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Moving to Kenya

A comprehensive guide to moving to Kenya

What do expats need to know before moving to Kenya? InterNations GO! introduces you to one of East Africa’s largest and most dynamic countries. With our info on culture, visas, permits, housing, and safety, your impending move to Kenya will indeed be hakuna matata and hassle-free!

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Relocating to Kenya

At a Glance:

  • Kenya is characterized by multiculturalism and many languages are spoken here. After to Kiswahili, English is the second working language.
  • There are different types of visas available for Kenya, depending on the length and reason for the stay, with regulations last revised in 2012.
  • When it comes to housing, certain safety guidelines should also be kept in mind.
  • Together with some common sense, these already go a long way in keeping you safe while living in Kenya.

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills…” Generations of cinema fans have admired Meryl Streep in Out of Africa (1985), the dramatic romance of a Danish heiress living in Kenya. For many expatriates-to-be, the first images that come to mind are often influenced by Kenya’s presentation in movie hits from Europe or the US.

Despite their entertainment value, such films frequently show a nostalgic, whitewashed version of Kenya’s colonial past. Beyond their iconic status for the local tourism industry, these movies are of little relevance to people in Kenya today. What then — if not sunsets and safaris — awaits an expat moving to Kenya, the most influential nation in East Africa?

A Geographical Overview of Kenya

With a surface area of 580,000 km², Kenya is one of the largest countries in the region — roughly the size of Texas. It borders the Indian Ocean in the east, Ethiopia, Somalia, and South Sudan in the north, Uganda in the west, and Tanzania in the south. The kind of climate you have to prepare for when moving to Kenya strongly depends on where in the country you will live, work, and call home.

The coastal plain— where, for instance, Mombasa is located — is definitely tropical. Kenya’s interior features a sub-tropical climate that gets cooler and more moderate in the highlands, e.g. in Nairobi, the capital. The northern areas consist of arid steppe. However, few expats ever go there unless, for example, they are humanitarian workers aiding refugees from Somalia.

A Tumultuous Past and a Hopeful Future

Nicknamed the “cradle of humanity”, Kenya has been inhabited by humans for millions of years. Throughout its later history, its rich agricultural lands and strategic location in East Africa attracted the interest of foreign powers. The influence of Portuguese merchants and Arab culture — especially from the Sultanate of Oman — is still visible in coastal cities like Mombasa. Kenya’s more recent past, however, was marked by the imperialist “scramble for Africa” and an influx of European settlers and officials deciding to move to Kenya.

In 1895, Kenya became a British protectorate and later an official crown colony. After many years of violent struggles between the British and the Mau Mau guerilla group, Kenya gained its independence in the early 1960s.

Years of political instability, tribal conflicts, Somali Islamist terror-attacks, and allegations of corruption have sadly plagued Kenya since its independence. Violent unrest following the 2007 presidential election left about 1,500 people dead and displaced an estimated one million inhabitants.

Fortunately, the following election process in March 2013 proved far less tumultuous. After all, Kenya cannot afford to jeopardize its ambitious vision of progressing from a developing country to a middle-income nation by around 2030, which would certainly encourage immigration to Kenya.

Kenya’s Melting Pot

After moving to Kenya, you will soon notice that the population — ca. 47 million people — consists of dozens ethnicities, each speaking their own language and calling Kenya home. These varied ethnicities form three large demographic groups. The biggest is that of the Bantu people, such as the Kikuyu, who make up over 20% of Kenya’s populace. The Cushitic group settled in the northeast after moving to Kenya from Ethiopia and Somalia, and they constitute the second largest part of the population. Nilotes are probably the best-known, with the Nilotic Maasai warriors featured in all touristic descriptions of the country.

Africans represent over 99% of Kenya’s population. The rest consists of Arabs (washihiri) living on the coast, the Kenyan Indian community (colloquially known as “Asians”), and people of European descent (mzungu). The Westerner community mostly includes the descendants of British colonists, as well as many expats who work as NGO workers, foreign employees, and a considerable number of missionaries.

If you do not speak Kiswahili, the official lingua franca of multi-ethnic Kenya, don’t worry. English is the second working language of the nation, particularly among the urban population. This is a definite bonus for expats who want to feel at home living in Kenya’s local and expat communities in Nairobi and Mombasa.

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Kenya: Visa Requirements

Before you move to Kenya, you should make sure to get the appropriate visa well in advance. If you are simply planning a short-term visit of three months or less, several visa options may apply to you. In any case, you need a valid passport that has at least one blank page for the Kenyan visa stamp.

How to Know If You Need a Visa to Enter Kenya

Nationals of selected countries (e.g. from Tanzania or Uganda) do not need a visa at all in order to enter Kenya for a short-term stay. They can obtain a visitor pass at the immigration counter of the airport. In contrast, citizens of certain other nations (e.g. Afghanistan or Iraq) may only apply for a Kenyan visa with a personal reference.

However, the countries on these two lists can frequently change, which is why we have not mentioned all the nations in question. Before starting your Kenyan visa application, please enquire at the nearest Kenyan mission if you can get a visitor pass on arrival or if you need a reference for the application process.

Your Essentials for a Short-Term Kenyan Visa

For all sorts of shorter visits to Kenya, there are two basic visa categories: the single-entry visa and the multiple-journey visa. As the names imply, the main difference lies in the number of times the visa allows you to enter and exit Kenya.

During the application process for a multiple-entry visa, you usually have to bring along more copies of the required documents and pay a higher fee. But no matter which visa option you choose, you should have the following documents at hand:

  • official visa application form
  • passport, which is valid for at least six more months
  • recent passport-sized photographs
  • copy of flight itinerary / confirmation of travel booking
  • additional paperwork, depending on your reason for moving to Kenya (e.g. a marriage certificate if you want to visit your spouse, invitation from a Kenyan host, a work permit if you are a foreign employee, etc.)

The Right Work Permit for You

If you need a visa for a longer stay in Kenya (usually for more than three months), you must obtain a work and residence permit beforehand. The permit will be part of your visa application.

There are various classes for such permits, depending on your reason for coming to Kenya, as well as special passes for short-term assignees and international students. As it would not be possible to describe all the requirements in detail, we will briefly outline the most common options below.

Please note, the Citizenship and Immigration Regulations were revised in summer 2012. Therefore, you often still find outdated references to the old classes online while the new categories are actually different now:

  • Class D covers “specific employment by a specific employer” in Kenya, including expats on intra-company transfers, foreign assignees, and employees from abroad, as well as humanitarian workers employed by an officially recognized NGO or IGO. These two categories of expats used to need a class A and a class C permit, respectively, according to the old regulations.
  • Class I (formerly class E) is a permit for foreign missionaries wanting to work in Kenya.
  • Independently wealthy foreigners wishing to settle in Kenya need a class K permit. They have to submit proof of sufficient income.

Other permits apply, for example, to foreign investors in various fields of business, from agriculture to manufacturing (e.g. class A, B, F, or G). Regardless of the permit you need, always contact a Kenyan mission or the Department of Immigration Services to check the latest immigration requirements. Note: the DOIS website isn’t always online, but the Embassy of Kenya in Germany, for instance, also has information on the various work permit classes (in English).

After Your Arrival in Kenya

Once you have arrived in Kenya on a valid visa, you still have to register with the Immigration Department or the local police within three months. This rule applies to all foreign residents who are older than 18 and plan on staying more than 90 days. For this procedure, you need:

  • a valid travel document
  • recent passport-sized pictures
  • to have your fingerprints taken
  • to pay the registration fee

Expat Housing and Safety in Kenya

Most expats moving to Kenya settle in a major city, especially in Nairobi or Mombasa. Both are important urban centers with significant local economies, large populations (about one million inhabitants in Mombasa and an estimated 3.5 million residents in Nairobi), and stark income inequality.

Under such conditions, it is not particularly surprising that crime rates in certain areas are high. There is also a trend towards strong economic segregation between poor and affluent neighborhoods.

Where Expats in Kenya Live

In green Nairobi — nicknamed “Nairobbery” in the late 1990s when prices and poverty hit a sad record high — plenty of areas are considered slums. Kibera, Mathare, and Korogocho are some of the most infamous.

Kenya’s urban middle class flock to such residential developments as Greenpark or Eastlands, while wealthy expatriates and Nairobi’s local élite prefer quiet suburbs and gated communities. Expats often move to the northwestern and southwestern outskirts of Nairobi, up to 20 km from the central business district. Lavington, Kitisuru, Karen, and Lang’ata are among the most popular areas.

In Kenya’s second largest city, Mombasa, you may note a similar contrast between industrial areas and middle class settlements, between impoverished townships and up-market neighborhoods. Some of the prime residential areas in Mombasa are Kizingo on Mombasa Island, Nyali on the north coast, and Diani Beach, a seaside resort about 35 km south of central Mombasa.

Finding and Renting Accommodation

If you are looking for expat accommodation in Kenya, especially in Nairobi, the following resources will come in handy:

Before you rent a place, check if security costs — e.g. for an intruder alarm or an askari (night guard) — are included in the basic expenses. In addition to home security, your new apartment or townhouse should have a water storage tank and a back-up generator in case of water shortages and power cuts.

You can expect to spend about one third of your budget on housing. Monthly rents in Nairobi for mid-range to upmarket housing range from 60,000 KES to 250,000 KES, depending on the type of accommodation, the number of rooms, the location, and other amenities. Utility costs for water, electricity, and fuel add up to around 10,000 KES per month.

How to Stay Safe in Kenya

As far as your personal safety is concerned, you should be cautious, but there is no reason to become paranoid. On the one hand, pick-pocketing, purse-snatching, burglaries, mugging, “express” kidnapping (with the victim’s credit cards as ransom), and car-jacking are unfortunately not uncommon in Kenya’s larger cities. On the other hand, since expats tend to congregate in suburban areas and are able to afford security services, the less privileged local Kenyans living in slums are actually at far higher risk.

There are some general rules for travelers in Kenya that you should adhere to, though:

  • At night, avoid townships, downtown areas, poorly-lit areas, public parks, deserted footpaths, and walks on the beach.
  • Don’t wear ostentatious jewelry in public or flash valuable belongings. Be alert when withdrawing cash from an ATM.
  • Keep your car doors locked; don’t stop on lonely roads, and don’t open your car windows.
  • If you require transportation services, taxis are safer than overland coaches or mini-buses.
  • Don’t accept food and drinks from strangers, as they could be drugged.
  • If you should become the victim of a robbery, do not protest or resist! Just hand over your valuables.
  • When you travel around the country, avoid the northeastern region along the border to Somalia. Somali pirates and militias also operate near Lamu Island and off the northeastern coast. In June and July 2014, numerous people were killed in terror-attacks on several coastal towns near the touristic Lamu Island.
  • In the summer and fall of 2012, violent land clashes in the area around Tana River left over 100 people dead. There have also been repeated incidents of cattle raids and interethnic violence, especially in the border regions. Before you travel to rural Kenya, check the news and your embassy website for information on such clashes between impoverished communities.
  • Only book safari tours with established agencies and stay at camping grounds, hunting lodges, or coastal bungalows that have their own security staff.
  • Terrorist attacks, including in Nairobi and Mombasa, have become more common since late 2011, so be careful around public buildings, commuter buses, and local open-air markets. In September 2013, the Islamist Al-Shabaab militia from Somalia launched a full-scale attack on the popular Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. It’s estimated that 67 people were killed, and a further 175 injured. Among the casualties were at least 18 foreign nationals from several countries. Two years later, during the Garissa University College massacre in 2015, 148 people were killed by Al-Shabaab militants. Please check your embassy or consulate for the latest safety advice on the threat posed by the Al-Shabaab extremists.
Updated on: December 06, 2018
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