The following is a guest post by Barbara Bruhwiler.
Sooner or later comes the moment when you will want to pay for something in South Africa. And then you may ask yourself: What payment options are there, and which are the best?
Well, it depends, I would say. It looks a bit as if it depends on the amount of the bill you’re faced with.
The low end: Cash
At the low end, I will use cash. And when I say low, I mean low, perhaps anything below 40 Rand or so. There doesn’t seem to be a minimum charge for credit cards, but this is where I personally draw the line.
This has a certain bonus for me: As it’s not often that I have to pay for such a small amount, I usually seize the opportunity to make some change, especially 2-Rand coins, which I can use to tip the friendly park attendant.
All in all, I usually carry about 200 Rand in my wallet, not more, because I hardly ever pay cash. It would be inconvenient to carry more, but most of all it would be unsafe. The part about getting it (withdrawing money from an ATM has a certain risk) as well as carrying it with me (pickpockets).
There are places and situations where you have to pay cash, like when renewing your car’s license disk at the post office, or when a shop is offline and can’t accept credit cards, but otherwise my daily life functions quite well without carrying wads of cash around with me. As far as I’m concerned, cash is not king in South Africa.
The high end: Electronic Transfers (EFT)
Now this is a bit of a vague term again, I have to admit. Where do I draw the line? When I think about it, it is more about how I get the invoice, and if there is a possibility to pay by credit card. If it’s not low enough for cash and there isn’t a possibility to use my credit card, then an EFT it is.
Everything in between: Credit Card
So yes, I do use my credit card a lot, for nearly everything. I even have to acknowledge that my signature has become shorter because I’m not patient enough to write it diligently (and slowly) each time I make a purchase. But if you now have visions of me as an alter ego of Carry Bradshaw of Sex and the City, walking elegantly on high heels with a bunch of colourful bags full of designer clothes dangling from my arm – think again. We’re talking expat wife. Who is responsible for getting the groceries, kids’ underwear, pool chemicals, and extension cables.
Your foreign credit card will easily be accepted in most places in South Africa. But using one in your daily life can only be a temporary solution because, in the long run, the exchange rate will cost you dearly. Rather, you will want to obtain a South African credit card, which is easier to accomplish than in many other countries. Your South African bank is usually happy to issue a credit card to you if you can prove that you have a regular income.
In our case, they even threw in a card for free: We got an American Express card from Nedbank without having to pay for it. The downside? American Express is not accepted in many shops (for instance not at the Woolworth’s chain). The same goes for Diners Club. Visa and Mastercard are the credit cards of choice in this country.
But credit cards have their limits – and I’m not talking financial caps here. Not long ago, ‘normal’ credit cards were not accepted at petrol stations. Which left you with two choices when paying for your gas: cash (not a great idea, what with the high petrol prices and carrying wads of cash with you) or using a so-called Garage Card. This is a sort of credit card that is issued by your bank and that you can use to pay for petrol, road tolling or other payments in connection with your car. While the situation has changed and the majority of petrol stations these days have no problem accepting your ‘normal’ credit card, most people still carry a Garage Card in their vehicle.
The last card to complete my little collection is the so-called Debit Card. It can be used like a credit card, but from what I have been told at the bank, its security is not as sophisticated as ‘normal’ credit cards (it cannot be frozen as quickly as a credit card, or so I have been told). Personally, I don’t carry my Debit Card with me as I only use it for withdrawing money from an ATM, a transaction that is cheaper via Debit Card. [Note by editor: I paid most of everything via debit card and never had a security problem. Unlike in the U.S., your bank typically does not award any cash-back points for your credit card, so there isn’t quite the same incentive to use it].
Now there is just one more thing to add: credit cards have their risks, too. There is especially one risk worth mentioning here, and that’s the duplication of your card. It happens quite frequently (happened to us and to several of our visitors), and this is what it is about: Criminals copy the magnetic information on your card and use it for their shopping afterwards. It happens mainly in restaurants, and you can prevent it by never letting your credit card get out of sight. Just make sure you insist on the waiter bringing the machine to your table.
Good luck with your payments, keep safe, and happy shopping!
Barbara Bruhwiler lives in Johannesburg with her husband and two children. She is an internationally successful author of five books. One of them is the Expat-Living.info Guide to Johannesburg, a handy reference guide full of practical, useful information and advice for expats moving to or living in Joburg.