoSo, which sometimes has more sociable departure times, and which plays more modern music videos than Axa’s wall-to-wall gospel wailing. Both companies provide a snack, and both will have the music cranked to the max, so you may want to bring earplugs.