I’m a South African passport holder. Recently, SA passport holders have been required to get a British visa to visit or transit the UK even if we’re just passing through the airport for an hour to change planes and not going through immigration — or so the story goes. Getting this visa can be a pain in the neck and very expensive.
I recently spent some time on the UK Border Agency website, which is confusing; it seemed to indicate a concession granted to certain people transiting the UK who are in possession of a valid US, Canadian, Australian or New Zealand visa.
After emailing the (beyond) hopeless private company that handles UK visa applications to ask for advice and receiving an enormously long reply that consisted of cut-and-pasted, contradictory excerpts from what seemed like immigration officer training manuals, I emailed the UK Border Agency themselves.
It seems I CAN transit the UK without holding a UK visa — if I have a valid US one — at the discretion of the immigration officer on duty. (This is not an absolute right of transit without a visa. It is subject to various conditions and I do not take responsibility for anything that happens to you, the reader, while trying to transit Heathrow without a visa.)
See exchange below, initiated by me from a web form:
Sent: 16 November 2009 3:05 PM
To: Public Visa Enqs
Subject: Ref: VCS88990: General information
Page used to send this email:
Nationality of traveller:
Where are you?
Dear UK Border Agency
I have made a request for rule clarification (Case Number 00266921) from
your private partner, WorldBridge Services, and received a totally
incomprehensible and contradictory response, hence this email.
I am a South African citizen and passport holder. I need to transit
Heathrow (on the airside, without entering the UK) while travelling from
Europe back home to South Africa in January 2010.
My current UK visitors’ visa expires in December 2009.
says, under the heading “Passengers exempt from the DATV requirement”,
that “Holders of certain documents are, REGARDLESS OF NATIONALITY,
exempt from the requirement to hold a Direct Airside Transit Visa when
transiting the UK.”
One of the documents listed as providing for this exemption is a valid
US visa when travelling from the US to another country.
I hold a multiple-entry US visa valid until 2012 and am travelling from
the USA to South Africa via Europe (I will pass through Heathrow after
being in Europe to get back to South Africa).
Do I still need a Direct Airside Transit Visa?
Public Visa Enqs
date Mon, Nov 16, 2009 at 1:10 PM
subject RE: VCS88990: General information
Thank you for this enquiry.
No visa is needed if :
- the passenger is genuinely in transit; and
- there is no intention to stay more than 24 hours in the UK; and
- the traveller holds a confirmed booking on an onward flight from the
- the traveller has a valid visa for the country of next destination
(where required by the laws of that country).
In these circumstances, the traveller may be allowed into the UK without
a visa under the Transit Without Visa (TWOV) concession. This concession
allows the traveller to depart from a different airport within the UK to
that of arrival and also to stay overnight away from the airport if
But the following are unlikely to be granted the concession:
- A person who has been refused entry to the United Kingdom;
- A person who has been deported or otherwise removed from the United
- A person who has been served with a notice of deportation or removal
from the UK, but left before such action was taken;
- A person who has illegally overstayed or otherwise breached UK
immigration conditions, e.g. worked illegally; or
- A person who has been warned to obtain a visa on their next journey to
the UK by an official of the UK Immigration Service.
For more information, please see Guidance Note INF 20 on our website at
Public Enquiries [I], Visa Customer Services,
Visa Services Directorate, International Group UKBA,
c/o Lunar House, 40 Wellesley Road, Croydon CR9 2BY, England
UPDATE: I transited Heathrow without a UK visa successfully on 7 January 2010, but the transit was not entirely straightforward because I had not come directly from the USA, but had spent some weeks in Europe in between leaving the US and arriving at Heathrow for my flight back to Cape Town. The immigration officer on duty told me that one would normally be allowed to Transit Without Visa (TWOV) if one held a US, Canadian, Australian or New Zealand visa and was transiting via Heathrow as part of an uninterrupted journey between one of those countries and your country of origin, but if one spent time in other countries along the way, even if this was broadly speaking part of your journey to or from the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, you were in a grey area as far as TWOV was concerned, and some immigration officers would allow you to transit and others might not.
Conclusion: If you hold a valid US, Canadian, Australian or New Zealand visa, and you are travelling to or from one of those countries to or from South Africa, you should be able to transit the UK (i.e. be in the country for 24 hours or less) without holding a UK visa — provided you have always obeyed UK law in your previous visits there and conform to the other terms and conditions stated above. But please remember this is at the discretion of the immigration officer on duty and I TAKE NO RESPONSIBILITY FOR WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU IF YOU FOLLOW THE ADVICE IN THIS BLOG POST. I AM NOT AN IMMIGRATION EXPERT.
I look forward to hearing about other SA passport holders’ recent experiences of transiting the UK while holding valid US, Canadian, Australian or New Zealand visas – and no UK visa.