What you need to know about visiting South Africa
As a visitor to South Africa’s sunny shores there is a lot of information that will be helpful for you to know. Which side of the road do I drive on? Can I pay for petrol with my credit card? Banking hours? What about malaria? How much do I tip? What about emergency services, or contacting my local embassy in time of need? For these and many other helpful hints and tips, read on!
Before you leave home
In preparation for the 2010 Fifa World Cup, the Airports Company South Africa (the company responsible for running South Africa’s airports) and the various domestic airlines — 1Time, British Airways, Kulula, Nationwide, Mango Airlines, SAA (South African Airways) and SA Express — are to implement stricter hand luggage restrictions in order to reduce flight delays at the country’s three main airports — OR Tambo International Airport, Cape Town International Airport and Durban International Airport.
For help in locating or contacting a domestic airline, consult our list of domestic airlines in South Africa
The new restrictions allow for one travel bag and one laptop per economy class passenger and two bags and a laptop for business and first class passengers. The weight of each bag may not exceed 7kg.
Total dimensions of each bag may not exceed 115cm (56cm + 36cm + 23cm). Compliance with these requirements will be verified at security checkpoints at OR Tambo, Cape Town and Durban international airports.
Implementation of these restrictions at OR Tambo International Airport has been in place since 20 January 2010, and at Cape Town International Airport and Durban International Airport since 6 February 2010.
For emergency consular or embassy help, please consult our detailed list of Embassies & Consulates in South Africa.
Emergency services, including ambulance services, are run by the province concerned. There are, however, private companies who offer emergency response vehicles — cars, ambulances, helicopters and fixed wing aircraft — and paramedics throughout South Africa. The largest of these private companies is is Netcare. Netcare’s emergency phone number is 082 911.
The nationwide emergency telephone number is 10111.
Cape Town has adopted a single number for all emergencies, which is 107. If using a cell phone, the number to dial is 021 480 7700.
Crime in South Africa
Most of South Africa’s high crime occur in the townships, informal settlements and in other areas away from the main tourist destinations. The South African authorities and police services give high priority to protecting tourists. Tourism police are deployed in several large towns and cities.
In the past there have been a few incidents involving foreigners being followed from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to their destinations by car and then robbed, often at gunpoint. We recommend you exercise particular caution in and around the airport and extra vigilance when leaving the airport.
As in other countries, thieves also operate at international airports, bus and railway stations. Keep your baggage with you at all times. Due to theft of luggage at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, it is recommended that where possible, and where local regulations permit, hold (checked) luggage is vacuum wrapped.
There have been attacks on hikers and tourists on Table Mountain. Some attacks have been violent. You should be cautious when in the quieter areas of the Park, especially early in the morning or just before the park closes. Park authorities, who are attempting to address the problem, recommend that visitors should walk in groups and take precautions.
Passport theft is common. It is usually opportunist and non-violent (and mainly occurs at airports on arrival or departure), although some passports are taken during muggings. You should carry photocopies of your passport with you.
Looking after your personal items
Some suggestions for looking after your personal effects, jewellery and money.
- keep large amounts of money, expensive jewellery, cameras and cell phones out of sight.
- do not change large sums of money in busy public areas.
- do not give personal or financial account information details to unknown parties: there are international fraud rings operating in South Africa, as there are in other parts of the world, which may target visitors, foreign businessmen and charities.
- the risk to visitors travelling to the main tourist destinations is low.
- consult a reliable tour guide if you are visiting a township.
- there is a high incidence of credit card fraud and fraud involving ATMs.
- users of ATMs should be vigilant to ensure their PIN number is not observed by others when withdrawing money.
- when using an ATM, offers of assistance from bystanders should be refused.
- do not change large sums of money in busy public areas.
- closely protect any documents containing details of credit card, PIN numbers and bank accounts.
Motor vehicle driving and road safety
In South Africa we drive on the left side of the road, as in the United Kingdom.
Adherence to road rules is haphazard at times and on highways it is well worth remembering that overtaking can occur in any lane including, occasionally, the hard shoulder.
On single-lane roads the hard shoulder is also sometimes used by trucks and slower moving vehicles to allow faster moving vehicles to overtake – it is regarded as a courtesy to acknowledge this, and thank the slower vehicle – usually with a brief flash of hazard warning lights.
Four-way-stops are commonly found at the quieter intersections – the first vehicle to arrive has priority. On round-abouts (also referred to as traffic circles), give way to the right, although this is often overlooked and treated as a four-way-stop. Traffic lights are commonly referred to as “robots”.
Road standards are mostly very good, but some roads in the more remote areas are less well maintained and potholes may be encountered. It is strongly recommended that you drive cautiously at all times and adhere to speed limits. You should avoid unfamiliar rural areas at night. Thieves have been known to employ various methods to make a vehicle stop, enabling them to rob the occupants. You should be aware that one such method is the placing of large stones in the middle of the road.
When it comes to paying for fuel, you may also have to pay cash. Petrol stations are manned by attendants who will attend to the refueling, checking of oil and water and tyre pressure. Most filling stations in the big cities also offer “convenience shops” where last-minute items, beverages and convenience foods can be purchased. Our filling stations can now take credit card payments – regulations allowing them to do so came into effect in July 2009. However, many filling stations — also known as “garages” or “petrol stations” — may take a while to adjust, or may choose not to offer the facility to use your credit card for fuel purchases. Look out for the “cash only” notices. Road tolls, on the major routes between cities, can be paid using MasterCard or Visa.
You should park in well-lit areas. Do not pick up strangers. Do not stop to help “apparently” distressed motorists. This is a technique sometimes used by hijackers. It is far better report the incident to the police.
Be vigilant on the approach roads travelling to and away from Kruger Park. In the past there have been cases of car hijacking. The local authorities have increased police patrols in this area.
Passports, travel safety and insurance
Your passports must also be valid for 30 days after the end of your intended visit. South African authorities state officially that only one blank passport page is required for entry. There have been cases where visitors have been refused entry when this is the case. To be on the safe side, make sure you have two blank pages in your passport on arrival.
Keep a photocopy of your passport with you in a separate place to your passport.
We recommend that you obtain comprehensive travel, medical insurance and medical advise before travelling. South Africa actively promotes an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign. But given the high level of HIV/AIDS in the country, you should seek immediate help if you are sexually assaulted or otherwise injured.
Avoid isolated beaches and picnic spots across South Africa. Walking alone anywhere, especially in remote areas, is not advised and hikers should stick to popular trails. Call the police at the first sign of a threat.
ElectricityElectricity is generally 220/230 volts, 15 amps, and is supplied through either 15-amp 3-prong or 5-amp 2-prong plugs, in both cases with round pins. If you’re bringing anything electrical, bring an adapter from your home country. Generally, the 110V video chargers work safely on the 220V supply. Television is on the PAL system.
Local laws and customs
Drug taking and drug smuggling is an offence. The punishments can be severe. Homosexuality is permitted. South Africa has introduced legislation which bans any discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The law prohibits smoking in most public spaces, including airports and railway stations. Most restaurants have designated smoking and non-smoking areas.
South Africa does not change its clocks during the year, and there are no regional variations within the country. South African Standard Time is
- 2 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean (or Universal Standard) Time
- 1 hour ahead of Central European Winter Time
- 7 hours ahead of the USA’s Eastern Standard Winter Time
Medical facilities, hospitals, maleria and drinking water
Medical facilities in cities and larger towns are world-class, but you will find that in rural areas the clinics and hospitals deal with primary health needs, and therefore do not offer the range of medical care that the large metropolitan hospitals do. Trained medical caregivers are deployed round the country, so help is never far away.
Many of the main tourist areas are malaria-free, so you need not worry at all. However, the Kruger National Park, the Lowveld of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, and the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal do pose a malaria risk in the summer months.
Many local people and some travellers do not take malaria prophylaxis, but most health professionals recommend you do. Consult your doctor or a specialist travel clinic for the latest advice concerning malaria prophylaxis, as it changes regularly.
Whether you take oral prophylaxis or not, always use mosquito repellent, wear long pants, closed shoes and light long-sleeved shirts at night, and sleep under a mosquito net in endemic areas (the anopheles mosquito, which carries malaria, operates almost exclusively after dark). It is advisable to avoid malarial areas if you are pregnant. You should seek medical advice before travelling to South Africa and ensure that all appropriate vaccinations are up-to-date.
There are periodic outbreaks of cholera in the poor communities of rural South Africa, especially in Northern KwaZulu Natal, Mpumalanga, and Limpopo provinces. Travellers to Limpopo are advised to familiarise themselves with precautions needed to avoid cholera, in particular to drink or use only boiled or bottled water and avoid ice in drinks.
High-quality tap (faucet) water is available almost everywhere in South Africa, treated so as to be free of harmful micro-organisms, and in any area other than informal or shack settlements, is both palatable and safe to drink straight from the tap. In some areas, the water is mineral-rich, and you may experience a bit of gastric distress for a day or two until you get used to it. Bottled mineral water, both sparkling and still, is readily available in most places.
Drinking water straight from rivers and streams could put you at risk of waterborne diseases – especially downstream of human settlements. The water in mountain streams, however, is usually pure and wonderful.
Climate, sun protection
South Africa has a warm sunny climate. Most areas in South Africa average more than 2 500 hours of sunshine per year. You should wear sunscreen and a hat whenever you are out of doors during the day, particularly between 10am and 4pm, regardless of whether there is cloud cover or not.
Even if you have a dark complexion, you can still get sunburned if you are from a cooler climate and have not had much exposure to the sun. Sunglasses are also recommended wear, as the glare of the African sun can be strong.
Climatic conditions range from Mediterranean in the south-west of the country — where Cape Town is located — to temperate in the interior. North-east and south-east the climate is tropical. Durban — located in the sourth-east boasts an average of 300 days of sunshine per year. A small area in the northwest has a desert climate. Most of the country has warm, sunny days and cool nights. Rainfall generally occurs during summer (November through March), although in the south-west winter rains occur (June through August).
Our local currency is the South African Rand. The Rand is divisible into 100 cents. Paper notes include:
- R10 notes
- R20 notes
- R50 notes
- R100 notes
- R200 notes
Coins are in denominations of:
Although 1 and 2 cent coins are in circulation they are no longer legal tender and won’t be accepted but as a tourist you may find some in your change! As an added help, all our bank notes are slightly different sizes and each one is a different colour!
For the benefit of the partially sighted, the Reserve Bank has introduced geometric shapes on the front of the banknotes. The R10 note features a diamond, the R20 a square, the R50 a circle, the R100 a “flat” hexagon and the R200 a “honeycomb” hexagon. A coin has six distinct features by which a blind person can identify it: size, thickness, shape (not all are entirely round) pattern of grooves round the edge, the sound it makes when dropped onto a table and the raised picture on the face. One, two, three, four or five raised diamond shapes in the middle of the bottom half of the new South African bank notes enable blind people to identify them as R10, R20, R50, R100 and R200 respectively. The notes are also different lengths.
For quick and easy reference, plastic coin identifiers and money sticks (to measure banknotes) are available.
When buying goods, all values will be rounded up or down to the nearest 5c or 10c value.
The majority of ATMs will accept most international bank and credit cards.
Most shops and hotels will accept all major credit cards around the country.
South Africa has a VAT system of 14% on purchases and services. As a visitor, if you spend more than R250 on goods you are taking out of the country you can reclaim your VAT. Keep your receipts and take them to the VAT Refund Offices at the departure lounge of the airports.
How much to tip
A 10% tip — or gratuity — is acceptable in restaurants. You do not have to tip if you feel you have received poor service. You can of course tip more than 10% if you feel you have received exceptional service. A tip of R5 to R10 per piece of luggage is acceptable for porters in hotels.
In most shopping areas, uniformed attendants situated in the parking lots — usually outside parking as opposed to undercover parking — will either take a fee, or offer to mind your car for a tip if you are parked outside (without a ticket to pay for parking). The rate varies from R2 to R5 as a basic rule of thumb. If you have lots of packages or shopping parcels, the parking attendant may assist in carrying these and packing them in your car. A larger tip will be well received. Soliciting for money, either before or after a service is supplied is not allowed.
While not necessary, petrol attendants will welcome a tip of R2 or R3 for filling up with petrol, checking oil, water and tyre pressure and cleaning windscreens. Hotel porters should be tipped two to five Rands. It is also appropriate to tip taxi drivers, tour guides and even hairdressers.
There is a well developed, efficient banking system in South Africa.
There are four major banks:
- First National Bank (FNB)
- Standard Bank
All four offer currency exchange services. Banks are open from 9:00am to 3:30pm week days and Saturday mornings. You will need some form of picture identity document for most transactions.
Phones, mobile phones & telecommunications
South Africa has a well-developed communications infrastructure, with extensive landline phone networks and four mobile phone service providers:
- Cell C
- Virgin Mobile
Mobile phone reception is generally very good in major towns and cities but can be intermittent in more remote spots.
Consult our list of mobile phone operators in South Africa if you have a specific question or problem.
Landline services are primarily run by Telkom, with a second operator, Neotel also providing fixed line services. Telkom has placed reliable public telephones at major tourist sites across South Africa. Coin-operated phones are blue, while card-phones are green. Both are user-friendly and compatible with hearing aid devices. Many public phones also utilise Worldcall. Phonecards and Worldcall can be purchased at most retail stores, petrol stations, post offices and airports.
You can rent mobile phones — many South Africans refer to them as “cell phones” — from the airport on arrival. You should find an internet café in even the smallest towns, and the postal service works, offering the usual letter and parcel services as well as securemail, freight and courier services.
Lastly, enjoy your visit to our great country!