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Moving to South Africa

Expats moving to South Africa will find a world of wonders within the borders of a single country. From its incredibly diverse topography to its 11 official languages, there is much to be enjoyed in the range and rhythm of life in Africa’s southernmost country.

Retirees, ambitious young adults and established professionals are drawn by the wonderful climate, the relatively low living costs and the easy access to a luxurious lifestyle, all against an immensely scenic African backdrop. From bustling cities and quaint rural villages to sweeping game reserves with world-class lodges and pristine beaches all around its coast, South Africa offers expats a high quality of life and plenty to see and do. What’s more, adapting to the culture is fairly easy and enjoying the South African lifestyle is effortless.

While there is plenty to be enjoyed about life in South Africa, the country does battle with high unemployment, deeply rooted inequality and inefficient governance.

Despite problems in the respective public sectors, private healthcare in South Africa is world class and several of its universities are internationally ranked. The country’s private schools offer a level of education comparable to the best schools around the world, and there are even some public schools that should meet the expectations of expats.

As a result of skill shortages in sectors such as engineering, education, executive management and information technology, expats with the right skills and experience shouldn’t struggle to find employment.

Unfortunately, there is still some way to go in addressing the disparities entrenched by the apartheid era, and crime in South Africa continues to be a problem that affects many citizens and businesses. Private security is a necessary precaution and, with a booming security industry, can easily be contracted for affordable rates.

The most popular cities for expats moving to South Africa are Cape Town and Johannesburg. Joburg, as locals call it, is inland and has the constant bustle of a cosmopolitan business centre, while Cape Town offers windswept beaches, mountain-framed vistas and a more laid-back lifestyle.

Expats who move to South Africa often find that its idiosyncratic mixture of first- and third-world elements makes for an irresistible combination in spite of the challenges.


Fast facts

Official name: Republic of South Africa

Population: Over 59 million

Capital cities: Cape Town (legislative), Pretoria (executive), Bloemfontein (judicial)

Neighbouring countries: Along South Africa's northern border from west to east are Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland. Lesotho is situated in the eastern side of South Africa, and is entirely surrounded by the Republic.

Geography: South Africa has a long coastline of 1,600 miles (2,500 kms) that hugs the country from east to west. The inland area of the country is characterised by a vast plateau, while a large portion of the south is occupied by a semi-desert shrubland called the Karoo.

Political system: Constitutional parliamentary republic

Major religions: Freedom of religion is enshrined in the South African constitution. Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are the most prominent religions.

Main languages: South Africa has 11 official languages, though English is the standard form of communication. Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho are also widely spoken and vary in prevalence depending on geographic location.

Money: The South African Rand (ZAR) is divided into 100 cents. Opening a bank account is usually easy and possible with identification and proof of address. ATMs are widespread but might be scarcer in some rural areas. Internet banking is widely available.

Tipping: 10 percent (or more for good service) is common.

Time: GMT+2

Electricity: 230V, 50Hz. Typically, three-pin round plugs are standard.

Internet domain: .za

International dialling code: +27

Emergency contacts: 10111

Transport and driving: Cars drive on the left. Despite the introduction of rapid transport systems in some areas, public transport is generally of a low standard and most expats purchase a vehicle. Roads are generally of good quality, but certain rural roads may be in disrepair.

Weather in South Africa

With close to 3,000 hours of sunshine a year, the warm climate in South Africa is likely to be a welcome adjustment for expats from colder countries. In fact, the pleasant weather in South Africa is one of the main reasons holidaymakers and expats are drawn to the country every year.

The best times of the year are arguably the brief transitional seasons. Autumn, reddening the trees from March to May, and spring, lasting from September to late November, offer pleasant temperatures with little rain in most of the country. These mild seasons are in contrast to summer in South Africa, when temperatures of over 86°F (30°C) are common and can soar up to 104°F (40°C) in some of the country's hotter areas.

Each region has its own distinct character, however, with its own average temperatures and rainfall. The warmest areas in winter are around the coast. That said, KwaZulu-Natal on the east coast and the Western Cape maintain different climates and are influenced by the two oceans on opposite sides of the country. The Atlantic brings a Mediterranean climate to Cape Town and surrounds, while the Indian Ocean's warmer current creates a more tropical climate in Durban.

In summer, the interior of the country, which sits at a higher altitude, is not quite as humid as Durban but generally has more rainfall than South Africa's coastal regions, with landlocked cities such as Johannesburg and Pretoria enjoying frequent afternoon thunderstorms.

Expats are likely to enjoy the South African climate, although they may want to purchase fans and heaters – many houses don't have central heating or air conditioning.

 
 

Embassy Contacts for South Africa

South African embassies

  • South African Embassy, Washington, United States: +1 202 232 4400

  • South African High Commission, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7451 7299

  • South African High Commission, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 744 0330

  • South African High Commission, Canberra, Australia: +61 2 6272 7300

  • South African Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1 661 5553

  • South African High Commission, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 4 815 8484


Foreign embassies in South Africa

  • United States Embassy, Pretoria: +27 12 431 4000

  • British High Commission, Pretoria: +27 12 421 7500 

  • High Commission of Canada, Pretoria: +27 12 422 3000

  • Australian High Commission, Pretoria: +27 12 423 6000

  • Irish Embassy, Pretoria: +27 12 452 1000

  • New Zealand High Commission, Pretoria: +27 12 435 9000

Public Holidays in South Africa

 

2021

2022

New Year’s Day

1 January

1 January

Human Rights Day

22 March

21 March

Good Friday

2 April

15 April

Family Day

5 April

18 April

Freedom Day

27 April

27 April

Worker’s Day

1 May

2 May

Youth Day

16 June

16 June

Women’s Day

9 August

9 August

Heritage Day

24 September

24 September

Day of Reconciliation

16 December

16 December

Christmas Day

25 December

25 December

Day of Goodwill

26 December

26 December

*When a public holiday in South Africa falls on a Sunday, the following Monday is a public holiday.

Pros and Cons of Moving to South Africa

As with any expat destination, life in South Africa comes with its own unique set of perks and challenges. Still, many expats will agree that in this case, the pros outweigh the cons, and they end up staying in the country long term. Below are some of the pros and cons of living in South Africa.


Accommodation in South Africa

+ PRO: Spacious options are available

In cities like Pretoria and Johannesburg expats can easily rent sizeable freestanding houses in the suburbs with large gardens and often private swimming pools. Townhouses are also popular options for expats looking for something smaller as they also usually have a small garden to relax in. Even apartment blocks often come with communal spaces that include swimming pools and braai (barbecue) areas.

- CON: Renting in major cities can be expensive

As in many countries, renting accommodation in major cities in South Africa can be expensive. With Cape Town, in particular, being a popular tourist destination, many investors buy up properties in there which drives monthly rental fees even higher. Expats could end up spending over a third of their income on rent every month. The good news for expats heading to Johannesburg is that, although it doesn't have Cape Town's oceans or mountains, money a lot further here in terms of rent.


Lifestyle in South Africa

+ PRO: Lovely weather

With plenty of sunshine and warm temperatures throughout most of the year, South Africa's pleasant climate makes the country perfect for expats who enjoy being outdoors.

+ PRO: Easy to make friends

South Africans are known to be some of the friendliest people in the world, so expats should have no problem making friends and finding help when they are lost in their new city. Many South Africans also enjoy being active, meaning there are tons of opportunities for expats to join local hiking, running or sports clubs.

- CON: Very laid-back approach to time

Sometimes the lifestyle in South Africa can be a little too laid back. The famous South African term 'now-now' is a vague and ambiguous way of measuring time. If someone says they'll do something 'now-now', that could mean immediately, in a few minutes or a few hours. This could frustrate expats as things may not happen as quickly as they are used to.


Safety in South Africa

+ PRO: Safe for LGBTQ+ community

South Africa has enshrined equal treatment of the LGBTQ+ community in its constitution and recognises same-sex marriage. Cape Town, in particular, has a thriving LGBTQ+ culture and is often referred to as the 'gay capital of Africa'. All of this has made South Africa a safe destination for queer travellers. Of course, there will always be exceptions in any country and some areas are more conservative than others – however, in general, LGBTQ+ expats shouldn’t experience serious homophobia here.

- CON: High crime rates

Expats do need to be aware that South Africa has one of the highest crime rates in the world. It is important to take sensible safety precautions to reduce the chance of being seen as an 'easy target' to crimes such as robbery, muggings, smash-and-grabs and hijackings.


Working in South Africa

+ PRO: Relaxed work culture

In keeping with the generally laid-back attitude of the country, work culture in South Africa tends to be relaxed and informal. South Africans have a 'work to live' mindset rather than 'live to work' – they're hard workers while on the job but personal time is generally respected once the workday ends.

- CON: Visas can take long

It isn’t possible for expats to get a job in South Africa without a visa. Unfortunately, paperwork in the country is notorious for moving slowly and it can be difficult to predict how long a visa approval will take. Many employers prefer to avoid this complex and frustrating process, rather opting to hire someone local if possible. That said, expats with critical skills will have a much easier time with this.

- CON: Low wages and limited perks

Wages are low if one earns in the local currency. Employers are only required to give 15 days of annual leave a year, which may come as a shock to expats from countries with more generous leave policies. Many companies don’t offer standard perks like a pension or medical aid assistance which means workers have added stress to cover these needs on their own.


Healthcare in South Africa

- CON: Inadequate public healthcare

Public healthcare in South Africa may be inexpensive, but it is generally not up to the standards that most expats are used to. Public hospitals are understaffed, under-resourced and overcrowded. This makes for a long and arduous process, regardless of whether one is there for something as innocuous as a medication pick-up or for more serious situations such as surgeries and emergencies. Creature comforts are few and privacy is lacking.

+ PRO: Excellent private healthcare

Fortunately, high-quality private healthcare is readily available. This makes up for the lack of public healthcare facilities. Visits to a private general practitioner are reasonably priced. South Africa also has various health insurance schemes for expats to choose from.

Safety in South Africa

Crime and safety in South Africa are major factors for expats considering moving to the country.

Much of the country's crime is linked to income inequality. On a day-to-day basis, theft-related crimes are likely to be the most cause for concern. Violent crimes, on the other hand, are often linked to gang activity which is concentrated in particular areas. Expats are far less likely to come across this type of crime.

Burglaries, mugging, petty theft and hijackings are often opportunistic, with perpetrators taking advantage of what they consider to be easy targets. Expats can reduce their chances of falling victim to these types of crime by being aware of their surroundings, avoiding isolated areas and investing in home and vehicle security.


Residential safety in South Africa

While burglaries can be a problem in some areas, expats can increase their personal safety by contracting an armed response security provider and investing in an alarm system. Many suburban estates also have controlled access, while neighbourhoods without controlled access often have neighbourhood-watch patrols instead, which can also decrease the chance of crime.

There are a few more factors that can improve the residential safety of expats:

  • Be vigilant about locking front and back doors at all times, and make sure alarm systems are set before leaving the house

  • When choosing a home, it's a good idea to opt for enclosed neighbourhoods or security villages, apartments with gated security, or an area with an effective neighbourhood watch

  • The vast majority of South African properties have burglar bars installed on windows, and safety gates on external doors. Sliding doors are sometimes overlooked by property owners in this respect, but it's important that they are fitted with safety gates too as they are particularly vulnerable potential entry points. Burglars have also been known to get through even the smallest of windows, so tiny, innocuous-looking windows should also have burglar bars

  • Extra precautions such as perimeter walls, guard dogs and electric fencing can make the property more secure and are good to have, but aren't absolutely essential

  • A common complaint is that police response is too slow – so expats should consider using private security companies with armed response units capable of responding to emergencies


Public transport safety in South Africa

A lack of safe public transportation in South Africa poses a frustrating challenge. Minibus taxis, trains and even certain buses are especially vulnerable to pickpocketing and muggings. Consulting trusted locals, such as friends or coworkers, on the safest mode of transport in the area is recommended.

There are no underground trains, but the speedy Gautrain operating between Johannesburg and Pretoria provides a safe and effective means of travel, although it is somewhat expensive. The MyCiTi bus services in Cape Town are also widely regarded as a safe option, but valuables should still be kept out of sight and caution is advisable at night, especially when travelling alone.


Road safety in South Africa

Road safety in South Africa is an ongoing concern. Reckless driving, especially by minibus taxis, is the cause of many accidents. Expats driving in South Africa should do so defensively, and should be sure to obey the rules of the road and constantly be aware of their surroundings, especially at night. Car doors should be locked and windows should be rolled up at all times. Drivers should also stick to main routes, park in well-lit areas, keep valuables out of sight, and never pick up hitchhikers.

In certain areas, smash-and-grab thefts and hijackings are threats too; hotspots include residential driveways and at traffic lights, particularly those near freeway off-ramps. When in these two situations, it is important to keep a sharp eye out for any suspicious-looking figures trying to lurk in the car's blindspot. Drivers should also make sure they have an escape route available by leaving a gap between their car and the car in front of them at traffic lights, or by rolling slowly towards the traffic light. Coming to a total stop makes it easier for criminals to approach the car and smash a window.

When parking at night, expats should choose a security-patrolled or well-lit area. Informal and formal car guarding services are common in South Africa. Should a car guard offer their assistance in keeping watch over the car once it has been parked, it’s accepted practice to pay them some change when returning.


Scams in South Africa

ATM scams in South Africa are a possibility. Never engage a stranger in conversation while drawing money. Don't count money in public, and avoid drawing large amounts of cash if strangers are watching. Should the ATM withhold a card, immediately call the helpline number displayed on the ATM, and do not allow a stranger to assist.


Political and social unrest in South Africa

Protests stemming from social inequalities and labour disputes are fairly common in South Africa. These can disrupt traffic and service delivery in the affected area and violence has erupted on occasion. Large labour union strikes are usually reported on in advance and there is normally a notable security presence surrounding such events. Expats should keep abreast of local developments and avoid any affected areas.


Emergency telephone numbers in South Africa

  • Emergency services: 10111

  • Emergency services (from a cellphone): 112

  • Ambulance: 10177

Working in South Africa

The working environment in South Africa hinges on the type of two-tiered economy generally associated with developing countries. One level is similar to a high-producing Western country and the other is largely informal.  

Despite this complex contrast, South Africa’s diversified economy and highly developed infrastructure have helped to maintain optimism through continued job creation.

The 'brain drain' resulting from skilled South African workers moving overseas has created gaps in many sectors. This has encouraged companies in industries like finance, medicine, engineering and even some artisanal trades to consider employing foreigners. 


Job market in South Africa

The Rainbow Nation's professional world has abundant opportunities for qualified and experienced expats. Those with a tertiary education will find that integrating into the economy won't be too difficult. South Africa is also a fertile ground for entrepreneurial activity, and expats looking to open a business in South Africa can potentially have great success.

South Africa’s primary sectors include manufacturing, mining and agricultural services. The services sector remains the largest source of employment in the country, but expats will find that the greatest skills shortages in South Africa, and the most opportunities, are in fields such as engineering, IT and medicine. Temporary positions and low-income jobs are difficult to find though, with an already high unemployment rate.

The most popular cities for expats in South Africa are Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Johannesburg is renowned for its 'play hard, work hard' culture while the coastal cities are known for a more balanced, relaxed lifestyle.


Finding a job in South Africa

Expats looking to find a job in South Africa usually turn to the many online job portals. The local classifieds can also be a valuable resource or expats can sign up with a recruitment agency. Being proactive and approaching companies directly to express interest can also go a long way.

To legally take up employment in the country, expats will need a South African work visa. They should also be aware that salaries negotiated in the weak South African rand may make for a comfortable lifestyle within local borders, but is unlikely to go far outside of the continent.


Work culture in South Africa

Expats may find the work culture in South Africa to be somewhat more relaxed than they are used to, although this will vary between different industries and cities. For example, just about everything in Cape Town is approached with a more laid-back attitude than it would be in Johannesburg, and this includes the atmosphere at work.

As far as dress code goes, expats are likely to encounter more formal dress codes in business or corporate settings, while smaller companies or creative industries may have fewer regulations when it comes to what to wear at work.

South Africans are generally friendly and welcoming people, so expats shouldn't be surprised if they are invited out for after-work drinks. This is a good way to get to know new colleagues in a relaxed setting.

Doing Business in South Africa

With a famous reputation of cultural diversity, doing business in South Africa is an eye-opening experience. The myriad different practices and customs expats may come across can be daunting, but nonetheless, a few generalities do exist and Western expats shouldn't experience too much of a culture shock in the South African business world.

South Africa is internationally recognised as one of the world's foremost emerging markets, with the World Bank ranking it 84th out of 190 countries in its Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2020. The country ranked highly for protecting minority investors (13th), but fell short in trading across borders (145th).

When opting to do business in 'Mzansi', it won't take long for expats to fit in with a local populace that has learned that the most direct path to success is the one that people carve out for themselves.


Fast facts

Business hours 

Generally, Monday to Friday, from 8.30am or 9am to 5pm.

Business language

English is widely spoken. It's beneficial but not necessary to know some isiXhosa, isiZulu or Afrikaans.

Dress

Dress is conservative, but not formal. Suits are the exception to the rule, not the norm, and reserved for more corporate environments.

Gifts

Not expected, but generally welcome. Gifts are often opened in front of the giver.

Gender equality

Women in South Africa are entitled to the same opportunities as men but female representation in senior management remains relatively low.

Greetings

Handshakes are the norm in professional settings.  

Racial equality

Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) is an affirmative action policy that aims to redress the socio-economic imbalances caused by apartheid through helping to bring the black majority into the economic mainstream. This has an effect on hiring processes, as certain population groups are given preference for BBBEEE jobs. Though the programme is not compulsory, BBBEE-certified businesses are given certain benefits.


Business culture in South Africa

South African business culture is marked by striking differences in ethnicity, language and customs. The most important thing for expats doing business in the country is to try and understand the complexities of business culture in South Africa. Over time, a few common practices will emerge.

Cultural nuances

The working world of one urban centre contrasts with rural counterparts but also with other cities. South Africans love stereotyping Johannesburg as being hard working and full of opportunity, while Cape Town is said to be more relaxed but also more insular.

South Africans tend to prefer doing business with people they've met before. They are also known for being warm and inviting, and a bit of relationship-building will go a long way to cementing business arrangements. South Africans value hard work and applaud those who have succeeded – but they tend to prioritise other aspects of life such as family, good living and friendship.

Punctuality is also important; however, depending on the client's culture, it may be necessary to wait patiently. Government figures, for instance, are often late.

Work environment

The South African work environment tends to be more relaxed and personable than expats may be used to, with the possible exception of some of the larger corporations and more established financial institutions. That said, a clear management hierarchy still exists, and showing respect for senior executives and colleagues is important. In exchange, decisions are often made in a somewhat egalitarian manner.


Dos and don'ts of business in South Africa

  • Do schedule appointments a fair amount of time in advance and confirm the day before the meeting

  • Do be punctual, even if expecting to wait

  • Don't be surprised if local colleagues ask personal questions or discuss their personal lives. South Africans are friendly by nature and this is common.

  • Don't be afraid to join colleagues for an after-work event. This is rarely seen as an obligation but instead as a fun way to get to know one another.

  • Do dress conservatively when initially joining an office, cementing relationships with clients or associates, or attending an interview, even in casual offices

Visas for South Africa

Depending on where they’re from and how long they intend to stay, most expats will need a visa for South Africa. Citizens of visa-exempt countries such as the UK, Canada, the US and several others won’t need a visa if they’re staying for 90 days or less and are in the country for tourism or business purposes.

Holders of passports from non-exempt countries and those wanting to stay longer to study, volunteer or work in South Africa will have to apply for a visa beforehand.

It's worth noting that only visa renewals or extensions can be done in South Africa – expats won’t be able to change from, for example, a visitor's visa to a work visa from within the country. To change to a new visa category, an expat would need to return to their country of origin and submit the relevant application at a South African embassy.


Temporary residence visas for South Africa

Expats planning to stay in South Africa for more than three months will need a temporary residence visa. This is sorted into different categories depending on what the applicant intends to do, such as moving to study, work, start their own business or receive medical treatment. Each type of temporary resident visa has its own specified period of validity. Work visas, for instance, are valid for up to a maximum of five years, while medical treatment visas are issued for six months at a time and are eligible for extension.


Permanent residence permits for South Africa

Expats who want to stay long term will need a permanent residence permit for South Africa. The application process varies according to what they want to do in the country. The first thing to determine is which category the application falls under.

Direct residence permits are applied for on the basis of having been in the country on a work visa for the past five years. Residency-on-other-grounds permits cover other reasons for permanent residency, such as retiring, starting a business or moving to the country to join a family member or spouse.

Though some permanent residence applications can be made on a standalone basis in theory, most expats get a temporary residence visa first. This is often because permanent residence applications can take a long time to be processed and granted.

Benefits of permanent residency in South Africa

One of the most obvious benefits of a permanent residence permit is the fact that it is valid for life if the holder abides by the permit’s conditions. All other permits in South Africa require renewal or re-application at some point. Permanent residents can also sponsor qualifying relatives.

Permanent residence applications

Permanent residence applications can be made either in South Africa and in the applicant’s country of origin, but expats should get advice from an immigration agent because the process takes several months and might cause applicants in South Africa to overstay on their current visa.


Using a registered immigration practitioner

Applicants can apply directly to a South African mission or through a South Africa visa application centre. But certain offices might not be easily accessible and getting advice is difficult. The process is often confusing, time-consuming and frustrating – South African Home Affairs is notorious for disorganisation and shifting standards.

Applications aren’t points-based but assessed on a case-by-case basis. This policy creates a large grey area that’s often best navigated with the knowledge that an immigration practitioner provides.

*Visa regulations are subject to change at short notice and expats should contact their respective embassy or consulate for the latest details.

Work Permits for South Africa

Expats wishing to take up employment in South Africa will need to acquire a work permit , but getting one isn’t always a consistent process. In South Africa, work permits are known as work visas and allow the bearer to enter, stay and work in the country. 

The main consideration for work visas is still that South African citizens are not able to perform the task in question at the same capacity as the applicant. The documentation required to prove this is a grey area that partially depends on the personal discretion of officials. As a result, patience and persistence are highly advised for expats who don't have an employer organising their permit for them.

There are several visas for expats wanting to work in South Africa, including the General Work Visa, Critical Skills Work Visa and the Intra-company Transfer Work Visa.

Either way, the first time expats apply for a visa it has to be at a South African mission outside of the country – it isn’t possible to change from a visit visa to a work visa while in South Africa.


Types of work visas for South Africa

General Work Visas

To apply for a General Work Visa, expats must have a job offer from a South African employer. General Work Visas are issued for the term of the work contract, up to a maximum of five years.

Prospective employers have to prove that they were unable to find a South African citizen or permanent resident for the expat’s position. Linked to this, expat employees have to provide proof that they have the necessary qualifications or skills needed for the job. Expat employees are also not allowed to earn less than the average salary and benefits earned by citizens and permanent residents in similar positions.

Critical Skills Work Visas

The South African Critical Skills Work Visa enables foreigners working within certain fields to enter the country regardless of whether they have an offer of employment, as long as they have an occupation listed on the government's critical skills list.

As is the case with General Work Visas, Critical Skills Work Visas can only be issued for five years or less. Expats on this visa will need to prove to the authorities that they've obtained employment within 12 months of being issued the visa. The main sectors identified by the critical skills list include engineering, information and communications technology, science, research and medicine.

Intra-company Transfer Work Visas

Multinational businesses often use this visa for transferring personnel between branches in different countries. The Intra-company Transfer Work Visa can be eligible for up to four years. Required documentation includes an employment contract and letters from both the transferring company outside of South Africa and the receiving company in South Africa.

Cost of Living in South Africa

Compared to other expat destinations around the world, the cost of living in South Africa is low. But with a local currency that tends to be weak and rather volatile, expats who earn or have savings in a stronger foreign currency will be in a far better position than those being paid in South African rand. Local salaries may also be slightly on the low side in some industries, particularly in Cape Town.

That said, even if a little penny pinching is necessary here and there, those who can afford it are sure to enjoy an exceptionally high quality of life in a country known for its sunshine, fresh produce, good wine and unrivalled landscapes. 

In Mercer's Cost of Living Survey for 2020, Cape Town ranked 187th and Johannesburg ranked 192nd out of the 209 cities surveyed worldwide. This is roughly on par with the cost of living in other African countries such as Malawi, Uganda and Algeria, and is still far lower than major international destinations like New York, London and Tokyo.

As is usually the case, the cost of living in South African cities is higher than in rural towns, and most expats either move to Cape Town or Johannesburg.


Cost of accommodation in South Africa

There's an abundance of options for accommodation in South Africa, and it shouldn’t take long for expats to find a home that suits their budget and lifestyle.

Some peripheral suburbs in Cape Town and Johannesburg are an exception, but generally the further away from the CBD someone finds a home, the less expensive it will be (the CBD in Johannesburg now being Sandton). There are plenty of quieter areas for expats who'd prefer to live outside of the city's hustle and bustle. Most expats buy a car, although commuting between home, work and school can take hours during peak traffic. 

Expats moving to Johannesburg will get more space for their money, while a less spacious apartment or house in Cape Town may be within short distance of the beach, vineyards and the mountain.

Given the weakness of the South African rand, buying a property in South Africa is an attractive proposition for many expats, especially in upmarket areas such as Cape Town’s Atlantic Seaboard.


Cost of food in South Africa

Thanks to ever-increasing prices, groceries in South Africa will dominate a large chunk of an expat family’s budget alongside accommodation, transport and education. Most families on a budget prefer to buy groceries from local supermarkets that stock a wide variety of local produce and imported goods. South African brands are usually cheaper than imported goods and many of them are good quality. 

Expats who'd like a taste of home will also be pleased to know that some retailers stock items from overseas, although these can be expensive.


Cost of education in South Africa

Expat parents will have several excellent schools in South Africa to choose from, but there's a big difference between private and public school fees. Most expats send their children to private or international schools, but the costs at these can be exorbitant.

In terms of public schools, quality varies widely. Generally speaking, public schools whose fees are on the higher side will offer a better standard of education owing to the additional resources they have on hand. While their fees are a little more expensive than regular public schools in South Africa, they're still well below the price of private or international schooling.


Cost of healthcare in South Africa

Though doctors are excellent and highly trained in the public sector, public healthcare facilities are of poor to middling quality, and waiting times are long. For higher standards, better staff-to-patient ratios and more comfort, expats tend to prefer private healthcare in South Africa

Routine costs are generally affordable, even for people who don't have health insurance. Fees can quickly add up though, particularly when specialists are consulted or the need for emergency care arises.

Private care providers may ask for payment upfront, so it's a good idea to take out private health insurance in South Africa.


Cost of living in South Africa chart 

Prices may vary depending on product and service provider. The list below shows average prices for Johannesburg in January 2021.

Accommodation 

Three-bedroom apartment in city centre

ZAR 13,000 - 16,000

Three-bedroom apartment outside city centre

ZAR 10,000 - 13,000

One-bedroom apartment in city centre

ZAR 6,000 - 10,000

One-bedroom apartment outside city centre

ZAR 5,000 - 7,000

Shopping

Eggs (dozen)

ZAR 31

Milk (1 litre)

ZAR 17

Rice (1kg)

ZAR 23

Loaf of white bread

ZAR 15

Chicken breasts (1kg)

ZAR 80

Pack of cigarettes (Marlboro)

ZAR 45

Eating out

Big Mac Meal

ZAR 57

Coca-Cola (330ml)

ZAR 15

Cappuccino 

ZAR 28

Local beer (500ml)

ZAR 35

Three-course meal for two at a mid-range restaurant

ZAR 600

Utilities

Mobile-to-mobile call rate (per minute)

ZAR 1.70

Internet (uncapped ADSL or cable – average per month) 

ZAR 950

Basic utilities (per month for small household)

ZAR 1,000 - 1,500

Transport

Taxi rate (per kilometre)

ZAR 12

Bus/train fare in the city centre 

ZAR 35

Petrol/gasoline (per litre)

ZAR 15

Culture Shock in South Africa

Given the country's complex society and eclectic nature, it is entirely natural for expats to feel a degree of culture shock in South Africa. With its sweeping geographic variations, 11 official languages and various cultures living in close proximity, the Rainbow Nation can be an easy place to blend in, but also presents expats with unique challenges.

Those expats who have been told horror stories will be relieved to know that there is no wildlife roaming the streets; that while crime is a reality, it is often sensationalised by the media; and that public infrastructure is generally good. 


Inequality in South Africa

Expats moving to South Africa are often the most taken aback by the country's glaring wealth disparity. It’s not uncommon to see the newest Mercedes Benz model parked next to someone rummaging through a garbage bin. Guilt can overwhelm new arrivals, but expats should be careful about indulging beggars or opening their home to those in need. The best way to make a positive difference is to donate to registered charities. 


Safety in South Africa

Expats moving to Johannesburg, in particular, will encounter an obsession with personal safety. Homes are surrounded by electrified fences, high walls and, in some cases, guarded by private security firms. Walking around alone at night is discouraged. The role that crime plays in many people's lives may be the most unfamiliar and disconcerting feature of integrating into South African society.

The good news is that there has been a push towards urban renewal, with an increased emphasis on reducing crime. More and more people are enjoying Johannesburg's outdoor spaces and trendy inner-city areas. At the same time, daytime walks around the streets, beaches and parks in Cape Town are much more common, though it's still necessary to remain aware of one's surroundings and keep personal belongings out of sight.


Time in South Africa

The concept of time in South Africa takes some getting used to for expats settling into their new life. South Africans often measure moments in 'now', 'just now' and 'now now'. If expats find themselves struggling to grasp the difference, they needn't be concerned – even among South Africans, the relative lengths of time that these phrases indicate is debated. The point that remains is that, for many South Africans, there is no rush if it can be done later.

However, this is not true in the South African business world which upholds very Western standards of punctuality and decorum. It functions relatively efficiently, although social engagements and government enterprise often function with a lot more flexibility. Expats should not take problems with punctuality or light-hearted rescheduling personally – this is a cultural norm.


Social life in South Africa

South Africans of all cultures enjoy a braai, a kind of barbecue which entails cooking meat over hot coals, often accompanied by various salads and sides. Because the hot coals need to cool to the right temperature before the food can be cooked, braais are often an all-day event with attendees relaxing and chatting over a few beers.

Braais often take place around sporting events – the country is passionate about rugby, cricket and soccer (football). While support for local rugby and cricket teams is high, especially on national level, soccer can probably be considered the favourite national pastime, even if the national team hardly ever performs well on the international stage.

Accommodation in South Africa

Expats moving to South Africa can look forward to finding an abundance of reasonably priced, comfortable housing options. Whether relocating to Johannesburg, Cape Town or anywhere else in the country, the range, quality and affordability of accommodation will make adjusting to life on the African continent that much smoother.

Most expats rent accommodation at least initially while they get to know the various areas and suburbs of their new city. Expats looking to settle down for good will be able to purchase property fairly easily as there are no property-ownership restrictions for foreigners in South Africa.


Types of accommodation in South Africa

The country has a vast selection of rental accommodation. The standard of accommodation in South Africa varies in direct proportion to income but is generally quite high.

On the whole, houses are more spacious than in most European countries, and finding relatively inexpensive properties with big gardens and swimming pools isn't uncommon. The South African institution of braaiing (barbecuing) ensures that most properties have some kind of outdoor entertainment area.

Apartments

In South Africa, apartment buildings are known as blocks of flats. Individual apartments can be multi-roomed or may take the form of bachelor or studio apartments with one main room acting as a living area, bedroom and kitchenette.

Freestanding houses

Mostly found in the suburbs, freestanding houses are favoured by families for the indoor and outdoor space they afford. Though pricier than other types of accommodation, freestanding houses offer space, comfort and privacy.

Townhouses

Townhouses, rowhouses, and semi-detached houses are all terms used to refer to compact multi-storey homes that are joined to an adjacent house on either one or both sides. These usually have small gardens and are more affordable than large freestanding houses.

Security complexes

Security complexes, also known as gated communities, are secure housing developments with controlled entry. Complexes typically have a variety of housing types, ranging from apartments to townhouses to standalone family homes. There are also often shared facilities such as communal pools, outdoor braai areas, parks and clubhouses.

Garden cottages

Also known as granny flats, these small homes can be found on the properties of larger freestanding houses. They typically have a studio-style open-plan layout, sometimes with the addition of a separate bedroom.


Finding accommodation in South Africa

When looking for accommodation in South Africa, many make use of local estate agents. This is a useful approach for expats especially, as estate agents can guide them through the rental process. Much of the legwork of renting accommodation is done by real estate agents, including picking out listings, arranging viewings and setting up a contract.

For those who prefer to go it alone, there are also listings in a number of local newspapers and on various online property portals.


Renting accommodation in South Africa

Applications

Once a potential tenant finds a place they wish to rent, they will need to fill out an application form. They will also be asked to submit proof of identity (such as a passport) and proof of income.

Deposit

If the application is successful, the next step is that the tenant will be required to pay the first month of rent upfront, along with a deposit of one or two months' rent. At the end of the rental period, the tenant will receive the deposit back in full as long as the property is returned without any damages.

Leases

Leases are typically signed on a one-year renewable basis. It may be possible to rent for a shorter period, but this is generally more expensive and can be limiting in terms of what's available.

Utilities

Utilities like electricity and water are not usually included in the rental price, so expats should ensure that they plan for this extra expense in their monthly budget.

Home security

Home security in South Africa is a concern; however, it often isn't as paralysing a preoccupation as some might imagine it to be. While opportunistic and sometimes violent crime occurs in South Africa, taking consistent common-sense precautions lowers the chance of being an easy target.

When viewing a potential new home, expats should ensure there are adequate security measures including burglar bars, security gates and an alarm system. Glass sliding doors are particularly vulnerable points of entry so it's important that they are properly secured with a gate.

Healthcare in South Africa

Healthcare in South Africa is very much divided along socio-economic lines. A massive gap in quality exists between the private and public sector and, in practice, these systems cater to different populations. The public healthcare system mainly serves a lower income bracket while those who can afford it use the private healthcare system.

It's strongly recommended that expats take out health insurance and opt for treatment in private facilities, which generally provide world-class levels of care.


Public healthcare in South Africa

Much of the South African population uses the public healthcare system, which is heavily affected by a lack of resources and funding. The system is not yet universal, although fees are charged according to a patient's income and number of dependants.

Public hospitals, though usually manned by highly qualified professionals, are often poorly maintained. Expats will find minimal creature comforts, and will likely come across long queues, dingy exam rooms and overworked staff members. 


Private healthcare in South Africa

In contrast to the public health sector, South Africa's private health sector is excellent. Most cities and towns have a good selection of clinics, hospitals and general practitioners.

The standard of treatment in South African private hospitals is some of the most highly regarded on the continent, and in the opinion of many expats, on par with that of Europe. The medical tourism industry has shown steady growth and many foreigners travel to South Africa for plastic surgery and dental work.

That said, private healthcare in South Africa comes at a price, especially for those earning a local salary. Although it's possible to pay per treatment, medical costs can quickly add up.

Expats should take out private health insurance to protect against the hefty bills that accompany emergency situations, repeat consultations and specialist treatment.


Health insurance in South Africa

An assortment of local medical aid providers and international health insurance companies are available to expats in South Africa.

Local providers offer various schemes and charge monthly premiums on a progressive scale. Most local health insurance providers in South Africa require that claims be pre-authorised; a stipulation which makes it necessary for people to keep their medical aid card in their wallet.

Insurance plans can either be comprehensive, covering a range of services, or more basic, serving as backup in the case of an emergency. While hospital plans cover the cost of ambulance transport and hospital stays, these are essentially emergency plans which don't cover day-to-day medical expenses such as doctor consultations and treatment, dental treatments, and prescription medications.

Expats interested in getting coverage for day-to-day expenses should compare the different packages offered by local insurance providers. Alternatively, expats may opt to use international insurance providers. Emergency evacuation insurance is unnecessary, as private South African facilities are adequate.


Pharmacies and medicines in South Africa

Pharmacies are readily available in urban centres and are generally well stocked, but expats travelling to outlying rural areas for extended periods should pack basic medications. Those living in rural areas may need to travel to larger towns to fill prescriptions.


Health hazards in South Africa

Contrary to popular belief, malaria is not a wide-scale problem in South Africa. But there is a narrow high-risk area that stretches across the extreme northeast of the country along the borders with Mozambique, Swaziland and Zimbabwe where taking anti-malarial medication would be wise in peak season. It should be noted that the Kruger National Park is considered a moderate-risk area. 

The tap water in South Africa's cities and towns is generally safe to drink and often of good quality but caution should be exercised in rural areas.

Though decreasing, prevalence rates remain high for HIV/AIDS. However, expats who take appropriate precautions against the disease need not be concerned.


Emergency services in South Africa

Public ambulance services in South Africa are run provincially and standards and response times vary. The close co-operation of fire and ambulance services is the norm, although they are technically separate entities. Emergency paramedics are employed by the government and often work with volunteers, especially in outlying areas.

The South African Red Cross and St John's Ambulance are run by volunteers and supplement the national system. There are also two private, profit-making national ambulance services, ER24 and Netcare 911, which are contacted via their own emergency numbers. Health insurance providers will have a preferred ambulance service and provide their customers with the corresponding contact numbers.

Ambulance contact details

  • Public ambulance services: 10177

  • Netcare 911: 082 911

  • ER24: 084 124

Education and Schools in South Africa

The South African education system consists of independent schools and government schools.

Private education is far more expensive than public education, but generally offers high standards and ample resources. Fees are steep, though, and these schools are attended mostly by children from middle- and high-income families.  

Government schools are funded by provincial education departments, and standards vary widely. Schools wholly dependent on government funding are typically short of resources and provide a poor standard of education. On the other hand, there are fee-paying government schools run by governing bodies consisting of parents and alumni. These schools are in a much better position to offer high-quality education. Some of the country’s best schools fall into this category, though in some cases fees can be almost as expensive as private schools.


Public schools in South Africa

Many of South Africa's public schools depend on the government for funding and supplies. Each province is responsible for ensuring its schools are equipped and have enough money to run properly. As a result, standards vary immensely, depending on the efficiency and wealth of the province.

Many children receive low standards of education through a lack of qualified teachers and sometimes an outright absence of equipment in classrooms. Due to these shortcomings, parents that can afford it prefer to send their children to private schools.

In the bigger cities, public school standards are generally better and in some cases may meet expat requirements. Public schools draw students and funds from their suburbs and, in general, wealthier areas have better schools. The best government schools tend to be those that are partially administrated and funded by parents and a governing body.


Private schools in South Africa

With the exception of some expats living in high-income areas, most seek private education for their children. Depending on their location, expats are spoilt for choice when it comes to private schools.

Many private schools have religious origins and aim to provide pupils with a spiritual foundation to complement their academic offerings. Others subscribe to a particular teaching philosophy.

Similar to other countries, private schools generally have better facilities, smaller classes and a larger selection of extra-curricular activities. This is also true of international schools in South Africa.


International schools in South Africa

There are a number of international schools in South Africa that offer a variety of globally-recognised curricula, such as that of the UK, the US or the International Baccalaureate. Many expat parents find that international schools offer a sense of familiarity and continuity to children who are able to carry on with their home curricula. International schools are also a great way to meet fellow expat families.

However, there are two major downsides to international schooling. Firstly, fees can be exorbitant, and secondly, it can often be difficult to secure a place in some of the more popular schools. To stand the best chance at being admitted, parents should start the application process as early as possible. To mitigate costs, expats moving to South Africa for work should try asking for provision for school fees as part of their relocation package.


Homeschooling in South Africa

Homeschooling is increasingly popular with expat parents wanting to educate their children in South Africa. To do this, they have to apply to the head of the relevant provincial Department of Education and register their child. The lessons they offer must follow Department guidelines and records of the child’s coursework must be maintained.


Special educational needs in South Africa

There are a number of special-needs schools across South Africa, both public and private, catering to a variety of conditions. However, parents of children with special needs generally find that government schooling, in practice, offers few resources and little support. For this reason, it's best to opt for a private school if possible.

Many mainstream private schools cater for special-needs students alongside the general student population in an inclusive approach, providing extra support where necessary. This may come with extra charges over and above annual school fees. Should a more specialised environment be required, private special-needs schools should be considered.


Tutors in South Africa

In South Africa, tutors are frequently hired to assist students with subjects that they find difficult, such as maths or science. They are also often enlisted to help students prepare for the final school-leaving exams in Grade 12.

Tutors can be particularly helpful for expat children adjusting to a new curriculum or new language, providing extra support through the transition period.

There are a number of reputable tutoring agencies and companies throughout South Africa. TeachMe2 and Tutor Elite both come highly recommended and have tutors all over the country who are able to assist with a variety of subjects.

Transport and Driving in South Africa

When it comes to public transport and driving in South Africa, there isn't much choice, with driving being the only feasible option for most. Even within the big cities, public transport is limited  – although efforts to improve this have been made – and virtually all expats moving to South Africa purchase a car.


Driving in South Africa

Cars in South Africa are somewhat expensive, even though petrol prices are still fairly low compared to Europe.

South Africa’s road network is extensive and is generally in good condition. However, in some of the more rural parts of the country, potholes can be a problem and can cause severe damage to cars.

In South Africa, driving is on the left-hand side of the road. Traffic, especially in the big cities, might be a bit more chaotic than expats are used to, but still on the tame side when compared to countries such as India or Egypt. People generally stick to their lanes, and when traffic lights (or 'robots' as they are referred to in South Africa) aren't working, the ensuing four-way-stop traffic is usually quite orderly. But don’t be surprised if minibus taxis illegally overtake on the left or perform other alarming and illegal manoeuvres during heavy traffic.

Foreigners can legally drive in South Africa using their own country’s driver's licence as long as it has a photograph of the driver, is valid and is in English. If one's driver's licence doesn't meet these requirements, an International Driving Permit (IDP) can be used instead. Some traffic police will try to tell unsuspecting expats that their licences are invalid in hopes of soliciting a bribe, but if expats stay firm and know their rights, there is nothing to fear.

Renting a car

While an expat is still in the process of buying a car, or whenever they are travelling in other cities, renting a car in South Africa is a fairly inexpensive option. Most of the major international car rental companies are represented at airports and throughout the main cities. There are also several local car rental companies that might offer more competitive prices, especially for longer-term rentals. 


Public transport in South Africa

Trains

The high-speed Gautrain has been operating in the greater Johannesburg area since 2010 and has been a big success on the few routes available – it is clean, safe and on time. But for the most part, it isn't developed enough yet to be a viable form of city-wide transport.

Buses

Metrobus is the official bus service provider in Johannesburg, but routes are limited. Unless one lives in or near the city centre, which most expats stay away from, they won't be able to use the Metrobus system to get to work. Another option is the Gautrain bus services, although designed to link commuters to the Gautrain, this is still a useful system on its own and can be used independently of the Gautrain itself.

Cape Town has a rapid bus service called MyCiTi, which also offers a shuttle service from the airport to the city. Ordinary buses in Cape Town are run by Golden Arrow Bus Services and aren't particularly reliable. Those more interested in sightseeing than commuting should consider a bus tour. Cape Town's red Hop-on, Hop-off Tour Bus is a popular way to go sightseeing.

Intercity bus travel is not particularly comfortable or fast, but those who wish to travel this way should go for companies such as Greyhound and Intercape.

Minibus taxis

Minibus taxis represent a cross between a bus and taxi service, and are used by some locals as their only form of public transport. There is an informal route system accompanied by various hand signals given by people waiting for a taxi at the roadside. However, taxis are generally considered unsafe and uncomfortable. Most of them don’t look especially roadworthy and the hair-raising style of driving typical of taxis causes frequent accidents. As a result, these are rarely used by expats.

Luxury trains

A wonderful way for expats to discover South Africa and its sweeping landscapes, if they have time, is by way of one of the luxury trains operating mainly between Johannesburg and Cape Town and a few other routes. It’s not the cheapest way to travel but a highly luxurious one. Taking a car along is an option on some routes.

The Blue Train, Premier Classe and Rovos Rail are the most prominent luxury train providers.


Air travel in South Africa

The easiest way to get around South Africa (and to its neighbouring countries) is by air. Domestic flights to all major cities are readily (and often affordably) available on the local airlines. South African Airways is the national carrier, while Kulula, Mango and FlySafair offer low-cost options between major cities.

Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport is a modern and well-organised major hub for all of Southern Africa. Lanseria, a second, smaller airport on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg, offers daily flights to several destinations, often at a cheaper price, and Cape Town and Durban also have international airports.

Buying a Car in South Africa

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.

Keeping in Touch in South Africa

With some of the continent's best communications infrastructure, expats shouldn’t have too much trouble with keeping in touch in South Africa. While there is room for improvement, there is easy access to moderately fast internet and comprehensive mobile and fixed-line telephone networks.


Internet in South Africa

While South Africa has one of the top 100 broadband speeds in the world, it still falls below the standard of a number of European and Asian destinations.

ADSL is widely available in South Africa, but requires a fixed phone line. The physical infrastructure of telephone lines throughout the country is owned by Telkom (a largely state-owned enterprise). ADSL users must therefore pay Telkom for line rental as well as their internet service provider for network access. This can prove to be expensive.

The good news is that fibre, a faster and often better-value alternative, is becoming increasingly accessible in South Africa as fibre networks are extended.

Major fibre networks include Openserve (owned by Telkom), Vumatel and Frogfoot. These companies lay down and own the fibre lines in various areas. Consumers do not pay fibre networks directly but rather purchase fibre via an internet service provider. Cost is determined largely by speed and usage. Recommended internet service providers are Afrihost, MWEB and Axxess.

Another option for those looking to get online fast is mobile broadband, powered by South Africa's mobile providers.


Mobile phones in South Africa

There are four major mobile providers in South Africa: Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and Telkom Mobile. Expats can get a pay-as-you-go SIM card if they only plan to be in South Africa for the short term. It's commonplace to use mobile data to access the internet in South Africa. In the past, prices have been high but these are slowly starting to come down due to competition between mobile providers.

Mobile phones can be bought at numerous places, including department stores and speciality cellular phone shops. Costs are reasonable and people from a variety of backgrounds have mobile phones.

Expats unsure of how long they’ll be in the country should be wary of signing an extended contract – sizeable fees can be attached to early termination, although call rates may be better than pay-as-you-go options. However, expats staying in the country for two years or more should take advantage of one of the many competitively priced contract deals available. These usually come complete with a brand-new phone.


Landline telephones in South Africa

Landlines in South Africa are also provided by Telkom. Long-distance rates aren't cheap, but expats can have a prepaid phone line installed with monthly rental charges and packages to suit various budgets. Expats with broadband can also utilise VoIP services such as Skype.

Setting up a landline isn't difficult – in addition to the fee, only a passport and proof of residence are required. The biggest downside is that expats could wait for as little as a day or as long as a month for a technician to arrive and install it.


Television in South Africa

Basic television in South Africa consists of the SABC, a public broadcaster that often lacks quality and depth, and eTV, a privately owned enterprise that offers a higher standard of news service but is generally lacking in the entertainment division.

M-Net is a paid provider and has the occasional good programme, but most expats subscribe to DSTV – the country’s biggest satellite service which has dozens of international channel options, including M-Net. To purchase satellite television customers need to buy a decoder and have their satellite installed for a once-off fee. Various packages are available at different monthly rates.

A newer addition to the country's entertainment options is streaming services offering viewing on demand. The two main services are Netflix and Showmax. Both include plenty of international movies and television shows, while Showmax also has a number of local offerings.

Shipping and Removals in South Africa

Many reputable companies offer shipping and air freight services to South Africa. The cost usually depends on the volume of goods, the distance from origin to destination, and the method of shipping. Some companies also offer storage services and insurance on goods, although it is a good idea to insure with a company external to the one carrying the goods.

Air freight services are more expensive than shipping by sea, but goods will arrive much quicker. Some expats compromise by transporting essentials by air and non-essential, bulkier items by sea.


Shipping pets to South Africa

To ship pets to South Africa, a valid import permit and veterinary health certificate will need to be presented. Dogs and cats must be vaccinated against rabies and be implanted with a microchip. 

Pets will be quarantined if the required documentation cannot be presented to the authorities. They will then only be released once the documentation has been received. In addition, dogs from certain countries are subject to a standard quarantine as a matter of course.

Frequently Asked Questions about South Africa

Expats considering moving to South Africa are sure to have plenty of questions – so we've put together a list of the most common queries about 'Mzansi' along with some answers.

What is the speed and cost of internet access in South Africa?

South Africa may lag behind the US and Europe in terms of fast and affordable internet access, but not by much, and the country has adequate infrastructure that should allow expats to keep in touch with those back home without hassle. The cost of high-speed, uncapped internet access has been high in the past but is gradually becoming cheaper.

How bad is crime in South Africa?

Much of the crime in South Africa finds its root cause in a society that is deeply divided by income and race. On the one hand, this means most expats are less likely to be on the receiving end of violent crimes, but on the other hand, crimes of theft such as burglary and hijacking are a possibility. For this reason, we advise taking safety precautions and maintaining an overall sense of awareness. 

Is it worth learning an African language?

Expats won't need to learn Afrikaans, isiXhosa or isiZulu to get by, as just about everyone can speak at least some English. However, it's worth mentioning that by making the effort to learn a local language, expats can deepen their experience of the country, given that the majority of the population speak one of these three languages as a mother tongue.

Is it affordable and easy to hire domestic staff?

Many expats find the affordability of domestic staff and nannies to be a big advantage of living in South Africa. There are numerous agencies to assist with screening and recruiting.

Articles about South Africa

Banking, Money and Taxes in South Africa

South Africa's banking system is sophisticated, making it easy and convenient to handle financial matters. There are numerous international and local banks in South Africa and each of these offer expats various options and competitive rates for managing their finances.


Money in South Africa

The currency in South Africa is the South African Rand, abbreviated as ZAR or R. The rand is subdivided into 100 cents.

Retail stores won't have trouble giving customers whatever change they need, and will happily take payment in the form of a debit or credit card, but street hawkers and small corner stores might battle to break large notes and may not have card machines.

  • Notes: 10 ZAR, 20 ZAR, 50 ZAR, 100 ZAR and 200 ZAR

  • Coins: 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, 1 ZAR, 2 ZAR and 5 ZAR


Banking in South Africa

The four major banks are Absa, First National Bank (known as FNB), Standard Bank and Nedbank. Banks are generally open from 8.30am to 3.30pm Monday to Friday, closing at 11am on Saturdays, although branches in airports often have extended hours. All four major banks have good online and mobile banking systems for customers' day-to-day banking needs. 

Opening a bank account

Opening a bank account in South Africa as an expat is quite a bureaucratic process. Requirements do differ from one bank to the next and it's often difficult to get clear information from the bank's website alone. Generally speaking, expats will need their passport and a valid work permit to open a South African bank account. In some cases, they will also require a letter from one's employer as proof of income.

Some expats opt to open an international bank account before relocating to South Africa. Although these may incur various charges, they do allow expats to carry out their basic banking until they are able to get a South African bank account. If an expat's existing bank back home has a large international presence, it should be fairly easy to make the necessary arrangements. Some banks with an international presence, such as Investec and Old Mutual, are actually based in South Africa.

Foreign citizens may wish to consult with their bank about offshore account options. Many expats choose to keep a bank account open at home for mortgages and other bills, open another account in South Africa for living expenses, and open a third offshore account for savings and for financial security.

ATMs

ATMs are plentiful throughout the country and all of the main banks have their own ATMs, although certain brands may be lacking in smaller towns. Customers can use any ATM no matter which bank they belong to, although fees will be slightly higher for withdrawals from other banks' ATMs.

The four main banks also provide facilities to make some bill payments or cellphone airtime purchases at their ATMs, and certain machines also accept cash deposits.


Taxes in South Africa

An expat's tax obligations are to a large degree determined by their tax residency status. Those who are not residents for tax purposes are taxed on their South African income only. Residents for tax purposes are taxed on their worldwide income, but there are double-taxation agreements in place with some countries.

Expats are categorised as residents for tax purposes if they have been in South Africa for any of the following periods:

  • 91 days or more in total during the year of assessment

  • 91 days or more in each of the preceding five years

  • 915 days or more in total during the preceding five years of assessment

Income tax rates in South Africa range from 18 percent to 45 percent.

For the latest advice, it's best to consult with an expat tax specialist.

Expat Experiences in South Africa

When considering a move to a new city, there is nothing more useful than hearing real-life stories from the people currently living there. Read authentic expat interviews below, and please contact us if you have lived in South Africa and would like to share your own unique experience.

Ryan grew up in San Diego, California and later lived in the Silicon Valley Bay Area for 15 years before moving to Johannesburg in 2016 with his South African wife. They have two girls, and enjoy travelling around South Africa and making the most of the country’s beautiful weather by spending plenty of time outdoors. Read more about his expat experience.

Ryan South Africa    

Shantalie is an expat from the UK. She moved to Cape Town in 2010 and works in digital publishing. She has embraced life in South Africa, loving the braais, beaches and mountains. Read about Shantalie's expat experience in South Africa.

    shantalie

Heloise, an expat from the Netherlands, moved to South Africa in 1996 to start her own import company. Despite struggling with local inefficiencies, especially South Africa's dreaded immigration process, Heloise has since had 20 years of happiness in South Africa. Read about Heloise's expat experience in South Africa

Phil has been many things. A university English instructor, a picker-upper of dead bodies, a musician, and a sales guy. His work brought him and his family from Vancouver, Canada to Pretoria, South Africa in September 2016, and he's still wondering how that happened. Read on to hear about his expat experience in South Africa.

Interview with Phil - a Canadian expat in Pretoria

Hannah is a UK expat living in Johannesburg, and inspired by her experiences, she became the founder of Translating Me and the Identity Project, an online personal branding course that supports expats to reinvent their careers and their personal ambitions since moving abroad. Read her interview with Expat Arrivals on expat experience in South Africa.

Hannah - a Brit living in Johannesburg

A trailing spouse is a common component of expat life, yet there lacks extensive information on the topic. Clara is no stranger to expat life, having lived in eleven countries and visited plenty more. She takes on the topic of trailing spouse with gusto, and has even published a book on the subject. Read about her expat experience in South Africa.

Namrata is an Indian expat living in Johannesburg, South Africa. She quit her job with an asset management firm and followed her husband to the Rainbow Nation, deciding to pursue the life of a trailing spouse. Read about her expat experience in Johannesburg.

Namrata is an Indian expat living in Johannesburg

Arnd Herrmann worked for several blue-chip companies in Europe and decided to make South Africa his new home after his first business trip to the country in 1994. He and his family spent five years in the country before moving back to Europe, only to return to South Africa in 2005. In the last few years, Arnd has started two internet companies in Johannesburg and is about to pack his suitcases to tackle a new venture in Abu Dhabi. Read about his expat experience in Johannesburg.

Arnd Herrman a German expat living in Johannesburg

Heather Mason is a writer, photographer and the blogger behind 2Summers.net. Through her writing, photography and adventurous spirit, she has come to know the City of Gold better than most. She also has a section of her blog dedicated to the Melville Cat, who decided to move in from next door. Read about her expat experience in Johannesburg.

Heather Mason is an American expat living in Johannesburg

Lisa Huang is a Taiwanese expat who moved to Cape Town from Chicago two years ago for work. While she misses food that reminds her of home and efficient public transport, Lisa loves life in Cape Town and all the exciting new opportunities the city has to offer. Read about her expat experience in Cape Town.  

Srinath Sethuraman is an Indian expat who returned from two years in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2012. He found living in South Africa a breeze because of Johannesburg's large Indian expat community and the hospitality of local South Africans. Read about his expat experiences in Johannesburg.

Srinath an expat in Johannesburg

Tom Pitman lived in Cape Town from 2002 to 2008 with his wife and two small children. They first lived in Bantry Bay and then bought a house in Camps Bay where they lived for four years before moving back to London. They both still return regularly to South Africa. See the full interview about his expat experience in Cape Town.

Annabelle Dare moved with her boyfriend, James, to Cape Town in 2003, planning to stay for a year or two. Now married with two children, Annabelle and her family are having such an amazing time that they have no plans to return to London. Read about her expat experience in Cape Town.

Kate Snyder came south bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready to colour Cape Town red; little did she know just how much the Mother City would mould her own personal priorities and ambitions. Read more about Kate's Cape Town expat experience.

Kate thinking in a cape town cafe

Chinese expat Yun Zhang is stretching out into the seemingly endless space that so many Cape Town locals take for granted. Read about her expat experience in South Africa for a rare glimpse into the mind's eye of an Asian woman gone African.

Yun Zheng picture

Sine Thieme is a seasoned German-American expat who has relocated with her family to Johannesburg, a city that in her experienced estimation has the world's best climate. She is a mother, prolific blogger and articulate raconteur regarding expat life in Johannesburg.

Zandi, a British expat living in Cape Town, looks like a South African, hails from the East End of London, and isn't afraid to tell it like it is. As she says, it's the only way she knows how. Black. British. 30-something. Married. Confused. But living in Cape Town. Read what she has to say about her expat experience in South Africa.

Zandi - A British Expat Living in Cape Town