Since 2014 the East African Tourist Visa (abbreviated here as EATV), has been available so tourists can enter Kenya, Uganda and/or Rwanda using a single visa. The visa will be valid for 90 days, is multiple-entry (but read my experiences below), and can be obtained on arrival at airports (not sure about border crossing points). The cheapest single entry visas to Uganda and Kenya cost 50 USD, and to Rwanda 30 USD. So if going to Kenya and Uganda, obtaining EATV makes sense, but if going to Rwanda and only either Kenya or Uganda and not re-entering any of these countries, then it will be cheaper to get single entry visas instead.
Tanzania opted out of the EATV, which is very unfortunate. There has been plenty of animosity between Kenya and Tanzania lately especially regarding the tourism sector, with Kenya preventing Tanzanian carrier Fastjet entering the Kenyan market and banning Tanzanian vehicles from Nairobi Airport, while Tanzania reduced the number flights Kenya Airways can operate to Dar es Salaam. Hopefully Tanzania joins the EA visa program in the future, but this is not likely to happen anytime soon. Burundi is the other East African Community (EAC) country currently not on the EATV, but given the current political climate the country is out of tourist range anyway.
When touring in East Africa earlier this year I obtained the EATV at the Entebbe Airport on arrival. Since then I entered Kenya three times using the visa, first flying from Entebbe to Nairobi, while the next time was at Lungalunga border post travelling by bus from Dar Es Salaam. The third time entering Kenya I had been in Europe in between. The immigration official at Nairobi Airport demanded me to get a new visa, saying I’m not allowed to re-enter Kenya using EATV since I had left the EAC region region. Only after long debate and making it crystal clear I’m not going to get a Kenyan visa (costing 50 USD), he finally let me go through. There is no mention about such restriction on the EATV sticker (which takes one full passport page). Websites of Immigration Department of Rwanda, an Ugandan embassy and Kenya Tourism Board (Magical Kenya) all state pretty clearly that:
“The holder shall also be allowed to move out of the Republic of Kenya, Republic of Rwanda and Republic of Uganda; and return without having to pay for another visa. This will only be applicable in the period of 90 days.”
So it is very much about which immigration official one ends up dealing with. I recommend printing these visa rules and show it to them in case of any problems.
If the the visa is obtained in advance from an Embassy, then the first port of entry should be in the country that issued the visa (eg. If the visa was issued by a Kenyan embassy, then Kenya has to be the first destination). The visa does not permit working in any of these countries, and the visa cannot be extended. Foreigners living in any of these three countries will be able to obtain EATV for free. Each of the three countries participating EATV will receive 30 USD for each visa, while the remaining 10 USD is for administration cost (source). This is not a good deal for Kenya, which attracts many more tourists than the two other countries, so no wonder why you don’t see Kenya marketing this visa much.
The East African Tourist Visa is a good initiative to promote tourism in the region and especially cross-border travelling. However, if Eastern African countries really wanted to present themselves as tourist-friendly destinations they would waive short-term tourist visa fees altogether for many nationalities. This in what major tourist destinations in Southern Africa (Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa), and SE Asia (eg. Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam) are doing. All these regions are competing with each other for western tourists, many of whom nowadays want to visit number of different countries and if they can’t do it easily enough they will choose a different region.
But the biggest impediment to cross-border travelling in Easter Africa is transport. Distances between different destinations are long and this coupled with poor roads means travelling by bus or other vehicle takes ages. Regional air travel in East Africa is not well developed, prices can be very expensive, for example direct flights between Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam start at 265 USD, one way only! Rwandair and Ethiopian Airlines offer cheaper flights on the route despite change of planes at their hubs and therefore much longer flights. Flight frequencies could also be more and some key routes (eg. Mombasa-Dar Es Salaam) are not served at all. The emergence of Fastjet is slowly improving the situation, but as long as the they not allowed to enter the Kenyan market there will be very limited competition on many regional routes.