Moving Checklist

***Update:  see this NEWER blog post regarding a moving checklist***

Moving to South Africa? If you’ve been an expat before, you might already have a moving checklist. It’s a good thing to keep around, because you tend to forget those things and then you start from scratch the next time. Even if you already have plenty of expat experience, you might find my list useful, as some of the items on it are unique to South Africa.

  • Passports – how much longer are they valid? You’ll be best served if your family’s passports have a few years left on them. Some countries allow you to renew your passport even if it’s not expiring soon, and I think it’s worth doing that even at the extra expense, if only to get your entire family on the same renewal schedule. It’s not a problem renewing them from within South Africa, as all major embassies have offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town, but once you have a new passport you will have to travel with both the old and the new one, because your visa will be in the old one. Not a big hassle, but if you’re like our family with dual German/American citizenship and a couple of renewed  passports, you might find yourself toting 14 passports with you any time you travel!
  • Visas – Visas are issued by the Department of Home Affairs. They are classified into Temporary Residence Permits (with many different categories whether you’re visiting, studying, working, or retiring) and Permanent Residence Permits. Most expats will enter on a temporary permit, as those are easier to get, and have it transferred to a permanent permit later on. Make sure your company’s legal department (or whoever is in charge of it) will start the visa process very early, as the Department of Home Affairs has been known to move very slowly. And settling in will be much easier if you have that permanent visa stamp in your passport.
  • Passport pictures – have several recent passport pictures available for the whole family, as you will need them for school applications, car registration, etc.
  • Driver’s license – your existing driver’s license will be valid in South Africa as long as it is valid in your home country, so make sure you have a few years left on it. You really don’t need an international license on top of that, though I’ve heard it recommended, so save yourself that errand. It’s only valid for one year anyway, and only together with your home country license, and my experience with police checks thus far (and trust me, I’ve had several!) has shown that it is not asked for. Also see Should I Get a South African Driver’s License for more detail.
  • Garmin – if you don’t already own a Garmin, buy one, and get the South Africa software for it. It will be well worth it, for your comfort and safety.
  • Doctor’s records – make the rounds with your doctors, dentists, orthodontists, what have you, to collect as much information they will give you, such as x-rays and immunization schedules. Some of them might charge you for it, but it is worth it. For your South African visa application, you will also need a form signed by your doctor that you have no psychological problems, as well as a chest x-ray for any family members over 12 years old (tuberculosis is a big and growing problem in South Africa). So while you see your doctor for that, make sure you collect your records as well.
  • Immunizations – if you’re up to date on your recommended shots, you will need nothing else. If you’re not, make sure you get boosters for MMR, DPT, HepB, and HepA (that last one is not strictly necessary but recommended). South Africa is NOT a Yellow Fever area, and Malaria is only present in a few areas far from the urban centers.
  • Expat Health insurance – this might be set up by your employer, but if not, you will have to research options on your own, either with a provider in your home country offering international plans, or a local one. (Health insurance in South Africa is called Medical Aid; one nice benefit of South African medical aid is that you usually get a discount at fitness studios.)
  • Taxes – find a tax consultant. Again, many companies provide this service as part of an expat contract, but if not, you will need some professional advice. Taxation in South Africa depends on whether you are a resident or non-resident, and I’m not sure what type of double-taxation agreements there are with various other countries. Knowing South African bureaucracy in other areas, it’s bound to be messy!
  • Housing – if you rent, make sure you keep a copy of your rental agreement, as you will need that many times over in the months to come when applying for various services; some expat contracts will only allow you to rent versus buying a house, so this may be your only option. I have no inside knowledge of buying a house in South Africa. The selection of rental homes is large, and most likely you’ll be steered towards a security estate, walled in and guarded around the clock, which has the advantage of you and your kids being able to roam freely without safety concerns. 
  • School – some schools (both international and private) have wait lists, so it’s best to get this started early. You will need: Copies of latest reports, copies of the children’s passports including their visas (if they are only temporary you can furnish the permanent ones later). Think about what type of school experience you’d prefer for your kids. South African schools are a good (and more affordable) alternative to international schools. Check out Private Schools in Johannesburg.
  • Bank account – every company handles expat salaries differently, and some expats continue to use their home bank, but here in South Africa I would strongly recommend a local bank account. International credit cards are very fraud-prone and therefore not always accepted here, and most transactions are handled via online banking and Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT). I don’t recall whether we needed a permanent visa to open the bank account or if the temporary visa was sufficient, but getting that permanent visa as early as possible will make your life much easier. You will need: Lease agreement or utility bill for proof of residence, passport including visa, draft in Rand for initial balance, and maybe a letter from your home bank listing your bona fides.
  • Insurance – you’ll need to get insurance for your car and your household goods, and it’s a good idea to browse some websites ahead of time to see what kind of price ranges there are. It also helps if you assess your belongings (something you will likely have done for the shipment valuation) so that you know which overall value you should insure your belongings for.
  • Utilities – it is recommended to open an electricity account in your own name with Eskom, rather than taking over your landlord’s account, if you are renting. You won’t know what kind of unpaid charges are on it and might be stuck with previous liabilities or ongoing interest payments. As soon as you are in South Africa, take note of the initial meter reading and pay a visit at the nearest Eskom office, armed – as always – with your passport (it has to be the person with the permanent visa, I suspect) and a copy of your lease agreement to set up your account. Once you have an account, inquire about the billing cycle to find out when they do the monthly meter readings, take note of that date, and call in your own meter readings. It will keep you from encountering many headaches later on (for a good dose of some of those headaches, click here). It’s next to impossible getting a refund from Eskom for anything that’s already paid, and withholding payment is also no option, because then your power will be turned off. In Johannesburg, water and trash service (PikiTup) is provided by the City of Joburg. In some neighborhoods, they also provide the electricity instead of Eskom, so you’ll have to find out how it is set up where you live.
  • Mobile phone – mobile phones are ubiquitous in South Africa and getting one should be your first order of business once you get here. Landlines can take time to install and are not always reliable, plus you need to have a phone so that security can call you to authorize access to the estate for all the contractors who will no doubt come visiting the first few weeks. There are hundreds of contract options which will probably confuse you, so your best bet most likely is to buy a cheap prepaid phone to start with, and research contracts later. Vodacom, MTN, and Cell C are the three main providers and pricing as well as coverage does not vary too much, in my opinion. If you have an existing phone, you just have to get a new SIM card (remember once again to bring your passport and lease agreement to buy one), but it won’t work for certain phones (like iPhones and Blackberries – read Will my iPhone Work in South Africa.
  • Home phone/internet – the phone company is Telkom, but if you’re not going to make any international calls, or if you’re going to use Skype for that, don’t get a landline. Just have Telkom install your internet connection (which can easily take a few weeks). I strongly recommend, however, getting your actual internet package through a third party such as mweb or Afrihost, and not Telkom. Telkom only offers capped internet service, and 9 gigabytes will be used up very quickly, trust me.
  • Buying a car – in order to buy a car in South Africa, you will need a so-called Traffic Register Number, to be obtained from your nearest Licensing Department. Make sure you go there armed with plenty of time, passport pictures, your passport (including permanent visa) and drivers’ license, and your lease agreement as proof of residence.
  • Tracker – most insurance plans will require you to have a tracking service like Altech Netstar for your vehicle. It helps with the recovery of stolen vehicles and includes other benefits, like the installation of a panic button. It’s a good idea to get this even if it’s not required, as the cost of around R160 per month is fairly low.
  • TV/Cable – South African law requires every household to obtain a TV License, to be applied for and renewed annually at the Post Office. If you want cable, visit the closest Multichoice office where you can buy a PVR (your cable box) and, possibly, an extra-view decoder (a second cable box). The monthly service will cost you around R500. It is recommended to get a Multichoice-certified installer for initial setup.
  • Domestic help – if you’re going to live in South Africa, you should employ a domestic worker. Not only is it expected of anyone who lives in such a large house, but it will also be a wonderful experience, both in terms of cultural enrichment and a more leisurely life than you’ll ever have in your home country. You will also have to register your domestic worker for UIF (unemployment) payments.
I hope I’ve about covered everything here. If anything else comes to mind, please let me know! Also see My Top Expat Tips for more information. If you’re in the process of moving to South Africa, I wish you all the best! If you come prepared and get through the initial hassles quickly, it will be a wonderful country you’ll no doubt come to love.

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