Buying a car in South Africa won’t be the easiest item to check off an expat’s moving list but it is certainly one of the most necessary tasks to undertake. The country's lack of reliable, safe and comprehensive public transport means that expats have little other choice than to drive.

The task of acquiring a car is best approached with the mindset that it will take several weeks, if not longer. There is some extra paperwork required of foreigners in addition to what is required for locals. In addition, the notoriously slow South African bureaucracy slows things down, likely making this process more time consuming than it would be in an expat’s home country. 

On the bright side, the one thing many expats won’t need to get is a driving licence. Foreign licences are perfectly fine, as long the licence is issued in one of South Africa’s 11 official languages (most likely in English), has a picture of the applicant attached to it, and has not expired.

Contrary to popular belief, expats will not even need an International Driving Permit in addition to their licence, unless of course, their original licence isn’t in English. 

Choosing a car in South Africa

It’s a good idea for expats to get started on the car buying process while still in their home country by making a few decisions upfront. New or a used car? What size? What make? Diesel or petrol? To make this decision, there are a few things that should be known about South Africa. 

  • Cars are notoriously expensive in South Africa, and expats will certainly pay more for a car here than they would in Europe or the US.

  • Petrol (gasoline) is about a third more expensive than in the United States, but still well below European prices.

  • Most roads are good, especially in metropolitan areas. Should an expat decide to venture into the bush during their stay, a four-wheel drive will come in handy.

New versus used cars

Given the high cost of cars, many expats are tempted to buy a used car. The advantage of new cars, however, is that they typically include a motor plan that allows owners to get a free service for a number of years. Some used-car dealerships will also offer a service plan of some type, but many do not. If a service plan is offered, find out the terms regarding validity as service plans typically expire after a certain mileage or number of years.

Expats should also be wary that used cars in South Africa sold by private sellers may have questionable histories. If someone decides to buy from a private seller, they should arrange for the car to be inspected at a dealership or by a mechanic of their choice, just to make sure there aren’t any hidden problems. The dealership can also run the chassis number through their system to find out if the car being considered has ever been in an accident. Also, buyers should make sure the car has a roadworthiness certificate before they make the purchase.

Size and make

Regarding size, an expat would have to consider the intended day-to-day usage of the car. Naturally, a family of four or five will require more space than a single expat.

When it comes to the make of car, do consider that purchasing a car make with little representation in South Africa will make it difficult to service. In addition, it will mean that spare parts will be expensive and may need to be sourced from abroad.

If a buyer is going to live in South Africa for a defined period of time then it's worthwhile to consider the resale value of the vehicle they buy. To maximise resale value, expats should ensure that they have their car serviced regularly and should keep rigorous records of the car's history. Naturally, popular brands of cars will sell more easily than less well known makes.

Smash-and-grab protection

Unfortunately, given the high rates of theft from cars in South Africa, one added amenity to look for when car-shopping is smash-and-grab protection. This film protects the windshield and windows against smash-and-grabs, which may occur while cars are stopped at traffic lights. Most higher-end cars come already equipped with smash-and-grab protection, but if not, it can be added later.

Finding a car in South Africa

If buying a used car, expats should check used-car websites and online classified portals to get a better idea of what’s out there. Another option for more knowledgeable car buyers is auction houses. Auctions are an opportunity to pick up a real bargain. New cars, as is the case in all countries, are found at car dealerships.

Registering a car in South Africa

In South Africa, a buyer gains possession of their car once they pay for it, but they still need to register the vehicle to formally gain title ownership. The place to do this is at the nearest Licensing Office. 

Once the car has been registered, buyers will need to cut out the car's licence disk (which is renewable every year) and affix it to their windshield from the inside. For new cars, licence plates should be ordered (the dealership will usually do this on behalf of the buyer) and must be affixed to the front and back of the car. While waiting for licence plates to be made, a temporary car licence certificate is placed inside the car's rear windshield. 

Car insurance in South Africa

Once the car has been registered and the licence plates affixed, expats will have one last hurdle left before they can hit the road: insurance.

Most car insurance companies in South Africa will insure a vehicle over the phone and will book an appointment for the car to be inspected at a registered dealership.

The price of car insurance in South Africa, as in most countries, varies according to a number of factors, including the make of the car, the age of the driver, and the relative safety of where the car is stored during the day and at night.

When obtaining insurance quotes, expats should make sure they enquire about roadside assistance. Most insurance companies do provide it, and it will take one more item off the checklist to have this already covered. It is also recommended that one asks the insurance company for guidelines on what to do in case of an accident.

Typically, if an accident occurs, expats should exchange contact details with the other driver involved and take pictures of their licence as well as of both cars from various angles to document the damage. The accident would then need to be reported at a police station in order to get a case number. The case number is used to make claims from insurance. If the accident is of a serious nature, expats can call their insurance provider while at the scene. The insurance provider will then contact emergency services on the expat's behalf.

Some insurance companies will also give customers a discount on their monthly premium if they have a tracking service that electronically keeps tabs on the location of one's car through a GPS system. This service has evolved due to the high incidence of carjackings in South Africa. Most tracking companies offer various levels of support, such as the addition of a panic button or upgraded tracking services.