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Uganda - Travel and visas
Nationals of most countries require a visa in order to enter Uganda. Previously, this could be bought in advance at any Ugandan embassy or high commission, but as of July 2016 a new system has been rolled out in which it is mandatory for all visitors to apply for an e-visa online before travelling. However, if necessary you might still be able to buy a visa upon arrival at any overland border or at Entebbe International Airport until the system is properly implemented, a straightforward procedure that usually takes a few minutes, except perhaps when a couple of major airlines arrive within an hour of each other.
A standard single-entry visa, valid for 90 days, costs US$50. A 90-day East African Tourist Visa, valid for Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya, is also available on arrival for US$100. Visa rulings are prone to change, so all visitors are advised to check the current situation with their travel agent or a Ugandan diplomatic mission before they travel, or keep an eye on our updates site.
Even though you hold a three-month visa, immigration authorities may only stamp your passport for a period of one month or less. This can be extended to three months at any immigration office in Kampala or upcountry. Irrespective of what they might tell you, there is no charge for this. In Kampala, you may be asked to provide an official letter from a sponsor or the hotel where you are staying. Don’t overstay your visa or the date of the immigration stamp in your passport. If you do, you’ll be liable of a fine of US$30/day.
The situation with yellow fever vaccinations changes regularly, but as things stand in October 2016, you must produce an international health certificate showing you’ve had a vaccination when you enter Uganda or upload it when you apply for an e-visa.
For obvious reasons, the most convenient means of reaching Uganda from Europe and North America is by air. People flying from Europe or North America to Uganda might find it easier to get a cheap ticket to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya and East Africa’s major entry point. You can normally get between Nairobi and Kampala overland in a day. If you are in Nairobi, or elsewhere in the region, Air Uganda and Kenya Airways operate flights between Entebbe and regional destinations such as Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar and Juba. If choosing the latter, don’t expect the same level of efficiency and customer care on a regional hop as on one of their international flights.
In Europe, the best place to find cheap tickets to Africa is London. A London travel agents specialise in Africa is African Travel (tel: 020 7387 1211). Trailfinders (tel: 020 7368 1200) and STA (tel: 0333 321 0099) are both respected agents who do cheap flights worldwide, and particularly worth speaking to for round-the-world-type tickets. There are STA branches across the UK.
Uganda borders five countries: Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, DRC and South Sudan. A high proportion of visitors to Uganda enters and leaves the country overland at the borders with Kenya or Tanzania. Few people enter or leave Uganda from Rwanda, though a fair number cross briefly from Uganda to see mountain gorillas. The DRC is still effectively off-limits to casual travel. International NGOs and other organisations are now active in South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, excised from the Republic of the Sudan in 2011.
Plenty of Ugandan commercial traffic crosses the borders near Nimule, Oraba and Moyo and a growing number of foreign travellers are headed that way to explore. Uganda’s land borders are generally very relaxed, provided that your papers are in order. It may be necessary to exchange money at any overland border in or out of Uganda.
Since few major urban centres lie more than five to six hours’ drive from the capital, flying has never been an option for most people. The only destination in Uganda which is reached by air more often than by road is Kidepo Valley National Park, since the drive up from Kampala takes two days. Three operators, Fly Uganda, Aerolink and Eagle Air offer scheduled and charter flights to various tourist destinations. The scheduled flights are subject to minimum number of passengers and are often diversions to other destinations.
By east African standards, Uganda’s major roads are generally in good condition. Decent surfaced roads radiate out from Kampala, running east to Jinja, Busia, Malaba, Tororo, Mbale and Soroti, south to Entebbe, southwest to Masaka, Mbarara and Kabale, west to Fort Portal, northwest to Hoima, north to Gulu, northeast to Gayaza and Kayunga (and on to Jinja). Other surfaced roads connect Karuma Falls to Arua, Mbale to Sipi Falls, Masaka to the Tanzanian border, Mbarara to Ibanda, and Ntungamo to Rukungiri. Most other roads are unsurfaced and tend to be variable in condition from one season to the next, with surfaces being trickiest during the rains.
The main hazard on Ugandan roads, aside from unexpected pot-holes, is other drivers. Minibus-taxi drivers in particular are given to overtaking on blind corners, while coaches routinely bully their way along trunk routes at up to 120km/h, forcing drivers of smaller vehicles to keep an eye on their rear-view mirror and pull off the road to let them pass. Bearing the above in mind, a coasting speed of 80km/h in the open road is comfortable without being over cautious, and it’s not a bad idea to slow down and cover the brake in the face of oncoming traffic. In urban situations, particularly downtown Kampala, right of way essentially belongs to he who is prepared to force the issue – a considered blend of defensive driving tempered by outright assertiveness is required to get through safely without becoming too bogged down in the traffic.
If you decide to rent a self-drive vehicle, check it over carefully and ask to take it for a test drive. Even if you’re not knowledgeable about the working of engines, a few minutes on the road should be sufficient to establish whether it has any seriously disturbing creaks, rattles or other noises. Ask also to be shown filling points for oil, water and petrol and check that all the keys do what they are supposed to do – we’ve left Kampala before with a car we later discovered could not be locked!
Ugandans follow the British custom of driving on the left side of the road, albeit somewhat loosely on occasions. The following documentation is required at all times: vehicle registration book (a photocopy is acceptable), vehicle certificate of insurance and driving licence.
A PDF of self-driving tips for Uganda, compiled a few years back by Dr Fritz Esch, can be downloaded here.
Uganda is relatively compact and flat, making it ideal for travel by mountain bike. New-quality bikes are not available in Uganda so you should try to bring one with you (some airlines are more flexible than others about carrying bicycles; you should discuss this with your airline in advance). However, if you are prepared to look around Kampala, some decent secondhand bikes can be bought from a few private importers for as little as US$75: check the shop opposite Old Kampala Police Station. Main roads in Uganda are generally in good condition and buses will allow you to take your bike on the roof, though you should expect to be charged extra for this. Minor roads are variable in condition, but in the dry season you’re unlikely to encounter any problems. Several of the more far-flung destinations mentioned here would be within easy reach of cyclists.
Following the permanent suspension of all passenger rail and ferry services over the past few years, public transport in Uganda essentially boils down to buses and other forms of motorised road transport. The only exceptions are the new passenger/vehicle ferry between Entebbe and the Ssese Islands and local boat services connecting fishing villages on lakes Victoria, Albert and Kyoga. It’s worth noting that overloading small passenger boats is customary in Uganda, and fatal accidents are commonplace, often linked to the violent storms that can sweep in from nowhere during the rainy season.
Coach and bus services cover all major routes and, all things being relative, they are probably the safest form of public road transport in Uganda. On all trunk routes, the battered old buses of a few years back have been replaced or supplemented by large modern coaches that typically maintain a speed of 100km/h or faster, allowing them to travel between the capital and any of the main urban centres in western Uganda in less than five hours and generally at a cost of less than US$10.
In addition to buses, most major routes are covered by a regular stream of white minibuses (referred to locally as matatus or, rather confusingly, as taxis), which have no set departure times, but simply leave when they are full – every ten to 30 minutes on busier routes. Matatus tend to charge slightly higher fares than buses, and the drivers tend to be more reckless, but they allow more flexibility, especially for short hops. It’s customary on most routes to pay shortly before arriving rather than on departure, so there is little risk of being overcharged provided that you look and see what other passengers are paying. A law enforcing a maximum of three passengers per row is stringently enforced in most parts of Uganda, and seat belts are now mandatory. All minibus-taxis by law now have to have a distinctive blue-and-white band round the middle, and special hire cars have to have a black-and-white band.
One of the most popular ways of getting around in Uganda is the bicycle-taxi or boda (boda-boda in full), so called because they originated as a means of smuggling goods from border to border along rural footpaths. Now fitted with pillions and powered by foot or by 100cc engines, they are a convenient form of suburban transport and also great for short side trips where no public transport exists. Fares are negotiable and affordable, a fraction of a US dollar in most towns. If you’re reliant on public transport it’s inevitable that you’ll use a boda-boda at some stage, but before hopping aboard you should be aware of a pretty poor urban safety record. Boda riders are invariably lacking in formal training, road safety awareness and, it is frequently suggested, much between the ears.
In December 2005, 1,383 vehicles were involved in accidents sufficiently serious to be reported. Of these, 22% (predictably enough) involved matatu-taxis and 15% bodas. Bodas and their passengers are of course far more vulnerable than the occupants of larger vehicles, and in the same month 15 boda drivers were killed. By all means use bodas but do try to identify a relatively sensible-looking operator. Older ones are generally better than 16-year-old kids straight from the village with no comprehension of traffic. Tell your driver to go slowly and carefully and don’t be afraid to tell him to slow down (or even stop for you to get off) if you don’t feel safe. Officially, helmets for boda drivers and their passengers have been mandatory since 2005 but the law is rarely enforced.