Practical tips for visiting Kenya

Tips on generally being decent

  • Be self-aware. Make conscious efforts not to be exploitative. Don’t ask workers to do something against the rules. Remember blue collar workers make $80–200 per month and often have precarious employment. Tip wait staff. 100–300 KES is fine.
  • Establish meaningful connections and relationships with people. Show that you appreciate them, especially those whom you’re dependent upon, like guards, drivers, or couriers. If someone does something small from you, offering even 50 KES can brighten their day, provide them bus fare home. (But avoid giving money out of pity or guilt. Everyone has dignity and agency. Employment, and service provision, is dignified, even if it’s low wage.)
  • Please bring anything of value that you’d like to donate! Old but decently working phones and laptops, old cameras, cables, freebie mugs, power banks, flash drives, coats, shirts, shoes, umbrellas, almost anything. Everything will find a very happy and deserving home, whether to an individual or a community nonprofit (like this spunky local photography initiative).

Covid requirements

  • It can be difficult to find the latest travel requirement updates from the government, but this info is valid as of May 2022.
  • You need to upload your vaccination card to Global Haven or Panabios. Keep the QR code on your phone or print out a copy to display on arrival. (The form isn’t great: e.g. I couldn’t add a booster. Just do the best you can to be accurate.)
  • If you are vaccinated, there is no negative Covid test required for entry. (Until recently you needed a negative PCR test result and online health form QR code. These are no longer required.)
  • Mask wearing is highly variable but not at all politicized. Remember you’re the one traveling around. You can choose to wear a mask to keep your drivers, wait staff, and those around you safe.
  • There is no longer a nighttime curfew.

Visa requirements as of May 2022

  • Your passport needs 6+ months left before expiry and a few extra pages.
  • eVisas in advance are now required for tourists from almost all countries. Apply only using the official website and pay $53: https://evisa.go.ke/evisa.html. Once granted, you need to print the one-page visa in colour and carry that printout (one copy suffices). Minors don’t need visas.
  • East African visas are still available upon arrival. If you get trouble, you can say you’ll opt for that visa. More info here at Rwanda’s evisa website. And here at MagicalKenya website. But not all airport check-in staff are familiar with it, so you need to know the details and might need to insist upon it.
  • Be careful filling your application. It’s fairly extensive, e.g. listing your previous trips to Kenya and the visa numbers. Also, prepare an invitation letter from a Kenyan “host” entity (hotel, individual), their contact info, and (for individuals) some identity card of theirs. Save all as small JPG images.
  • As of May 2022, the government is processing evisas in about one business day, or within a few days. I did get an email alerting me to the visa’s issuance, but that was the very first time. It’s best to log into the website to check the status. It might also ask you to correct some info and resubmit. (If there’s a delay on their side and you need to travel, you can print the submission and payment confirmation pages and bring/show those.)
  • Upon arrival, your visa will be endorsed in your passport. Agents have discretion to handwrite the duration of 1–3 months. At the counter, the agent might ask you how long you want to stay, or you can ask the agent to give you the full duration of your intended visit (up to 3 months). If you want to extend it further, you can go online and renew it, up to six months total, no extra fee. Issuance of a renewal can take 1–3 weeks.
  • Tourist visas don’t allow you to work or even to volunteer. Two good resources for info on (and help with) other kinds of visas: Father’s Hand and Langata Link.

Health preparations

  • No need to take malaria meds if you’re staying in Nairobi (thanks to altitude: there are mozzies but no malaria). Even at coast, personally I just make efforts to avoid getting bitten. There are other parts of the country where malaria is more prevalent and mozzies are less avoidable.
  • You can get travel or other international or local health insurance. I find it’s easier to pay out of pocket for most general preventative medical care and common health issues, even at hospital or labs.
  • You might still need your yellow fever certificate, if coming from a country with yellow fever prevalence. It can even be marked expired, as WHO now says they’re valid for life, and Kenya honours that.

Electrical tips

  • In Kenya you will find “British — Grounded” Type G sockets and 220–240 V. Most (smaller) electrical appliances can handle 220–240 volts, so you just need an adapter (easily purchased) but not a converter/transformer. (A larger 3-square-prong plug.)
  • I highly recommend carrying a good surge protector, especially if you’re going outside the city. And/or a power bank, so you can charge your most precious devices off of it. Electrical wiring can be faulty some places, plus there are occasional outages.
  • There are scheduled outages about once a month, 9am-5pm (or for chunks of the day). Check for your location on the PDF on KPLC’s website or twitter feed for listings (look for the most recent date; don’t expect it to be in chronological order).

About money

  • If you pay with a card and are given an option between paying in USD (or home currency) and KES, always choose KES. It’s cheaper to let visa/mastercard process it using the global exchange rate.
  • Don’t carry and exchange cash; do bring a debit card [that works abroad]. Withdrawing from ATMs is the easiest and usually cheapest way to access cash. Some ATMs charge no fees at all (like Equity, DTB), in which case you’re getting cash at the perfect global exchange rate. But of course it’s important to check on your bank’s fees.
  • In Kenya, the maximum ATM withdrawal is usually 40,000 KES (~$400) per transaction, but you can make multiple withdrawals in a row, if your own card’s limit allows it. You can ask your bank to raise the limit.
  • Also, you can set up a super convenient app called SendWave to transfer money directly from your US, UK, or Canadian bank account to anyone’s mobile phone account in Kenya. It costs about 2% in the exchange rate loss. You can even send money to yourself, if you got a phone line and registered for MPESA mobile money. With MPESA, you can pay for just about anything, and also you can very easily withdraw for cash for small fees.
  • If you really want to carry cash, bring large, recent, clean, un-torn bills, like $100s USD.
  • There are a few ATMs, I think KCB, that let you withdraw USD, in $100s, in several locations in Nairobi and next to Maasai Mara.
  • Once here, it’s always good to carry small (local) cash/change, for all sorts of small payments. Also good to note: adding a tip when you pay by card is hardly ever possible.
  • The entire country functions in Kenya shillings, either cash or Safaricom’s MPESA (or alternative telecom’s mobile money services, though they’re not quite as ubiquitous). The only place dollars are useful are for national parks, where it’s better to pay in USD. Some networks of parks have gone cashless.

Strategy for Uber, Bolt, Little ride share apps

  • On rideshare apps, boda boda motorbikes and cars (usually small ones) are available.
  • When using the apps, things go much better if you select the names of both pickup points and destinations, rather than just rely on GPS to name where you are.
  • The pickup time estimates can be very optimistic or even atrociously wrong.
  • App fares can be half or one third of a one-off arranged driver’s fare (especially at airport or hotels), but the apps suffer the same questionable ethics in their labour/wages practices as elsewhere in the world.
  • You can also use an app to get a standard rate, then use that knowledge to negotiate with an independent taxi driver, especially if someone’s stationed right in front of you.
  • Once you order, be ready to receive a “where are you?” call. Your driver will probably call you to ask you for directions, despite the app’s GPS info. I’m still not entirely sure whether that’s about the driver, or if the app is not providing the drivers with the most precise info. In some cases, especially if you didn’t type in a well established location, it’s definitely the latter.
  • You can pay by cash as well as card. Drivers prefer the certainty and immediacy of cash payments, though then getting change can be an issue.
  • I’d suggest you enjoy the low and predictable rates but then always tip well (20% seems good). Drivers make a tiny cut because do not own the cars they use; they hire from (wealthier) intermediaries who charge them as much as they can get away with. Drivers also bear all risks and costs, like accidents, theft (of car or phone), maintenance. One incident could amount to a month’s wages. Also, fuel is quite expensive.

Airport logistics tips

  • Do online check-in for your flight, if the system lets you. It’s not necessary, but if you’re running late advance check-in can make a big difference. It’s also a good idea to check if your flight is departing as scheduled.
  • Most international visitors come through NBO, to JKIA (Jomo Kenyatta International Airport).
  • JKIA is mostly one big loop called Terminal 1. Pickup and drop off is at the center of the loop.
  • Arriving 1.5–2 hours in advance is usually fine, so long as you check traffic (my fave is google maps live data) to ensure you arrive within that window.
  • At an initial security gate prior to approaching the airport, all passengers must get out of the vehicle and walk across and pass through a separate human security checkpoint. The car is checked separately, and you reunite on the other side.
  • Flying directly to the US (KQ JFK flights, Terminal 1A) requires a second set of scanning and sometimes the swabbing of electronic devices, so it’s good to leave a bit of extra time.
  • As of 2021 there is massive construction of Mombasa Road, all around the airport, to create an elevated highway. This is causing major traffic jams, though coming from/to the city most of the traffic jam is after the airport turnoff. There are one or two back roads to/from town/airport, but Mombasa Road has to be exceptionally awful for the back roads to be faster.
  • If you need or prefer a hotel at/near the airport, there’s a newly developed area within the security perimeter with a few nice hotels, like Four Points by Sheraton and Crown Plaza. There are many more nice hotels 10–15 minutes further away, like Ole Sereni overlooking the national park. I think some also offer day rates if you need that.
  • Domestic flights also fly in/out of JKIA, but I prefer the smaller Wilson Airport for those. At JKIA, at least some local flights land at Terminal 2, a small offshoot building a kilometre+ down a side road. The free shuttle bus between terminals runs every 10 minutes. Not sure the hours.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store