Tips on Buying a Car in South Africa

One of the hassles most expats have to endure is having to buy a car in an entirely new country. Some expats might decide to skip the car and do with public transport, but South Africa is not the place for that. You will need a car here, trust me. And buying it won’t be the quickest or easiest thing you’ve ever done, so it’s best to come prepared. Here is my story to learn from:

buying a car in South Africa like this Audi can be tricky if you are new to South Africa

When the kids and I first arrived in Johannesburg, I fully expected to find a shiny new car in the garage. After all, Noisette had already been here for months, and I consider car-buying to be “guy territory.” But, sadly, this was not the case. Things don’t move that quickly in South Africa, and he hadn’t even gotten his own company car yet, driving a beat-up Toyota rental instead. If you’re the trailing spouse, my advice to you: Don’t rely on your better half to have set up much – he or she will be incredibly busy with a demanding and time-consuming new job with many challenges most previous jobs will not have prepared them for. You’ll be lucky if you’ve already got a place to live. However, most companies employ one or more drivers, so in our case I made use of that service quite a bit before I inherited aforementioned Toyota.

The first challenge of buying a car in South Africa is paying for it. Car prices are about twice as high on average as in the United States, so you best adjust your expectations. What’s more, the market is not quite as big, so once you’ve settled on a car you like, you might not be able to find one. Check some used car websites (like Autotrader) early to get a better idea of what’s out there. One thing to look for when car-shopping is smash-and-grab protection. It’s a film that protects your windshield and windows against being smashed in, and most higher-end cars will come already equipped with it. But if not, you can add it later. It’s a good thing to have if you’re concerned about security and crime in South Africa.

The second challenge of buying a car is coming up with the actual money for it. You might not have a bank account yet, in which case you would need a bank draft made out in ZAR. But it’s a good idea to set up a local bank account as one of your first items to do, and this might be a good time to do it. I’ll be talking about the details of bank accounts some other time, but rest assured it will involve a bunch of documents – passport with residence permit, lease agreement, etc. You’ll need all those as well when registering your car, which is what I’ll talk about in a minute.

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Let’s say you found a car and have money in your bank account to pay for it – what next? In most places I’ve lived, you would now meet at the bank with the seller, transfer the title to the car in return for the money, and drive away. But not so fast. Here in South Africa, there is no such thing as a title. Rather, you get a “Certificate of Registration” when registering your car, but this takes some time, and most people obtain it later, after purchasing the car. This caused a bit of confusion for us, because we – my husband, mostly – were not about to hand over a stack of money without receiving some kind of document in return. Our car dealer assured us that this is how it’s done in South Africa. And, in hindsight, that is absolutely true. But we were new in the country, and still trying to figure things out. People who were trying to be helpful, like colleagues and relocation agents, instead gave us our first glimpse into South Africa’s racial tensions. “Don’t trust those Indians in Benoni” was the exact phrase that was used, several times, because our car dealer whom we’d found online happened to be located in Benoni, a historically Indian suburb of Joburg. I know this sounds incredibly offensive, but I want to give you the story as it happened. When you’re about to hand over several hundred thousand rand, you are not going to just brush away a warning, no matter how insensitive. [Though I quite pride myself in mostly doing just that, in multiple instances while living in South Africa, or I would never have ventured into Alexandra. As it turned out, I DID buy the car from “the Indians in Benoni,” Dadas Motorland to be exact, was quite happy with it for three years, and I’m glad to give them a free reference here.]

So, in hindsight, if you’re purchasing from a car dealership, you can go ahead and pay them, get the car in return, and let them then handle all your paperwork without worry.

But there is one thing you still have to do it in person, and that’s applying for a Traffic Register Number. Foreign nationals need this number in lieu of a South African ID, a fact that some car dealerships are not aware of. Basically, the dealer you are buying from (I assume this is fairly similar for buying a new car) should provide you with the following:

  • Roadworthiness certificate
  • Current registration
  • Invoice/your proof of payment
  • New license plates

But before getting the new license plates, you will have to appear in person at your closest Licensing Department – most likely the Randburg Civic Centre if you live anywhere in the Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg (Corner Bram Fischer Drive and Jan Smuts Avenue in Randburg) but here is a list of all Licensing Offices in Johannesburg) – to apply for your Traffic Register Number or TRN as well as the Certificate of Registration. I’m told that as of recently, TRN applications can only be made on Wednesdays from 7:30 to 10:00 am at the Randburg licensing office. It’s best to go first thing in the morning and make sure you bring your lease agreement, passport, passport pictures, and foreign drivers’ license. The application process will take a few days, meaning you will have to go there again (on the Friday following the Wednesday) to pick up your certificates, at which time the transfer of ownership can take place. Once again, the car dealership might offer to apply for the Certificate of Registration on your behalf, but since you’ll still need the Traffic Register Number, you might as well do both at the same time. I hope I’m not confusing you. Don’t be discouraged if the lines are long. Most people will be there for a drivers’ license renewal or something of that sort, and you should be whisked right through to the car registration counter.

certificate of registration for buying a car in South Africa
Your Certificate of Registration for your car will look like this; you will get a second, similar copy, from which you cut out the round registration disk for your windshield.

Your Certificate of Registration for your car will look like this; you will get a second, similar copy, from which you cut out the round registration disk for your windshield. In our case, this experience was pretty comical (only in hindsight of course – while you’re experiencing these things you tend to curse and foam at the mouth). Once we had found a car we liked – about 2 weeks – and then finally determined that we needed to get it registered before handing over any money – another week – I set out for the Licensing Department in Randburg, armed with all my paperwork. Or so I thought, until I discovered that a passport picture would be needed. Fortunately, some enterprising street vendors were at hand – as they are everywhere in South Africa – and beckoned me to a tent-like office where a picture could be taken and printed out instantaneously for R20. Armed with this I went back to my queue and proceeded to fill in the lengthy application. I eventually advanced to the inner sanctum where a very bored-looking woman took all my papers and proceeded to enter everything into a computer. Eventually she wanted to see my passport, but after a quick glance handed everything back to me and told me it was no good, she couldn’t give me the traffic register number. What? After all this hassle? It turns out that you can’t get a TRN – which, you’ll remember, is the key ingredient in getting the car registered – if you don’t have a permanent visa. My temporary one was no good. [Note: I have since learned that even a 2-year accompanying spouse visa is no good, the work permit holder is the one who will have to get the car registered, so save yourself the trouble if you’re only the spouse].

Please note that you are never told these things upfront in South Africa. No one ever gives you a list with every single requirement. Instead you show up with what was mentioned over the phone, get sent home again because something that wasn’t mentioned is missing, and show up a few days later with the missing one, only to be told that now something else is required as well. Please also note the irony of driving back and forth between home and the licensing office when what you don’t actually have is a car!

But there was nothing to do for me but to grab a new form, take it home to Noisette and somehow convince him to drive to Randburg through morning traffic and wait in line on my behalf – all another week’s worth of time gone by. But I was still lucky in that he had his permanent visa, whereas many expats arrive here without them, in which case they are stuck without a car. I have heard many such tales. And if you think hanging out at the Randburg Licensing Office is no fun, wait till you stalk the Department of Home Affairs for days or even weeks!

certificate of traffic register number for buying a car in South Africa
Traffic Register Number Certificate; note that you only have to apply for this once, it will be valid to purchase as many cars as you wish; it’s also a good idea to keep a copy in your car.

So, your number one requirement, if you want to purchase a car in South Africa, is to have at least one permanent visa together with a work permit in your family’s possession. Which is why I keep telling you to get your permanent visas as soon as possible!

Once you’ve purchased your car, stuck your license plates on, and affixed the round disk you’ve cut out from the registration certificate to the inside of your windshield (which by the way is renewable every year but you will get a notice in the mail for that), you will still need two things: Insurance and a tracking service. Most insurance companies will insure your vehicle over the phone according to the make of the car, and then follow up with an at-home visit to make sure you actually own a car and aren’t buying phantom insurance. They will also most likely require you to have a tracking service like Altech Netstar (about R180 per month).

I hope my tips will help you buy a car in less time than the month it took us. But remember, this is Africa, and things move a bit slower here. On the bright side, the one thing you won’t need to get is a drivers’ license. Your foreign license is perfectly fine as long as it is valid. I still haven’t been able to track down the exact wording of this rule, let alone where it might be written, but it seems to be true, as I’ve been stopped by police several times and my eclectic collection of Kansas/international/German licenses seemed to work every time. There you have one less errand to run that might have been on your moving checklist!

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Moving to South Africa? See these other posts:

FAQs about Moving to South Africa

Things to Buy Before Moving to South Africa

Moving Checklist

Will I need a South African Driver’s License (or What to Do When the Cops Stop me)

Opening a Bank Account in South Africa

Your Kindle in South Africa

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