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Johannesburg Airport guide: Navigating arrivals
10 min read
Updated on Mar 22, 2024

This is part of the Been There, Done That series, where our expert globetrotters travel the world to get the insights and information you need for a seamless travel experience.

By Ra'eesah Manack, iVisa Travel Journalist

All my adventures begin and end at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. So, it’s only fitting that I take a moment to share all of my insider tips and personal tales from my travel experiences to ensure your trip is as smooth as possible.

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Johannesburg, a.k.a eGoli or "the city of gold," is the largest city in South Africa and renowned for its summer thunderstorms.| iVisa

I've landed at this airport more times than I can count, and each homecoming marks the end of another incredible adventure. Today, I stand ready to steer you through, imparting essential knowledge and more to ensure your effortless journey through Johannesburg Airport’s International Arrivals.

Johannesburg Airport was renamed O.R. Tambo after Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo (27 October 1917 – 24 April 1993). Oliver Tambo was a South African anti-apartheid politician and activist who served as President of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1967 to 1991.

Let me guide you through O.R. Tambo International, the pulsing heart of South Africa's air travel, so you’re ready to take on the world. Whether finding the perfect spot for a pre-flight meal or scooping up that last-minute gift, O.R. Tambo International offers a world of amenities. But it's more than just an airport; it's the starting point of your southern Africa adventure.

O.R. Tambo International Airport: A snapshot

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Landing at OR Tambo International Airport in South Africa. | iVisa

Descending into Johannesburg, the anticipation builds as the urban tapestry of South Africa's heartland comes into view. O.R. Tambo International Airport (IATA code: JNB) serves as my gateway to this vibrant city, and each arrival feels like a homecoming, yet filled with the promise of new explorations.

Here are a few quick facts:

Airport Code: JNB

Terminals: The airport houses two main terminals, Terminal A for international flights and Terminal B for domestic flights. Navigating between them is straightforward, thanks to clear signage and helpful staff.

Languages spoken: English is predominantly used, alongside 11 official languages of South Africa, making it a welcoming place for international visitors and locals.

Flying in, the iconic Johannesburg skyline against the backdrop of the vast Highveld is always a sight to behold. From above, landmarks like the Hillbrow Tower and the lush expanses of the Johannesburg Botanical Garden unfold beneath you, offering a bird's-eye preview of the city's diverse offerings.

Did You Know? O.R. Tambo International Airport is not just South Africa's busiest airport but also a crucial hub for flights to and from the rest of Africa, making it a pivotal point in connecting diverse cultures and destinations.

The first glimpse of South Africa from the air is always a reminder of its rich history and vibrant future, with OR Tambo International at the heart of it all. Whether it's your first time or you're a returning visitor, the view from above as you fly into Johannesburg is a powerful introduction to the beauty and complexity of this part of the world.

Arriving at O.R. Tambo International Airport: My experience

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Flying into South Africa from Turkey: Aerial view of the East Rand. | iVisa

Landing at O.R. Tambo International Airport always brings excitement and a comforting sense of homecoming. The descent into Johannesburg offers a stunning aerial view of the city, setting the stage for the vibrant energy that awaits at the airport.

Through immigration: A smooth start

Right after my plane lands and we make our way to the terminal, I'm already gearing up for the immigration process at O.R. Tambo International Airport. This first step on South African soil begins my adventure, and I've come to appreciate how streamlined they've made it.

As I follow the crowd towards immigration, it's clear that O.R. Tambo is well-prepped for the influx. They've got separate queues for different types of travelers:

  • South African citizens (that's me!)

  • Residents

  • Visitors or non-residents

  • Those needing extra assistance

Spotting the signs for South African citizens, I head over, relieved knowing there's a dedicated line for locals like me. This setup speeds things up and makes the whole process more organized.

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Passport in hand, I go to immigration. | iVisa

Having my passport and any other needed documents ready is a move I've learned over time. It's not just about keeping things moving for me; it's also about helping everyone behind me in line. The immigration officers are a standout for their efficiency and warmth.

Even though they thoroughly check all the necessary travel documents, they do it in a welcoming way. Every time I pass through, the process is quick, with just a few straightforward questions about my trip.

For international visitors flying into O.R. Tambo International Airport, head to the designated queues for non-residents, clearly marked to guide you smoothly through the process.

Pro Tip: When you reach the passport control counter at O.R. Tambo, remember to flash a smile and offer a greeting. Good manners go a long way in South Africa, and this small act of kindness is highly valued. It sets a positive tone for your interaction, and you'll find that officials respond warmly to greetings, making the entire process smoother and more pleasant for everyone involved.

What impresses me each time is how the airport handles the busy times. If it gets crowded, they'll open up more counters or redirect some of us to shorter queues. This kind of attention to detail makes getting through immigration here pretty stress-free.

When it's my turn at the counter, things go quickly. My passport gets scanned, and if there are any questions, they're always straightforward – usually just confirming why I'm here and how long I plan to stay. Then, with a stamp on my passport, I'm officially welcomed back to South Africa. This mix of efficiency and a personal touch wraps up the immigration process nicely, leaving me ready to grab my bags and step into Johannesburg, all set for what's ahead.

Baggage claim: A swift reunion

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Look up to see the baggage carousel numbers. | iVisa

Heading toward the baggage claim area at O.R. Tambo International Airport feels like entering the final stretch of my journey.

The conveyor belts whir into action almost as soon as I arrive, a clear sign that the system here is well-tuned to the flight rhythm. The digital displays above each carousel are a beacon, guiding travelers to their respective claims with ease.

This straightforward guidance streamlines the process, making it feel less like a chore and more like the concluding steps of my travel narrative.

I spot the trolleys lined up near the entrance, a small but significant detail that eases the physical burden of travel. Grabbing one without a hitch reminds me of the thoughtful touches O.R. Tambo integrates to accommodate travelers.

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I pick a spot along the carousel to wait for my bag. | iVisa

As I wait for my bags, I’m surrounded by fellow passengers, each of us playing our part in the collective anticipation of reunion with our belongings. The bags start appearing, circling the carousel like clockwork. It's a sight that brings a sense of relief, punctuating the end of a flight's journey with a tangible sense of arrival.

Yet, I know that travel is unpredictable, and bags can sometimes stray from their path. The airport anticipates this, too, with a baggage services counter visibly stationed for such eventualities.

I recall having to report a missing bag on a past trip. They took down the details with professionalism, which eased my worry, setting the process of reuniting me with my luggage in motion.

They offered clarity and reassurance, providing me with a reference number and explaining the notification process for when my bag would be found. It was a situation I’d rather not repeat. Still, the efficiency and support made it far less daunting than it could have been.

Clearing Customs at O.R. Tambo: The final step

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With nothing to declare, I followed the green route. | iVisa

Navigating through customs at O.R. Tambo International Airport marks the final official checkpoint of my journey into Johannesburg.

This part of the airport experience, often daunting in its anticipation, unfolds with a structured simplicity here, reflecting South Africa's commitment to security and visitor welcome.

As I wheel my trolley towards the green and red channels, the choice is clear: green for nothing to declare and red for goods that need declaring.

This straightforward approach demystifies the customs process, guiding travelers efficiently based on their needs.

On this particular trip, as on most others, I find myself heading towards the green channel, my luggage filled with personal effects and memories rather than dutiable goods.

The customs area is spacious and designed to handle the flow of passengers without feeling cramped or hurried.

Officers stationed at the exit of the green channel keep an eye on the passing travelers, and their presence is a reminder of the rigorous standards upheld here. Yet, their approachability stands out; they're ready to assist or direct should any questions arise.

On the occasions I've traveled with items that necessitated a stop at the Red Channel, the experience has been equally streamlined.

Declaring goods becomes less of an ordeal and more a matter of procedure, thanks to the clear signage and helpful customs officers.

They're thorough in their inspections, yes, but it's their efficiency and clarity in communication that make the process manageable. They explain the reasons behind any duties or restrictions, ensuring that I, like many travelers, leave the customs area informed and compliant with local regulations.

The customs checkpoint, with its potential for stress, instead serves as a smooth transition from the international confines of air travel to the rich tapestry of South Africa beyond the airport doors.

It's here that the journey truly begins, with the final stamps of approval sending me on my way to Johannesburg. The efficiency of OR Tambo's customs speeds up the entry process and sets a welcoming tone for the adventure ahead.

Into the heart of O.R. Tambo

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Leaving the airport and watching people meet up with their families. | iVisa

Crossing into the arrivals hall at O.R. Tambo International Airport, you're immediately enveloped by the dynamic buzz that is Johannesburg's welcoming committee.

It's here, in this bustling nexus, that South Africa's rich tapestry of cultures and the warmth of its people genuinely come to the forefront.

My first stop is often at one of the information desks, a beacon for any traveler needing guidance. The staff, always approachable and ready with a smile, embodies the essence of South African hospitality, offering directions and advice with genuine eagerness to assist.

A one-stop shop in the arrivals hall

Upon exiting the secure area, you'll find various services. Need a SIM card or a quick bite? The arrivals hall has you covered with local and international brands housed in small kiosks and snack bars around the arrivals area. Alternatively, you can take the lift up one level, where you will find a Vodacom store, pharmacy, and a variety of tech and souvenir shops.

Are you hungry for something local or just want a taste of home? You'll find both here. Nandos is often regarded as one of the city's best, but my favorite is Piece A Pizza.

It's all about ensuring you're ready to hit the ground running with a full belly and your phone ready. This mix of local spots and well-known brands shows what Johannesburg is all about – bringing different worlds together in one bustling, vibrant place.

Traveler's insight: Airport currency exchanges may offer convenience but often come with less favorable rates and the potential for mishaps, such as cash being counted out of sight, leading to discrepancies. If you must exchange currency at the airport, ensure the transaction is visible, double-check the amount yourself, or use the Money Exchange ATMs instead. Consider exchanging money at a bank in the city for better rates and a safer experience.

Transport options: Navigating my way out

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Gautrain, a high-speed train traveling from OR Tambo International Airport to Pretoria, South Africa. | iVisa

Choosing how to depart from OR Tambo presents various options, each catering to different needs and preferences. With its reputation for speed and efficiency, the Gautrain is a choice I’ve leaned on for quick access to the city center.

For a more personalized journey, taxis and ride-share services offer doorstep delivery to your destination. And for those adventures where freedom to roam is desired, the airport's array of car rental agencies provides a selection of vehicles to match any travel itinerary.

Each arrival at OR Tambo marks not just a return to or discovery of Johannesburg but the beginning of an adventure beyond the airport's doors.

The seamless transition from plane to city life, facilitated by the airport's comprehensive services and the undeniable warmth of its staff, sets the tone for a memorable stay in South Africa.

OR Tambo isn’t just a point of entry; it's the start of a journey into the heart of one of Africa’s most vibrant cities.

  • iVisa is NOT affiliated with any government agency. This site does not provide legal advice and we are not a law firm. None of our customer service representatives are lawyers and they also do not provide legal advice. We are a private, internet-based travel and immigration consultancy provider dedicated to helping individuals travel around the world. You may apply by yourself directly on the various government websites. The source of information: http://www.dha.gov.za/index.php/immigration-services
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