My Top Expat Tips

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to finally write a “Tips for Expats Moving to South Africa” post, so I thought I’d better get on with it before January is over. Here it is (scroll down for details about each item):


  1. Get your visa/work permit/study permit as early as possible
  2. Get a local bank account set up
  3. Get a Garmin
  4. Apply for your very own Eskom account
  5. Order adapter plugs and one or more transformers
  6. Make and carry several certified copies of your and your spouse’s passport
  7. Buy a cheap prepaid phone
  8. Get an international drivers’ license in your home country
  9. Research internet providers that offer uncapped service
  10. Consider buying a good four-wheel-drive car with trailer hitch and/or rack for rooftop tent.
  11. Unplug your computer and modem during thunderstorms

Thanks to those of you who’ve already added suggestions for this list! Please keep checking for future additions.

  1. Without some kind of residency permit/visa while living in South Africa, you’re not actually a real person. You may eat and drink and sleep in this country, but many other activities particularly those involving any government agency will be like the forbidden fruit. Typically, your spouse or the one who works will get the permit/visa first, but that is of no use to the other one who actually has the time to apply for a bank account or cell phone or buy a car (and, one might mention, needs the car to go apply for the cell phone and needs the bank account to pay for the car). When you first get here it can feel like one big catch 22 where one thing depends upon the other, and I’ve described such a situation in A Typical Day in Africa. The visa (not the tourist visa, mind you, but the one you have to apply for before entering SA) is the key to everything. A visa is also often the prerequisite for the kids attending school, so you will be well advised to start this process and follow up often while you’re still in your home country. Keep pestering whoever is applying for the visas on your behalf (usually the company’s human resources or legal people) as you will have a much easier time once you’re here. (*** Update: This is all much better explained in a more recent blog post, Applying for a South African Visa. The regulations have been changed since this first post was written, i.e. you no longer can enter South Africa on a tourist visa and then apply for the residency permit. You are only allowed to enter the country with the proper visa, i.e. a work visa if you are working, or student visa for  your children to go to school. There are some other changes too, so please read the more recent visa post. Thank you. ***)
  2. You need a local bank account. South Africans hardly ever use something as antiquated as checks, and most every service you receive (phone, electricity, gardening and pool, book order for the school, music lessons, etc.) is very conveniently paid via Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT). Internet banking works very well (once you’ve jumped through all the hoops the bank will put in front of you when you first register for it and provided you do not reach your internet cap before the month is over, see below) and paying my bills (and now even my kids’ allowances) via EFT is one of the pleasures of living in South Africa (don’t laugh!). You will also find that foreign credit cards are sometimes difficult to use because of the huge risk of fraud, so you will need a local credit card for certain transactions (or for all transactions if you want to save the exchange and transaction fees). I wouldn’t worry too much about which bank to use, other than making sure they have good ATM coverage, particularly in a safe shopping center close to you. Their fees are fairly similar and quite high compared to what you might be used to. More info in Opening a Bank Account in South Africa.
  3. A Garmin or other GPS is a must-have. You don’t want to get lost in some unknown area and stop for directions. But I’m not just using the generic term, I would actually get the Garmin brand. It is by far the best. We’ve brought ours from the U.S., equipped with the latest South African software, and it finds everything. Our built-in navigations systems – one by Mercedes, one by Audi – on the other hand are only distinguished in their clunkiness, one worse than the other. There is a slew of roads they don’t recognize at all, or if they do, they can only find a range of house numbers from, say, 1-99, which is not very precise to say the least. You can’t search them by the name of the establishment, which is often the quickest or even only way to find something. Garmins can also be bought here, of course, but I think they’re cheaper in the U.S., even when adding the cost of the local map. Plus you’ll want to have it right away. The cheapest Garmin here costs about R1,100, so you can figure it out.
  4. You can read up on all my Eskom escapades in the Eskom category but I think this post best sums up the need for an Eskom account under your name. Go to the nearest Eskom office and apply, but remember to bring – you guessed it – your passport with your permanent visa, and a copy of the lease agreement and maybe also your last bank statement if you are so lucky to have already received one. I also suggest you find out your billing cycle (i.e. which day of the month does the invoice go out) and make a note in your calendar to check your meter a few days prior and call in that reading. Eskom will use that reading and you will be saved from any nasty surprises.
  5. If you’re coming from Europe or any 220V country your life will be much simpler. But you’ll still need adapter plugs for your electric appliances . Since many local appliances also only come with Euro plugs, you will need adapters for pretty much everything, and you can buy them here at places like Builder’s Warehouse, but they never seem to fit very well, so I would bring them from home. We bought a whole box full of VCT VP110 Universal Travel Outlet Plug Adapter for South Africa at Amazon and have been very happy with it. I would also get a few power strips with extension cords, since South African houses have few outlets to begin with, and none at all in the bathrooms. If you’re coming from the United States or any other 120V country, you’ll be well served with a step down transformer (or several), unless you’re just planning to buy everything new. It won’t be cheap or perfect (some appliances, especially ones that generate heat such as espresso machines and blow dryers use too much power and/or have too much of a power surge when you turn them on to be practical with a transformer), it will be heavy, it will take up space on your kitchen counter, and it will hum. But still we found it a cheaper solution than replacing all your electric machines. Also read Power Talk for more info.
  6. As I’ve said before, you will need your passport for everything during the first few months, as it is the universally accepted form of ID for foreigners in South Africa. But since you may not want to carry it around everywhere, I suggest you get some certified copies made (of the main page and the visa page) and carry those instead. You can accomplish this easily (and, if I remember correctly, at no cost) at a local police station, though I think those certified copies expire after a certain time. Another useful tip is to enter all your family’s passport numbers into your cell phone, so that you can produce them anywhere upon request.
  7. Applying for a cell phone is another one of those things you will need a permanent visa for, at least the kind where you have a 2-year contract. However, I find that I initially fretted way too much about plans and rates and special offers and whatnot, and waiting (to this day, after 10 months, I still haven’t figured it out) to have my iPhone jailbroken so I could use it. My advice is to buy a cheap prepaid phone right away, and worry about a long term plan later. The rate difference actually isn’t all that big, and the bureaucracy of buying a prepaid phone is much more manageable. Of all things, you will need a cell phone most urgently, especially since your Telkom home phone (if you even choose to get one, more on that later) will take some time to be installed. Just to receive contractors and other visitors into your estate, you will need to be able to answer the phone when security calls you, and having no phone for the first few weeks was a serious drawback for me (it drove Noisette crazy when he’d receive a call in the middle of a meeting whether it was okay to let Lucky Tshabalala into the estate).
  8. I’m still not sure if an international license is in fact needed, as I’ve been told conflicting stories, but my experience so far has shown that you do get asked for it when they stop you. You will get asked for many things (including “coffee” as I’ve mentioned previously!), and the more you can produce, the better your chances of escaping without a fine/bribe. Although most cops I’ve encountered so far seemed to prefer my U.S. license for its nice credit card format similar to a South African ID card. So my advice is, if you didn’t get one, don’t fret about it. But if you haven’t moved yet, since it surely can’t hurt, and I think it only costs $10 or so at AAA, I suggest you get the international license, something you can only do in the country your regular license was issued in. It will only be valid for one year, and technically only in conjunction with your regular license, so your real license is what you actually have to make sure you keep current. You can’t simply get a South African license, that much I have found out. *** Update: read this post regarding your drivers license in South Africa.***
  9. I’ve mentioned before that we got talked into using Telkom as our internet provider without knowing that it has a 5 gigabyte monthly cap (recently raised to 9, but still). There are plenty of uncapped internet offers out there, like mweb, afrihost, but once you’ve signed a 2-year Telkom contract you’re sort of committed. You’ll also want to make sure you pick a provider with some kind of reliability – trust me, when things are NOT working out, you’ll at least want to be able to complain about it on Facebook! If you do get uncapped internet allowing you to Skype as much as you want, I wouldn’t even bother with a landline. It is not very stable and most people here use their cellphones for all local calls. ***Update: I recommend Afrihost, but now there is also fiber in select cities in South Africa.***
  10. You may not be the outdoors type, but South Africa will invariably try to convince you otherwise. As we’ve discovered, all-inclusive type vacations in Africa, whether to a tropical beach or a game reserve, are not cheap by any means, so that sooner or later you will want to venture into the bush toting your own gear – in a trailer, on a roof rack, or both. This is the one place where all-wheel drive is not merely a suburban fashion; in fact it is the only way to explore entire countries like Mozambique by car at all. You can rent trailers of all types and sizes here at every street corner, and rooftop tents are very useful too, especially after you’ve heard tales of angry elephants or curious lions. You’ll also want to have a car you’re not going to fret over in terms of scratching by thorn bushes or worse. Also see Buying a Car in South Africa.
  11. While I haven’t had any bad experience with Joburg’s famous lightening yet, I have heard from plenty of people who have. A friend has “lost a laptop, printer and three modems from lightening” and is “pretty certain it’s coming in through the phone line.” Surge protectors don’t help, so the most sound advice I can give is to always unplug everything when a storm is approaching.

    stroke of lightning in johannesburg South Africa
    Typical Joburg thunderstorm

Those are my expat tips. If you think of all of the above ahead of time, you will settle into your life in South Africa very easily. And now for some fun with one bonus tip:

12. Paint your house number on your trash can in big bold letters! Find out why by following The Dustbin Saga here and here and here and here.

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