4 February 2014

Kinshasa FAQs: The Airport

Jill and I have been getting a lot of questions from readers who are planning a trip Kinshasa. We hear from NGO workers, adoptive parents, folks popping in to work on a project, and even people who say they want to visit because we make Kinshasa look good. (No! Please don't come based on Mama Congo! It's all lies!)

We get it, you have questions about Kinshasa that we clearly failed to cover through anecdotes about our children.

So we thought we'd try to answer some of your FAQs. You've asked about medical care, grocery shopping, apartment hunting, "fun" stuff to "do" in Kinshasa, and how the heck to find a nanny. We'll address all those things, but let's start with your arrival.

You must have a visa ahead of time. 

DRC is one of those places where they check at your departure airport for your visa. They won't let you leave for the Congo without it. Handy tip: If you have many expired DRC visas in your passport, as we do, attach a Post-it note to the current one to prevent the bolt of panic when the woman at the airport desk says, "Your visa is expired."

Post-it = This is the good one.

Don't forget proof of your Yellow Fever vaccine.

This is one of the only airports where they obsessively check to make sure you had your Yellow Fever vaccination. Have your vaccine book ready. From my experience, babies under 12 months don't need one. They'll also check for this vaccine when you leave Kinshasa.

Right about the time you step off the plane at N'djili - and the humidity slaps you in the face so hard it frizzes up your hair  - a bus will roll up to take you to the terminal. It will transport you the distance of two bus lengths to get you there. We're fancy like that.

Once inside the terminal you'll immediately pass through immigration.

There are lines for special people and lines for non-special people. Tip: If you are not special, and your baby is crying (or you are crying) try to make eye-contact with someone who looks "official" and they may put you in the short line with the special people.

Next, the man behind the glass will snort at you, which means hand over your passport and immigration card. DRC should win some sort of prize for the details they ask on this card. After conducting very scientific experimentation, all the DGM cares about is your address in Kinshasa. Because we're juggling children and don't have time to fill-in the required manifesto, we half-write most things on that card. Don't sweat reading all those hand-written visa numbers in your passport. Scribble something down and they'll figure out the rest.  

Tip: That bottomless triangle in your visa number is the Congolese way to write the number 1. (Can you find the 1s on the visa number above? Bonus points if you can find 3 of them.)

Filling out one of these for each family member will keep you busy your entire flight.

A word about protocol.

It seems that every author who's ever written a book about Congo likes to include their horror story of entering or exiting the airport. Apparently, it can be an author's biggest fear. Honestly, it's not that bad. Yes, there's a good possibility it will be the biggest hassle of your trip, but you'll survive.

Your best bet is to hire "protocol" who are basically men you've paid to pay-off everyone else. This one-off bribe to your protocol man might save you from paying a multitude of bribes. The going rate for protocol is around $50. Their job is to get you in and out with as little hassle as possible. It's not fool proof, but it's usually worth it.

There are many private protocol men, or you can hire one through Jeffery Travels. Jeffery can also help you with transport, which by the way you really should have in advance. This is not a hail a taxi at the airport kind of place. (You can, but it's not advised.)

And then you enter luggage claim.

After you've run the gauntlet of immigration and Yellow Fever vaccine verification, you enter luggage claim. There is one functional carousel for your flight of hundreds of people and any other flight that has also landed. This is usually where you meet your protocol man. He may ask for your luggage tag stub, which you got 48 hours ago and probably already lost. More on that later. He'll take your stub and tell you to go wait in your car. He will find your bag by comparing your stub with numbers on every single bag that comes through. This is your introduction to Congolese efficiency.

Or you can just wait there yourself and find your own luggage. We've done both. I like to micromanage and maintain control, so I prefer waiting myself.

Waiting for luggage in the past has taken as many as 3+ hours. Remember, the plane is literally 2 bus lengths away. There are several conspiracy theories behind this bizarre phenomenon. I have no verified explanation, but while writing this post, Adam and I had a 20 minute argument about what we think is happening to your bags before you see them. Everyone has an opinion.

Your bags will get here...eventually.

I am going to regret saying this, but we have never lost a bag arriving in Kinshasa. Your luggage might be delayed, but it always gets here. You may see your name written on a chalk board near the carousel if you're in the delayed luggage boat.

This is the point at the end of your epic journey where [insert name of travel companion here] practices misplaced anger and starts shouting about the airport using a 1970s chalk board. Can't THESE PEOPLE cough up enough cash for a 21st century WHITE BOARD!?

Recently, a friend's bag was stuck at the airport due to the little shoot-out we had there. But he still got it. Three weeks later and bullet hole free.

It's a good idea to lock your luggage, but I've heard more stories about stranger's items showing up in your bag than having your items stolen. Speculate amongst yourselves.   

Some people like to split up their possessions to prevent theft. Think: One shoe in each bag. Because "Who would ever steal one shoe!?" But sometimes this backfires as in the case of the aforementioned friend who waited 3 weeks for his bag and only had one shoe of each pair.    

Don't lose your luggage tag stub.

After you get your stuff, you have to show your luggage tag stub to men in orange vests. This is that sticker they give you when you first checked in for your flight. They're verifying you're taking your own luggage. I appreciate this step.

You're free to go after you pass the last row of men at the door who may or may not hassle you to open your bags. Usually if you have protocol, you can walk right past. Or start speaking in English and they'll give up on you.  

Other rules (which may or may not be enforced):

1. You are not allowed to step on the grass.

2. You are not allowed to wait inside the arrival hall, or anywhere near the door, for your arriving friends/family.  

3. You are not allowed to take local currency outside the country.  

4. You are allowed to regret coming to Congo on your drive from the airport. This is normal. You will probably get over it.  

Departing Kinshasa is an equally complicated process. As in, 12 hours before your flight you check in your bags at a completely separate location away from the airport.

But if you jump through the hoops, you'll be fine. Again, you can always pay someone to do the jumping for you.

I've only ever heard of one dramatic, Argo-esque departure in which panic ensued all the way until the plane took off. But you can ask Jill's parents about that one.

One final rule. Do not take photos at the airport. This is serious business. Many years ago, Adam and I were waiting for a friend in our car when, out of complete boredom, I took a picture of him eating a waffle.

In the parking lot.
In our car.
Of a waffle.

Quicker than you can say "mundele mistake" we were surrounded by police. Oh well, we lived to tell the tale, which is all that matters at the end of any N'djili experience.

The infamous photo. Airport fun fact: The interior of your car is considered N'djili property.

Note: N'djili Airport changes its hoops on a daily basis. These are just things we've found to be true from our experience.

Comment with your own tips and experiences at N'djili. Horror stories AND success stories welcome! Or are you one of those people who just rolls up to the airplane in your car? Surely there's a good story there too.

Any other FAQs you'd like us to answer? Let us know.

Other Kinshasa FAQs: Grocery Shopping.


  1. I cannot stop laughing - especially about the mysteries of luggage retrieval... I haven't been to N'djili, but I have been in and out of Lubumbashi numerous times. LBB is still the proud bearer of my "Worst Airport in the Entire World" award. Even worse than immediately-post-earthquake-Port-au-Prince-Haiti. Even worse than two-days-after-a-gigantic-fire-Nairobi-Kenya. It's a big honor. One of the things that drove me nuts in Lubumbashi was the strange desk you had to stop at when trying to check in for your flight where they want to search your bags. I get this, no big, but my finance department had given me several boxes of bookkeeping files to take back to our HQ in Amsterdam, and I had no tape with me to re-seal them. And no money to pay the weird guys who will wrap your stuff in 100 meters of plastic wrap. So, sadly, I actually had to send the box back with our driver to the office. Not sure why we were keeping hundreds of kilos of paper copies of our bookkeeping in Amsterdam - another mystery for you.

    1. Oh gosh! In Kinshasa all we every hear is that Lubumbashi has really got its act together. One would think this reputation would translate to the airport as well. Please come to N'djili and do a comparison piece. Haha!

    2. No way!!! :) Well, I was last in Lubumbashi in 2009 - maybe they have really cleaned themselves up since then.... Somehow I doubt it though. We'll definitely have to do a comparison!

  2. PS - I can't believe you took a photo at the airport!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :)

  3. As someone who lived in West Africa for 2 years, this blog post made me extremely happy… and sad. You brought back so many great memories, and I thank you for that. Stay Well!
    Wishing I was still there,

  4. Well look at that, my article from... geez, 2008 finally has a compatriot. The amount of hits I continue to get on that are absurd as one would logically think much in there still applies, but apparently it does. The shuttle is a new bit of "fun". Looks like they've joined the ranks of... Zagreb in implementing this genius touch of transport. When I was there six years ago, you got to enjoy that stretch via a nice humid strong in the early evening drizzle.

    It does sound like it has gotten considerably smoother over time. Keep in mind when I wrote my article there was next to nothing out there about the airport with the exception of one story in Michela Wrong's book and anecdotes from friends who worked at (back then) Monuc about how it was on par with Lagos in terms of seedy airports. When my wife first went in 2005 it was far worse so that my vantage going in wasn't terribly upbeat. That and DRC was my first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa.

    Wonderful to hear the luggage issue hasn't changed. That's a nice touch to make you really feel you've arrived in Kinshasa or perhaps San Francisco which tries to compete with luggage wait times. I should point out that it was and still might possibly be the case that you can check your luggage in at the airport, at least for Air France. No one in their right mind would want to do this though as dropping it off at the Membling (if memory serves...) is far easier even with the Congolese interpretation of "a waiting line".

    Yeah, no photos at the airport. In general they're a really bad idea to take publicly in Congo. Of course if you just hold your point and shoot up to your ear after taking a shot, most aren't the wiser.


    1. Oh wow! Thanks for commenting! I just found your article today when doing a bit of Googling about N'djili. My favorite line was about the luggage "Sweet Jesus Almighty." That's gold.

      You'll be happy to hear we've witnesses the airport make great strides since 2008. The Francophonie a few years ago helped a lot. We now have AC in some rooms or holding places, rather. And beautiful flat screen TVs that offer absolutely no information about your flight and regularly display the time about an hour off. The more things change, the more they stay the same...

    2. I assume the flat screens were some NGO "investment" in the airport much as the computers from the EU were that slowed everything down?

      Just curious as I've encountered this all over Africa like a bus in Mali with a sign that proudly stated, "A gift from USAid" and while the bus drove fine, the AC didn't work and the windows couldn't be opened. I probably lost a kg of body weight an hour on that ride.


  5. soooo funny! and so enlightening to a Canadian airline employee who checks in dozens of passengers going to the DRC every week. Good tip on the post-its...& apologies to all for all the visa related panic attacks.

    1. Oh yay! You're "that woman" who checks visas! Thanks so much for commenting.

  6. Being one of the parents involved in the Argo-esque (read: scary) departure from the Congo, I think I'd add a few things to Sarah's very good instructions. First, the Congo is a serious place, a 3rd World country, not a day in the park.You really should follow the rules, all the rules. And even when you are a avid "rule-follower" (which I am), things happen -- "shoot-outs" which turn out to be fairly small but still frightening when taking place across the road from your house and people die, finding yourself trying to explain to 5 Congolese men why you should be allowed on the plane even though your "Go Pass" is apparently not good (read: protocol doesn't always work), etc. Second, and this is important, make sure any American money you bring into the country is in new bills with no tears (no matter how small). In retrospect, our departure would probably have been less "exciting" had our money been a bit newer. Would I go back? Still catching my breath, but I'd say yes, I might...

  7. We just visited our daughter and son in law in Kinshasa and all you say is true. I might add that the drive to and from the airport is an experience in itself, especially the section that is inexplicably unpaved and is a free for all dodging holes, ravines and people. At night. Think of about 16 lanes of traffic merging into two with the crowd from the Super Bowl crossing in front of you. Chaos.
    We did not have a protocol after our visas were checked on departure, not sure they can go with you after that. There is a hand check of carry on luggage at that point and we were told that a ceramic mug, wooden fish shaped bottle opener, and numerous wooden carved animals and a spoon could be used as weapons and that some sandwiches that our daughter had packed for us could not be taken aboard because, best that I could understand, (we are not fluent in French and "no one" could speak English) we did not have the proper documentation. As they were packing up all our souvenirs to take away I came up with $40 dollars of 'documentation' and suddenly all was returned and we jammed the stuff in our bags and walked away. Before getting on the plane there is another hand check of carry on bags by Air France and not an eyebrow was raised at our dangerous cargo. Our daughter said we should have raised a bigger stink about the luggage but this was less than a week after an uprising at the airport where people were killed so I was happy to get out of there with my little wooden okapi.
    We did have a wonderful time visiting Kinshasa and saw and did some amazing things but not sure it is the place to go if you do not have someone who lives there to host you. We are maybe not the most savvy travelers but it is an intimidating place especially if you don't speak the language.

  8. Super important question about N'Djili for those of us who have have had a few babies and have bladders that aren't as strong as they used to be... How are the bathrooms?? Are there bathrooms before you have to wait in the immigration lines?

    1. After having two pregnancies in Kinshasa, I can surely answer! When arriving, I always use the airplane bathroom even after we've landed. I hear there now is a bathroom in immigration as soon as you get inside. (Can't comment on its state, but a friend recently changed in there out of her flying clothes into her "reuniting with the boyfriend" clothes. So I think it's okay.)

      Once you're in the luggage claim area, you might be in trouble. When departing the airport, there is a GREAT, hidden bathroom at the top of the stairs by the restaurant. I think it's technically for restaurant customers, but just don't make eye-contact with anyone and no one will ask questions.

      And of course, there are several lounges in the airport that have bathrooms. I hear even the riff-raff, free lounge now has a fine bathroom. Although it used to be unisex where you and the men using urinals were all in the same room. Good times!

    2. I used the bathroom by the restaurant and it was great. I paid the guy that was standing outside of it.
      Then my last trip I used the one by the free lounge and was surprised it was very clean. I also paid the woman standing outside of it.
      Now looking back, I wonder if they were workers that I was supposed to pay for use of the bathroom or if I randomly gave some Africans some pocket change?

  9. Great post! Sounds like our experience arriving at the Kotoka International Airport in Ghana. Our luggage didn't arrive with us so we spent the night in Accra and fortunately all of our luggage was accounted for by the next morning. We were lucky!

  10. Prodigious. Can't wait for the next installment on grocery shopping, medical care, apartment hunting, etc.

  11. Love the picture story! I haven't flown into Kinshasa, just in and out of Brazzaville. No photos! But one time I just had to take one of the rush to the gate whenever people think a plane might possibly be boarding & the enormous keyboard one guy was taking as his "carry-on." I managed to sneak those. :)

  12. Also, we use a protocol person in and out of Brazzaville just about every time. 9 times out of 10 we could do it ourselves, but having his help that 10th time makes it worth the fees. :)

  13. Oh yes. The only time I haven't arranged protocol was for a trip to Brazzaville. We arrived via the port and the hotel manager told me ahead of time, "Don't worry about it. This is Brazza! We're not like Kinshasa. You won't have a problem." We were held for hours by immigration in Brazzaville for a totally imaginary issue before we managed to bribe ourselves in.

  14. Excellent. This sounds somehow much worse and more complicated than my first experience arriving at Juba Airport, which is probably one of the worst experiences of my life. They just allow three to four full flights of people into their tiny room where they do everything; visas, luggage and customs. You have to push through or get trampled and good luck even seeing Less bribe-paying needed though although a customs official tried to get something out of me until my "protocol man" (actually, just a friend that I made on the plane, which I highly recommend although it may be more difficult if you're not a young, single woman...) came to the rescue.
    Very impressive that people still manage to get their luggage in DRC!

  15. Ive been tons of times in many airports out of DRC and still i dont know anybody.
    I ve been at least twice in many airports and landstripe of DRC and i met lot of people. Thats a big up. For the rest, once u know rules and u respect them, everything will go smoothly

  16. It's good to see my country from someone else eyes. It's true that this blog targets more foreigners than my countrymen, but so far I've enjoyed this post and cant wait to read the next one...


  17. This an ideal post.

  18. Is that Aunt Jemima syrup on your waffle??

  19. Hello. Thanks for your fantastic blog entry!!! I am about to travel to the DRC with my 5 months old son. I wonder if the embassies ask for the yellow fever vaccination cert for babies of his age? And if not, does the baby require a separate visa? I will be very glad if you could answer these questions. Best regards, Lidia

  20. Thanks for sharing this here. Positive complements and experiences always bring out positive energy and interests.
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