Visiting South Africa may not be what you expect!
Visiting South Africa? Lucky you! You’re going to have a great time. Before you go, you’ll want to know what to expect.
Based on the media and general things people hear about the country, their ideas about visiting South Africa may not be rooted in reality. As a South African (now living abroad), this is a collection of questions, concerns, and general confusion I’ve come across when speaking to foreigners about visiting South Africa.
1. South Africa is a developing country
A lot of travelers assume that since South Africa is in Africa, it is a third-world country. This is not the case.
As a developing country, South Africa has paved roads and highways, wifi, gourmet restaurants, five-star luxury hotels and restaurants, museums, farmers’ markets, skyscrapers, malls, etc. In other words, South Africa is very similar to Western countries.
The retail standard is also very high, so if you happen to forget any essentials, you can buy them in South Africa.
2. If you understand English, you should be able to communicate easily
South Africa has 11 official languages. However, English is the business language and therefore most people can speak it.
You may hear people speak their native languages to one another, then switch to English to communicate with you.
However, while most people do speak English, there is such a thing as South African English. This means that you may speak the same language but you may not fully understand what you are hearing. Don’t worry about it—simply reference the South African English guide, as well as South African slang to help you understand what is being said.
3. WiFi is reasonably good
The wifi coverage in South Africa is vast, particularly in the big cities. Do keep in mind that one network still operates on 3G.
If you get a local SIM card, incoming calls are free but data plans and minutes are often capped.
4. Food is good and cheap too
Visiting South Africa is a foodie’s dream come true. The food is delicious and also very cheap (if you’re coming from the USA, Europe, England).
Local beers and ciders cost approximately a dollar or less, and you can enjoy a three-course meal with drinks at an upscale restaurant or around $40 per person. You can eat very well for significantly cheaper if you eat where the locals eat.
5. South Africa is a budget-friendly destination unless you go on Safari
If you are coming from the USA, England, or Europe, you will find South Africa to be very affordable. Upscale hotels are relatively cheap compared to prices in the USA.
But all that changes if you go on safari. They are quite expensive! Before you dismiss the idea, consider that typically your daily rate will include your accommodation, your meals, sighting opportunities, service, and an informed ranger.
6. Animals do not roam city streets
Some foreigners assume that lions and elephants walk the streets of South Africa. If you want to see wild animals, you will need to go on Safari. The Kruger National Park is world-famous and usually where tourists want to go, but there are many game reserves scattered around the country.
7. South Africa is a big country
South Africa is twice the size of France and three times the size of Japan. In fact, South Africa enjoys a surface area of 471,445 square miles / 1,221,037 square kilometers. That being said, do not expect to see it all in a week. You won’t even be able to see all of Cape Town in one week.
8. South Africa is a diverse country
The fact that South Africa has 11 official languages is a big clue of how diverse the country is. South Africa is described as the Rainbow Nation, with several different cultures, races, and tribes trying to live together in harmony.
As a foreigner, try to be respectful of cultural differences.
9. South Africans drive on the left side of the road
If you are used to driving on the right side of the road, driving in South Africa can be a bit of an adjustment.
General road rules apply for the most part, but there are a few important driving differences that you will want to be aware of.
10. You might need a visa
If you are a US citizen, you don’t need a visa. Amongst others, Canadians, Europeans, Australians, and New Zealanders can visit South Africa for 90 days without a visa.
Here is a complete list of countries that do not need a visa to enter South Africa. However, if you do need a visa, here are the visa requirements.
11. You’ll want to have some cash
If you can get a few rands (South African currency) before you land, great. If not, get to an ATM machine once you get to the airport. You will want some cash so that you can tip porters, etc.
Tipping is not a lot—R1-R5 will be acceptable. (R1 is $0.071 USD at the time of this writing).
12. South Africa is safe for street-savvy travelers
It is true that high crime and murder rates have earned South Africa a reputation as being a dangerous country. While crime continues to be a difficult issue, the majority of incidents occur outside of areas that are typically frequented by tourists. This is not to say that tourists aren’t targets of petty crime. They certainly are, but you can avoid becoming a crime victim with proper preparations and precautions.
- don’t flaunt your flashy jewelry. If at all possible, do not even bring it;
- don’t play on your smartphone or iPad in public;
- don’t leave your purse on an empty chair in a restaurant;
- hide your purse or anything of value in your car, even if you are driving it. Better yet, remove or hide everything—someone may break in for a $5 pair of sunglasses;
- don’t walk around alone late at night;
- avoid going off the beaten track;
- don’t make it obvious that you’re a tourist, so don’t walk around with a huge, expensive camera around your neck.
It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
13. You’re going to need a power adapter
You are not going to be able to use your plugs in South Africa. Get an adapter before you leave.
14. You’ll need to tip the car guards
When you go park in a public parking lot, you may see car guards. They came in response to South Africa’s car theft problem.
South Africa’s unemployment rate is high, so this is one of those jobs that people have created for themselves. Some of these car guards are employed by the facility that they are guarding, but for the most part, they are unofficial workers who live off the tips they make. Your spare change of R1-R5 will be much appreciated.
15. South Africa is great for adventure travelers
16. Water in the cities is safe to drink
Water from the tap is safe to drink in the big cities. However, this may not be the case as you move beyond the city limits, so check before you drink.
17. The best time to visit South Africa depends on what you want to do
Many tourists believe that South Africa has nice weather all year round. This is not the case. Depending on where you go, winter temperatures can drop to below freezing. Therefore, before you make your plans, check South Africa’s average annual temperature.
Having said that, South Africa is a year-round travel destination because of its varying regional climates and activities. So when you go will depend on what you want to do. For example:
- September to February (spring and summer) is great for a beach holiday in Cape Town;
- July to November is perfect for whale watching.
- May to September is the best time for Safari.
18. South Africa runs on its own time
South Africa is a laid-back country. This is particularly the case in Cape Town—not so much in Johannesburg. This is not a slight against you and people are not being lazy—this is just the lifestyle. Accept it and embrace it.