Updated: Feb 4, 2020
Malawi is a small landlocked nation nestled between Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. With a population of 18 million, we are known as The Warm Heart of Africa for our friendly nature. Here are a few tips to help you get ready for your trip to Malawi.
Visas are required from most passport holders, excluding members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
It costs $50 for a single entry tourist visa or $150 for a six month multiple entry visa. You may apply for a visa through the Malawi Embassy in your country of origin. If you opt to apply for visa on arrival, the most popular option, you should have the fee in cash in USD. It is now possible to apply for an e-visa as well through the Malawi Government’s Immigration website.
If you would like a copy of the visa application form for applications on arrival, email us.
The currency in Malawi is the Malawi Kwacha – not to be confused with the Zambian Kwacha. You can exchange foreign currency on arrival at the airports, or at a bureau in town. It is easiest for you to bring US Dollar, Pound Sterling, Euro or South African Rand to change into local currency.
The banknote denominations are from MK20 (~ $ .02) to MK2,000 (~ $3). The equivalent of $100 will be bulky but you'll probably spend it very fast, and a lot of establishments do not accept card payments. Outside of urban areas there are few and far between ATMs or electronic points of sale and you might be unlucky enough to find the machines are out of service.
It’s best to pay your accommodation and activities before you travel, say, through your tour operator (ahem), and keep some foreign currency to exchange as you go and some on your card. Meals are about $10 for international food and as little as $1 for Malawian food at local restaurants. Chitenge, the vibrant wax print fabric widely used in the country is from $3 - $10 depending on quality, for two yards. Paintings and carvings can be as much as $13 depending on your negotiation skills. Negotiate if you enjoy it, but it’s not compulsory.
The two main languages spoken in Malawi are Chichewa and English. You can probably engage in a basic game of charades to get your point across. Your translator app might register Chichewa as Nyanja which is close enough, but it is likely to have a lot of grammatical errors. Cordial interactions are very important to Malawian people, it is important to first greet people before asking for assistance. Practice this exchange:
Muli bwanji – How are you?
Ndili bwino, kaya inu? – I’m fine, how are you?
Ndili bwino – I am fine
Zikomo - Thanks
Other languages include Tumubka in the North and Yao in the South, but there are a lot more, none of which are Swahili.
A lot of people know how to say “yes” but not “I don’t understand” or “that’s not a good idea” or “I’m not sure how to help you”.
There are two main international airports in Malawi – Chileka Airport in Blantyre and Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe. If you are visiting from overseas you will likely fly to Addis Ababa Ethiopia, Nairobi Kenya, or Johannesburg South Africa before connecting to Malawi. It is about 4.4 hours from Addis Ababa or 2.3 hours from Johannesburg.
It is important to speak to your travel doctor about which prophylactics, vaccinations and immunisations you should take. Be sure to include Malaria and Schistosomiasis in your discussion. Let your tour operator know of any allergies or health conditions you have in case of emergency so you may be assisted correctly.
There are large public hospitals in Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba. Your tour operator will know the nearest hospital to take you to in case of emergency, but you must make sure you purchase medical insurance before you travel. Make sure your tour operator has enough information to be able to help you in the event of an emergency, including emergency contacts and key insurance details.
You should be as careful with your belongings as you would anywhere else, but generally there are few incidences involving tourists in Malawi. Refrain from walking around after dark unless you are inside the compound of your accommodation.
Minibuses within cities are about $0.50 and about $6 from Blantyre to Mangochi. Coaches cost about $6 between cities but for both modes of transport you must be prepared to wait for hours before departure as the operators wait for the coach or minibus to fill up. This option is best for people who do not need to be anywhere in a hurry.
Taxis can cost from $6 for a short trip in an urban area to $150 for journeys from Blantyre to Mangochi at the lake. The price does not indicate that the vehicle is clean and spacious, that the driver knows where he is going (even if he says “yes”), or that you will be the only passengers.
The larger bus companies charge around $15 between cities, now with free onboard Wi-Fi and charging ports. These coaches stick to a schedule.
There are some internationally recognised and local car hire companies such as Avis or Hertz in Malawi. It’s tempting to go cheap on car hire, but it’s a big game of chance as to what car will be delivered to you for your journey. Your tour operator can include a vehicle with or without a driver, and you can rest easy knowing the vehicle is insured, serviced and maintained.
In some areas, the roads are tricky. They can be narrow, with many potholes, pedestrians, motorists, cyclists with wide loads and domestic animals to navigate. Keep your speed low to give yourself time to react as you drive. In villages or trading centres the speed limit is 50km/h. Aim to arrive at your accommodation before sunset each driving day as it's quite easy to get lost.
There is one ride hailing app in Blantyre and Lilongwe, EcoRide which is available in the Google App Store and you can pay in-app or in cash.
There are many police checkpoints on the road in Malawi, and sometimes immigration as well. Be sure to have your travel documents with you at all times.
Please be sensitive when photographing local people just as you would expect tourists to treat you. Ask the people you would like to photograph first, who may ask you for compensation. Refrain from photographing children. The same principles of child protection that apply in other countries also apply in Malawi. If something about people in particular catches your attention, you might opt to write about it in your holiday journal instead. Photographs with people looking away from the camera are fine.
It’s a good idea to dress modestly and practically whilst in Malawi, although that doesn’t mean you must compromise on style. Let your holiday pics shine. Long sleeves, loose and flowing, knee length in light weight natural fabrics are a good rule of thumb when choosing your holiday ensembles. Bikinis (but not G-Strings) are acceptable at the lake at your beach accommodation. Take time to buy a Chitenge wrap to wear in case you need to switch things up.
The staple food in Malawi is Nsima made from maize flour. Nsima (pictured below in the white plates) is made from processed maize flour and does not have a particularly strong taste. This is usually accompanied with leafy greens, beans and perhaps meat or fish. Try the Chambo, a type of Tilapia fish, or Batara fish if you get the chance.
There are restaurants serving international food as well, from Italian to Indian, Korean and more. Let your tour operator or accommodation provider know beforehand if you have any dietary restrictions or requirements.
You can purchase and register for a sim card in one of the major network provider's shops in the city centres. You must then purchase airtime from one of their registered vendors, who can top up directly to your phone or provide you with scratch cards. Once the airtime is loaded, you will need to buy data bundles using the network's short codes (these will be on your scratch card or sim pack), and it's a good idea to buy voice bundles too if you will make calls. You can make calls or browse the internet without buying a bundle, but it is a lot more cost effective to buy bundles. Buying a sim card works for travellers who will spend some time in the city before moving on to other parts of the country.
Few places offer free WiFi, but many lodges offer WiFi at a fee. It is unlikely you'll find a connection as fast as you find in other countries, but you might find you are quite comfortable without constant connection to the world wide web.
Orion clients are offered a mobile router with a starter pack of data so you can let everyone at home you've arrived safely.
Need a checklist? Say hello and we will send you one. If you found these tips useful, support us by booking your accommodation and transfers through us. Accommodation providers offer us a small commission, at no extra cost to you.