How to get and spend money in South Africa
money in South Africa
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South Africa is a popular destination for tourists. There are so many exciting things to do, and most of them will involve spending money in South Africa. The two most popular and convenient options are ATMs and/or credit and debit cards. Here’s a thorough outline of what you can expect.

How to get and spend money in South Africa

Understanding the South African Currency - Rands

It is not very hard to figure out the local currency.

South Africans use rand (R), with each rand comprising 100 cents (c). There are coins (5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, R1, R2, and R5) and notes (R10, R20, R50, R100, and R200) available. The exchange rate is generally favorable to visitors from western countries.

For many travelers and ex-pats, using credit cards, debit cards, or ATMs to draw cash is a convenient option. Here’s everything you need to know about those options:

Using credit and debit cards in South Africa

Using your credit or debit card is a popular and convenient option when traveling in South Africa. MasterCard and Visa are the most widely accepted credit card brands in South Africa. Debit cards can generally be used over the counter and at ATMs wherever there is a MasterCard or Visa sign.

Advantages of using a debit/ credit card in South Africa

  • They are very convenient;
  • You have immediate access to your funds as well as emergency cash advances if you have a credit card.
  • Some banks provide preferential overseas rates and fees for travelers who use a debit or check cards (less so with credit cards).
  • While in South Africa, credit cards can be used to book airplane tickets, accommodation,  activities, and other services online.

Disadvantages of using a debit/ credit card in South Africa

  • If your bank card is lost, stolen, or swallowed by an ATM, getting a replacement card from your overseas bank can be a time-consuming and costly process. It can take up to three or four weeks for the new card to arrive, which means you could be out of cash for an extended period.
  • Overseas card usage fees can be very high and are frequently not made clear, so you may be unaware of them. Banks typically charge a percentage of the amount withdrawn in addition to other fees, so you could end up paying more than R200 in charges for a single transaction.
  • Because your money is still in foreign currency, you will be charged a fee every time you use your card to convert it from your local currency to rand.
  • You will be vulnerable to fluctuations in the exchange rate. If this falls to the point where it is no longer in your favor, you may lose a portion of your travel budget.
  • Some debit and credit cards, particularly those with advanced security features, may be incompatible with local ATMs and card machines.
  • If you don’t notify your bank that you are traveling and they detect foreign activity, your credit card may be blocked or transactions declined.
  • A big concern for using credit and debit cards is safety. SA has a major problem with debit and credit card fraud, and because these cards give holders direct access to all funds, the loss could be significant if you fall victim to a scam or if they are stolen. Also, while there is usually a money-back guarantee to cover fraud, there are usually several conditions involved, and certain policies may limit how protected you are when traveling.
south african coins

Using ATMs in South Africa

South Africa has a sophisticated and well-developed banking system. There is no shortage of ATMs near shopping malls and supermarkets or near bank branches.

South African ATMs are easy to use, and they all offer transactions in English. If you are a traveler, chances are excellent you’ll know how to use an ATM. However, if you are having trouble and someone offers to assist you, be cautious. There have been reports of ATM scams in which people offer to assist others in using an ATM before robbing them. If you are having a problem, go inside a bank and ask for help from a teller. (There are bank branches in most of the larger malls.)

Where do I find ATMs in South Africa?

If you are in the cities, ATMs are easy to spot. You can also find them in every mall. Large malls have several ATMs and even bank branches.

You can also find the most convenient ATM wherever you are in South Africa by using one of the ATM locators provided by large national and regional banks:

What are the ATM fees in South Africa?

If your home bank is a member of a regional or global group represented in South Africa, such as the Global ATM Alliance, you may be able to get free or low-cost cash withdrawals if you use ATMs provided by other members of the group.

However, there are a few extra fees (and potential ripoffs) to be aware of if you use your foreign card in a South African ATM.

ATM exchange rate fees in South Africa (DCC)

When using a debit or credit card abroad, keep an eye out for dynamic currency conversion (also known as DCC for short). This can occur in stores, restaurants, or ATMs whenever you are asked to pay in your home currency rather than rand.

Customers typically receive poor value from DCC transactions. The exchange rate used is frequently not the real, mid-market rate that can be found on Google. Most of the time, it’s much worse than you’d expect because the ATM provider raises the rate and keeps the difference as a profit.

Because you only ever see the costs expressed in your home currency, it is not always easy to determine what rate has been applied at the time.

You will get a better deal if you always pay in the local currency.

Fees charged by your primary bank

Aside from DCC, there are other fees to be concerned about. Your own bank may charge you to withdraw cash from an ATM abroad, so check the details in your bank account terms and conditions before you travel.

Bank fees in South Africa

It is possible that the South African bank will charge you a fee for using the ATM. This can range from R25 to R50 for regular banks, but some travelers have reported fees of up to R200 per transaction. Independent ATMs, in particular, can charge exorbitant fees and should be avoided.

If you already bank with a global brand or your home bank has a partner institution in South Africa, you may get cheap or free withdrawals if you stick to their ATMs.

Helpful tips for avoiding ATM fees in South Africa

  • Some of South Africa’s large regional banks provide free withdrawals to their global customers and customers who bank with their partner institutions abroad. Barclays Africa, for example, is a member of the Global ATM Alliance, which provides its customers with low-cost or free ATM access.
  • If you bank with another member of this alliance, such as Westpac or Bank of America, it’s worth checking your account terms to see if you can avoid paying local ATM fees entirely by using Barclays-operated machines.
  • Check to see if your bank is a member of a fee-free (or low-fee) network. Check if your home bank provides low-cost or free ATM access through a South African partner institution. If they do, you may be able to take advantage of free or reduced-fee cash withdrawals.
  • Choose your card carefully. If you have several bank accounts to choose from, it’s worth investigating which one offers the best deal for overseas cash withdrawals. Foreign currency cash advances, for example, using a credit card, are usually expensive options that should be avoided.
  • Avoid ATMs near airports and hotels. Some tourist attractions, pubs, and nightclubs, for example, have ATMs that are privately run “in association with” a bank. These typically have high fees and may not provide good value. If possible, use ATMs attached to banks, supermarkets, or shopping malls.
  • Always opt for the local currency when making a payment. DCC is a completely avoidable expense. Simply choose to pay in local currency at ATMs, shops, and restaurants to avoid DCC’s high fees and poor exchange rates.

A helpful note from the author

Traveling is expensive (when you have five kids), so we try to save money wherever we can. Credit cards are one of those savings! 

We discovered years ago that Capital One does not charge foreign transaction fees! Skip and I both have our own Capital One cards and that’s literally all we use when we travel abroad. It is ridiculously convenient—we just let the bank know before we travel, and we’ve never had issues.

Honestly, individual transaction fees are not huge. However, they add up and they become ridiculous if you consider how often you use your credit card while traveling. If you are looking to avoid transaction fees, consider a credit card like Capital One or something similar. 

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About The Author

Hi! We’re the Cheltens’. We visit South Africa 1-2 times per year. We want to share our experiences with you so that you may make educated decisions when you plan your next trip to the rainbow nation.

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