Buying a car in South Africa is relatively straightforward. You pay, you get the keys, more or less. It’s the registering of your car which will have the potential to drive you insane*, so I’d like to give you a quick overview.
The main reason many expats will question their sanity a few weeks into their stay in South Africa is a little document called Traffic Register Number. You need one before you, a foreigner, can register your car. Most South African nationals don’t know this, because they just have to show their ID and have never had a problem with it, and consequently will give you the wrong information when asked. Even car dealerships, which will happily offer to register the car for you, typically don’t know that they can’t, in fact, do that.
Traffic Register Numbers
Traffic Register Numbers (TRNs) have to be applied for in person. You can either first apply for the TRN and then register your actual car when you pick up the TRN, or you can apply for both at the same time (recommended).
For your TRN, you will need the following documents, which you should have already gotten used to carrying around with you:
- Lease agreement
- Passport, including valid work visa
- Passport pictures
- Foreign driver’s license
To register the car at the same time, bring these documents, which the seller should have provided you with:
- Roadworthiness certificate
- Current registration
- Invoice/your proof of payment
The Licensing Department
In order to obtain your Traffic Register Number, you have to take these documents to your closest Licensing Department.
If, like most expats, you live anywhere in the Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg, this will be the Randburg Civic Centre at the Corner of Bram Fischer Drive and Jan Smuts Avenue in Randburg. If you don’t live in the Northern Suburbs, check out this list of all Licensing Offices in Johannesburg (click through all three pages of the list). If you don’t live in Johannesburg at all, Google a list of licensing offices in your city.
Make sure you call ahead to find out which one applies to you, and what their hours are for Traffic Register Number applications. But be prepared for two things: 1) no one might pick up the phone, and 2) they might not in fact know the answer. You might have to call several times to triangulate all answers to form your best guess as to where you should go at what time.
Let’s say you live in the Northern Suburbs of Joburg. In that case, you take all of the above documents to the Randburg Civic Centre on Wednesdays from 7:30 to 10:00 am. This, as of the time of this writing, is the only time you can make your Traffic Register Number application. It might change again, or it might not be true every week, but this has been the latest information from expats who have tried. Go to the information desk, and ask for an application for a Traffic Register Number as well as an application for the Certificate of Registration. You will be told where to go after you’ve filled them in. Don’t be discouraged if the lines are long. Most people will be there for other matters, and you usually don’t have to wait too long to have your turn.
Who Can Apply for a TRN?
I realize I have said “you,” but I haven’t specified who that “you” is. Because if you’re “only the spouse,” you will not have any luck with this errand.
Only the breadwinner, the one with the work visa, and presumably the one with the bank account, is entitled to a Traffic Register Number. I am aware that this may not always be true – stories where spouses have obtained Traffic Register Numbers have reached my ears – but you can save yourself some headaches and return visits by sending the work permit holder to apply.
The application process will take a few days, meaning you will have to return. If all goes well, this will be on the Friday following the Wednesday you applied, and on that day you will receive your Traffic Register Number. If you were able to turn in the application for the Certificate of Registration at the same time, you will now receive that as well, or you can turn it in now, and hopefully receive both documents on the same day.
This is what they will look like:
Getting Ready to Drive in South Africa
When all is said and done, you should come home from the Licensing Office bearing these things:
- Traffic Register Number Certificate (make a copy to keep in your car)
- Certificate of Registration
- License Disk (cut out and affix to upper left corner of your windshield from the inside)
- License Tags (to be taped on with double sided tape, front and back)
The round license disk will have to be renewed every year, but that’s another story.
All that’s left for you to do now is to purchase an insurance policy for your car, if you haven’t already done so. 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 Tracker or Altech Netstar for about R180 per month.
By the way, the one thing you won’t need to get is a driver’s license. Your foreign license is perfectly fine as long as it is valid.
*We were recently made aware that there is a service foreigners can use to receive their TRN without having to do it themselves. It comes recommended by several people who used it successfully. All you need to provide is your passport copy, work permit copy, lease agreement copy, 2 passport photos, proof of address from a bill if possible and copy of your driver’s license. This service (located near Fourways Gardens) then files the paperwork for you and within 1-3 days your TRN is ready. The cost is 650 rands. If you’re interested, please contact Joburg Expat and we will provide you with the contact details.