Been overseas? Covid travel rules for SA residents coming home

We've unpacked the latest government regulations into a series of frequently asked questions to help you plan your international travels

18 October 2020 - 00:04 By Elizabeth Sleith
Flying via a high-risk country won't affect your return entry into SA.
Flying via a high-risk country won't affect your return entry into SA.
Image: 123RF/Dan Grytsku

CAN I RETURN HOME IF I'VE BEEN IN A HIGH-RISK COUNTRY?

Irrespective of whether you have been in a high-risk country, South African citizens and permanent residents will always be allowed to return home.  

WHAT IF I FLY VIA A HIGH-RISK COUNTRY?

This won’t affect your return entry into SA, but remember to check with your destination whether a transit stop will have any impact on their side.

WHAT DO I NEED TO BRING FOR MY RETURN ENTRY INTO SA? 

  • Your SA passport or proof of residency.
  • A negative Covid test: All arrivals are required to present a valid certificate of a negative PCR test obtained not more than 72 hours before the date of departure. This must be signed by a medical practitioner, so self-administered tests (available at some airports) will not be accepted.
  • Entrance screening: The department of health requires all arriving passengers to complete a questionnaire. Find it here.  
  • All arrivals will be asked to download the Covid Alert South Africa app, which will let you know if you have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive. It is available for free from Google Play and the App Store. More information on the app can be found here.  

WHAT IF I COME HOME WITHOUT A COVID TEST?  

Though it had initially been stated that all arriving passengers would have to present a negative PCR test, the department of home affairs announced last week that SA is rolling out rapid antigen tests for passengers who arrive without one. 

The tests, administered by the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS), would be available at all ports of entry with "immediate effect", the department said. Results are typically available within 15 minutes and the cost - payable immediately by the passenger - is expected to be under R200.

The department added, however, that the PCR test remains the “gold standard, given that it has much higher sensitivity and specificity than the rapid antigen test”, and urged travellers to, where possible, comply with that requirement.

The question remains now whether, in light of that announcement, airlines will let SA-bound passengers board without the 72-hour PCR test and so the safer choice, for now, is still to get one before departure.

According to South Africa is Travel Ready, a collaboration of PR and communications agencies supporting the tourism industry, it is unlikely the government meant for the antigen test to replace the PCR test certificate, "as it appears to be directed more for cross-border travel (such as travellers from Lesotho, where PCR testing capacity is lacking)."

"Therefore, until otherwise directed, international airlines will still require the PCR test certificate before boarding flights to SA."

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I ARRIVE IN SA?

You will be screened for symptoms and/or for any recent contact with an infected person. If you display any symptoms or have been in contact with an infected person, you will have to take a Covid-19 test at your own cost. If you test positive, you will have to quarantine for 10-days. 

WHAT IF I NEED TO QUARANTINE? 

At this stage, some of the details around quarantine remain unclear. So far, our understanding is that if you are required to take a test on arrival, for any of the reasons mentioned above, and the result comes back negative, you will be allowed to enter SA without restrictions. 

If however, the test comes back positive, or you refuse to take the test, you will have to spend 10 days in quarantine. 

The SA government's FAQ's on travel state that “travellers will need to provide proof of accommodation address should they need to self-quarantine at the time of arrival in the country”.

This clearly suggests that self-quarantine is an option. The same paragraph, however, later states that travellers whose tests come back positive “will be subjected to a 10 day quarantine at a designated site”.

It is therefore not yet clear whether returning citizens will be allowed to quarantine at home.  

WHAT ABOUT THE MANDATORY TRAVEL INSURANCE? 

While it is a stated requirement that travellers to SA have travel insurance to cover the cost of testing and quarantine if necessary, this is assumed to apply only to foreign nationals.

Either way, the requirement is yet to be gazetted and so at this stage does not legally apply to either. This could, of course, change any day. 

All information correct at the time of publication. As the Covid situation is constantly in flux, we recommend you double-check with the resources suggested before making any concrete plans.