What You Need To Know Before Traveling To South Africa
Visiting Africa conjures up images of jungles, safaris and elephants, deserts and adventure (at least,it does for me!) While Africa indeed contains all these elements, visiting South Africa is an easy choice for most Westerners because they speak the same language (English) and have a variety of cosmopolitan and modern culture that balances the unsullied wilds. In fact, South Africa has an immense range of opportunities for travelers, whether you’re looking for a rugged adventure, a food and wine tour or a spiritual experience.
Here’s everything you need to know before you travel to South Africa:
How long can I stay without a visa?
Many countries do not require a visa for South Africa so long as you’re visiting for less than 90 days. If you’re not sure if you need a visa, check here. Please note that your passport expiration date MUST be at least 30 days after the date of your intended return if you are a US Citizen. Always check the latest regulations before you travel just to be sure. Ensure your passport is up to date. You’ll need at least one blank page in your passport for the entry stamp which they will add at customs, and they recommend that you have two blank pages, just in case you get a squirrelly customs official.
You can apply for a new 3 months visa, so you can stay 180 days
then you must leave the country
What’s the local currency? Do they take credit cards?
You’ll use the South African Rand when you’re there, which is the local currency. The Rand to the USD fluctuates regularly, sometimes extremely; depending on when you travel, you should check the rates both when you price and when you book. Over the past 4 years, it’s been as high as 15 Rand and as low as 9 and it can change quite quickly. Once you’re there, you will get money out of an ATM in Rand, and you will often be charged a foreign transaction fee of about 3 percent by your bank, whether you get cash out or use a credit card. This can be expensive, so make sure you budget for it. Note that some credit cards have no foreign transaction fees. Also, banks close early in South Africa; usually 3:30PM and are only open until noon or 1PM on Saturdays (and are closed Sundays), so plan accordingly.
Are you going into the bush or on a safari? ATMs may be unavailable in rural areas; this is one time you might want to consider bringing extra cash and really planning ahead, but note that a money belt (especially an invisible one that you wear inside your clothes, is extremely important in that case. If you want your debit/credit cards to work in South Africa, or any foreign country, call your bank before you leave! Many times, we have had tour guests calling back to their home country because their transactions were declined. It’s a fraud concern for the banks, so they are all pretty careful.
Many places will take all the usual credit cards, but again, some may not — plan according to your trip — if you’re in a big city like Joburg (what the locals call Johannesburg) it’s not a problem; if you’re staying in a rural area, plan for extra cash and extra vigilance to go along with it! Also, note that they have problems in a lot of countries with ATM fraud; this may include cloning your card for later use. Some travel insurance providers offer an identity theft protection that continues for 6 months after you return from your trip, so you may want to consider this option.
As with many European countries, make sure you always see your credit card during the transaction; they will have a mobile swipe device; never let your card out of your sight, as that’s when fraud might occur. The legit places know and expect this, so the service they provide during credit card processing will be in front of you
How do I get around
Probably you’ll be traveling in-country with either a group tour in a comfy air-conditioned coach with guide/tour leader. You can also rent a car. South Africa has a good road network. For the most part the roads are tarred and well sign posted, one can also hire GPS units with your vehicle and your tour operator will supply driving directions to complement your GPS. Plan your trip in advance if you’re driving; you may need a 4×4 for places where the road becomes gravel or dirt.
You can also opt for a fully packaged holiday itinerary, where you are picked up and dropped off from your arrival point (airport, port etc.) in each destination that you visit, and then simply catch a taxi around the cities and make use of day tours in each area. Taxis are readily available within the cities.
In Johannesburg, the relatively new Gauteng Rail System — the Gautrain — is a good option — make sure your hotel has a train station near enough and you may be able to take the train from the airport.
Public transport in South Africa, particularly the bus system, is not ideal and neither is the public train system in South Africa unless it is the luxury passenger trains that have an itinerary all of their own. Public trains and busses are not recommended in most areas, so always make sure you make use of a taxi service recommended by your tour operator or the hotel in which you are staying (don’t catch a random taxi, as you may be taken for a ride in more ways than one!)
What languages do they speak?.
South Africa has 11 official languages and the country is often termed the ‘rainbow nation’ because of its cultural diversity. Although English is spoken throughout the country and is most used in a business environment, it is actually only the 5th most common home language spoken. The most widely spoken home language is isiZulu, then isiXhosa (Nelson Mandela’s ‘home’ language) and then Afrikaans. Most South Africans are multilingual, which means they will be able to converse with you!