Of all the bureaucratic headaches assaulting you when moving to South Africa, perhaps none is as fraught with angst and speculation as that of the driver’s license.
But don’t despair. It’s really not as big of a problem as it’s made out to be. In fact, most likely it won’t be a problem at all for you. I remember fretting about my driver’s license to no end both prior to moving and during the first months of our life in Johannesburg, and in hindsight it wasn’t a big deal at all.
Before we even get into more detail, let me say this:
If you are in South Africa on any kind of temporary visa (such as business permit, work permit, study permit, retired person’s permit), you do not need (and actually cannot have) a South African driver’s license. Period.
Sounds simple, right? But oh, you will say, how do I then drive in South Africa? The answer is, you use your license from back home or from whichever country issued the license currently in your possession. The rules are such that for temporary residents residing in the country, South Africa honors any driver’s license that a) has their picture on it, b) is valid, and c) is issued in the English language. If all that applies to you, read no further. While your license hasn’t expired, you’re good to go. (If you’d like to hear the story of how I arrived at this conclusion, click here.)
If your driver’s license is not issued in the English Language
If your driver’s license is not issued in the English language, you are best served with obtaining an international driving permit. In the U.S., that is easily obtained at AAA, for a fee of $10 or $15. You have to obtain this permit in your home country. But the thing is, if your regular license is already in English, you do not need an international license. It’s an unwieldy piece of paper that looks nothing like a license, and most South African police officers will regard it with more suspicion than your regular credit-card sized foreign license.
The other trouble with an international driving permit is that it’s only valid for one year. At the end of which time you’ll have to get it renewed in your home country. So again, I’d only advise getting one if your original license is in a language other than English. (Or, for that matter, in a language other than one of South Africa’s 11 official languages. If your license was issued in, say, Southern Sotho, you’re in luck!)
If you are a permanent instead of temporary resident of South Africa
This is where we get to the actual topic of this blog post. If you’re a permanent resident of South Africa, not only are you now able to obtain a South African driver’s license, you are obligated to do so. You do, however, have a one-year grace period to make this happen. Oh, the irony. You’ve just gone through months of tedious paperwork, you’ve almost despaired over the obduracy at the Department of Home Affairs, and now that you finally hold that coveted 13-digit South African ID number, you get saddled with more paperwork!
The good news is, you won’t have to take any driving or even written test. You can simply convert your foreign license to a South African one. I know this from one of my readers who is American and lives in South Africa. I assume this is true for any other valid foreign license, but I can’t guarantee it. I will just repeat what she said about her particular case:
“You have to get a letter from the state (all available for a fee online for Florida) your license is from, detailing what your license allows you to do (vehicle weight, etc.). You take your license and this letter to the SA driving license bureau who sends it to the capital of the province to be verified [Johannesburg in the case of Gauteng]. One month later +/- you get a call and you go for your eye test and photo. Two weeks later you get the hard copy as they don’t do it immediately. You don’t lose your USA license [as I’ve heard is true in some European countries when you transfer your license], they make a copy and they issue you a temporary certificate before you get the laminated version. My driver’s license experience in SA was EASY EASY EASY in comparison to dealing with home affairs.”
But it’s South Africa, guys – no two licensing offices are going to have the same rules
The above is how it should work, in theory. But if I’ve learned anything during 3 years in South Africa, it is that not all government offices are created equal. Every one of them seems to fly by their own set of rules, and perhaps a yet other sets of rules depending on the day, or the weather. This seems to be confirmed by a comment from another reader:
“A colleague of mine is trying to do the conversion in Joburg (Marlboro) and he has been there 5 times trying to do it. And he was told he has to turn in his Indian license and still take the driving test. They tell him the only advantage is that he doesn’t have to wait in the longer line. The whole thing makes no sense to me at all… he does have that letter from the Indian DMV but the lady in Marlboro is still saying he needs to take the driving test, she says how do we know if you can really drive or not? It sound like Marlboro is creating their own rules, he showed her what it says about the exchange on Home Affairs site and she said that doesn’t have anything to do with them, they are not Home Affairs.”
I can just picture the whole scene and the frustration to go with it, and it makes me miss South Africa one teensy bit less. I dimly remember Marlboro being mentioned in another South African bureaucracy horror story. I always did okay with the Randburg licensing office, relatively speaking. But sadly you don’t actually have a choice of where to go, as it’s based on where you live.
If your foreign license expires while you’re still in South Africa
The best scenario would be for you to attain permanent residence in South Africa before this happens, and go the route described above. However, you may be a temporary resident longer than your foreign license is valid, and in this case you will need to renew it to continue driving in South Africa.
Again, my first reader shared some valuable information about this:
“I’ve renewed my Florida license from South Africa with special permission. I had to email a copy of an eye test done here and a reason why I couldn’t come in person, and the Florida DMV sent both my husband and me new licenses. All done online. We used a friend’s address because we don’t have a mailing address in FL, but the DMV mailed to our SA address for us (and we got it in ten days unlike Christmas cards that are still arriving). Apparently they have it all set up to do for military personnel that find themselves in a similar predicament.”
This process is confirmed by another reader who did the same in Colorado:
“I renewed my Colorado license online the same way. In Colorado you may only do this once before you need to have your eyesight checked, etc.”
Sounds pretty straightforward. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to assume that most other states, or even countries, have similar procedures. It would be a good idea to research all this with plenty of time to spare. And above all, don’t leave for South Africa without renewing your license right then and there, so that you have a good number of years left before having to put the renewal process to the test.
On the rare chance that you don’t have a driver’s license at all (or let your old one expire) and find yourself arriving in a country that has really bad public transport, you may have to obtain your South African driver’s license from scratch. To know how that’s done, read the comments below – one reader shares a wonderful story about her ordeal to become the proud owner of a South African license at age 50!
All this might still not be enough when…
…you actually start driving in South Africa.
But that’s a story for another day.