January 22, 2011

My Top Expat Tips

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to finally write a “Tips for Expats Moving to South Africa” post, so I thought I’d better get on with it before January is over. Here it is (scroll down for details about each item):

  1. Get your visa/work permit/study permit as early as possible
  2. Get a local bank account set up
  3. Get a Garmin
  4. Apply for your very own Eskom account
  5. Order adapter plugs and one or more transformers
  6. Make and carry several certified copies of your and your spouse’s passport
  7. Buy a cheap prepaid phone
  8. Get an international drivers’ license in your home country
  9. Research internet providers that offer uncapped service
  10. Consider buying a good four-wheel-drive car with trailer hitch and/or rack for rooftop tent.
  11. Unplug your computer and modem during thunderstorms
Thanks to those of you who've already added suggestions for this list! Please keep checking for future additions.

  1. Without some kind of residency permit/visa while living in South Africa, you’re not actually a real person. You may eat and drink and sleep in this country, but many other activities particularly those involving any government agency will be like the forbidden fruit. Typically, your spouse or the one who works will get the permit/visa first, but that is of no use to the other one who actually has the time to apply for a bank account or cell phone or buy a car (and, one might mention, needs the car to go apply for the cell phone and needs the bank account to pay for the car). When you first get here it can feel like one big catch 22 where one thing depends upon the other, and I’ve described such a situation in A Typical Day in Africa. The visa (not the tourist visa, mind you, but the one you have to apply for before entering SA) is the key to everything. A visa is also often the prerequisite for the kids attending school, so you will be well advised to start this process and follow up often while you’re still in your home country. Keep pestering whoever is applying for the visas on your behalf (usually the company’s human resources or legal people) as you will have a much easier time once you’re here. (*** This is all much better explained in a more recent blog post, Applying for a South African Visa. The regulations have been changed since this first post was written, i.e. you no longer can enter South Africa on a tourist visa and then apply for the residency permit. You are only allowed to enter the country with the proper visa, i.e. a work visa if you are working, or student visa for  your children to go to school. There are some other changes too, so please read the more recent visa post. Thank you. ***)

  2. You need a local bank account. South Africans hardly ever use something as antiquated as checks, and most every service you receive (phone, electricity, gardening and pool, book order for the school, music lessons, etc.) is very conveniently paid via Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT). Internet banking works very well (once you’ve jumped through all the hoops the bank will put in front of you when you first register for it and provided you do not reach your internet cap before the month is over, see below) and paying my bills (and now even my kids’ allowances) via EFT is one of the pleasures of living in South Africa (don’t laugh!). You will also find that foreign credit cards are sometimes difficult to use because of the huge risk of fraud, so you will need a local credit card for certain transactions (or for all transactions if you want to save the exchange and transaction fees). I wouldn’t worry too much about which bank to use, other than making sure they have good ATM coverage, particularly in a safe shopping center close to you. Their fees are fairly similar and quite high compared to what you might be used to.

  3. A Garmin is a must-have. You don’t want to get lost in some unknown area and stop for directions. But I’m not just using the generic term, I would actually get the Garmin brand. It is by far the best. We’ve brought ours from the U.S., equipped with the latest South African software, and it finds everything. Our built-in navigations systems – one by Mercedes, one by Audi – on the other hand are only distinguished in their clunkiness, one worse than the other. There is a slew of roads they don’t recognize at all, or if they do, they can only find a range of house numbers from, say, 1-99, which is not very precise to say the least. You can’t search them by the name of the establishment, which is often the quickest or even only way to find something. Garmins can also be bought here, of course, but I think they’re cheaper in the U.S., even when adding the cost of the local map. Plus you’ll want to have it right away. The cheapest Garmin here costs about R1,100, so you can figure it out.

  4. You can read up on all my Eskom escapades under Bureaucracy but I think this post best sums up the need for an Eskom account under your name. Go to the nearest Eskom office and apply, but remember to bring – you guessed it – your passport with your permanent visa, and a copy of the lease agreement and maybe also your last bank statement if you are so lucky to have already received one. I also suggest you find out your billing cycle (i.e. which day of the month does the invoice go out) and make a note in your calendar to check your meter a few days prior and call in that reading. Eskom will use that reading and you will be saved from any nasty surprises.

  5. If you’re coming from Europe or any 220V country your life will be much simpler. But you’ll still need adapter plugs for your electric appliances . Since many local appliances also only come with Euro plugs, you will need adapters for pretty much everything, and you can buy them here at places like Builder’s Warehouse, but they never seem to fit very well, so I would bring them from home. We bought a whole box full of VCT VP110 Universal Travel Outlet Plug Adapter for South Africa at Amazon and have been very happy with it. I would also get a few power strips with extension cords, since South African houses have few outlets to begin with, and none at all in the bathrooms. If you’re coming from the United States or any other 120V country, you’ll be well served with a step down transformer (or several), unless you’re just planning to buy everything new. It won’t be cheap or perfect (some appliances, especially ones that generate heat such as espresso machines and blow dryers use too much power and/or have too much of a power surge when you turn them on to be practical with a transformer), it will be heavy, it will take up space on your kitchen counter, and it will hum. But still we found it a cheaper solution than replacing all your electric machines.

  6. As I’ve said before, you will need your passport for everything during the first few months, as it is the universally accepted form of ID for foreigners in South Africa. But since you may not want to carry it around everywhere, I suggest you get some certified copies made (of the main page and the visa page) and carry those instead. You can accomplish this easily (and, if I remember correctly, at no cost) at a local police station, though I think those certified copies expire after a certain time. Another useful tip is to enter all your family’s passport numbers into your cell phone, so that you can produce them anywhere upon request.

  7. As I said above, applying for a cell phone is another one of those things you will need a permanent visa for, at least the kind where you have a 2-year contract. However, I find that I initially fretted way too much about plans and rates and special offers and whatnot, and waiting (to this day, after 10 months, I still haven’t figured it out) to have my iPhone jailbroken so I could use it. My advice is to buy a cheap prepaid phone right away, and worry about a long term plan later. The rate difference actually isn’t all that big, and the bureaucracy of buying a prepaid phone is much more manageable. Of all things, you will need a cell phone most urgently, especially since your Telkom home phone (if you even choose to get one, more on that later) will take some time to be installed. Just to receive contractors and other visitors into your estate, you will need to be able to answer the phone when security calls you, and having no phone for the first few weeks was a serious drawback for me (it drove Noisette crazy when he’d receive a call in the middle of a meeting whether it was okay to let Lucky Tshabalala into the estate).

  8. I’m still not sure if an international license is in fact needed, as I’ve been told conflicting stories, but my experience so far has shown that you do get asked for it when they stop you. You will get asked for many things (including “coffee” as I’ve mentioned previously!), and the more you can produce, the better your chances of escaping without a fine/bribe. Although most cops I’ve encountered so far seemed to prefer my U.S. license for its nice credit card format similar to a South African ID card. So my advice is, if you didn’t get one, don’t fret about it. But if you haven’t moved yet, since it surely can’t hurt, and I think it only costs $10 or so at AAA, I suggest you get the international license, something you can only do in the country your regular license was issued in. It will only be valid for one year, and technically only in conjunction with your regular license, so your real license is what you actually have to make sure you keep current. You can’t simply get a South African license, that much I have found out.

  9. I’ve mentioned before that we got talked into using Telkom as our internet provider without knowing that it has a 5 gigabyte monthly cap (recently raised to 9, but still). There are plenty of uncapped internet offers out there, like mweb, afrihost (or click here for a pretty good comparison), but once you’ve signed a 2-year Telkom contract you’re sort of committed. You’ll also want to make sure you pick a provider with some kind of reliability – trust me, when things are NOT working out, you’ll at least want to be able to complain about it on Facebook! If you do get uncapped internet allowing you to Skype as much as you want, I wouldn’t even bother with a landline. It is not very stable and most people here use their cellphones for all local calls.
  10. You may not be the outdoors type, but South Africa will invariably try to convince you otherwise. As we’ve discovered, all-inclusive type vacations in Africa, whether to a tropical beach or a game reserve, are not cheap by any means, so that sooner or later you will want to venture into the bush toting your own gear - in a trailer, on a roof rack, or both. This is the one place where all-wheel drive is not merely a suburban fashion; in fact it is the only way to explore entire countries like Mozambique by car at all. You can rent trailers of all types and sizes here at every street corner, and rooftop tents are very useful too, especially after you’ve heard tales of angry elephants or curious lions. You’ll also want to have a car you’re not going to fret over in terms of scratching by thorn bushes or worse.

  11. While I haven't had any bad experience with Joburg's famous lightening yet, I have heard from plenty of people who have. A friend has "lost a laptop, printer and three modems from lightening" and is "pretty certain it's coming in through the phone line." Surge protectors don't help, so the most sound advice I can give is to always unplug everything when a storm is approaching.

Typical Joburg thunderstorm
Those are my expat tips. If you think of all of the above ahead of time, you will settle into your life in South Africa very easily. And now for some fun with one bonus tip:

12. Paint your house number on your trash can in big bold letters! Find out why by following The Dustbin Saga here and here and here and here.


Anonymous said...

Where did you buy the latest Garmin map software for South Africa? We are planning on moving to South Africa and do read all your posts.

Sine said...

Hi there - my husband says he went directly on the Garmin website and there you can order the "Southern Africa" software. Hope that works! When are you moving, and where from?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the information and the blog! We are moving from Brazil to Joburg via Missouri and Kansas. We need to spend a period of time in the States to visit friends and help deal with parent care issues. We plan to teach in Roodepoort and will plan to live somewhere on the west side of town. We will go to the States in the next couple of month (depending on sale of house) and move to Joburg at the end of the year.

Sine said...

Good luck with it all! Glad to hear there is a Kansas connection. We lived in Overland Park prior to this assignment. Please let me know if I can be of any help or if you have any more questions, we can talk directly via email if you want.

Evelyn W. said...

This was so helpful! I just signed a contract this morning, for a job in Joburg for two years! I'll be moving in July!

Sine said...

Wow Evelyn, congratulations. You will really like it here. Where are you moving from? Please let me know if I can be of any further help.

Evelyn W. said...

Hi, sorry for the late response! I don't get notified when you reply and just happened to click back on here:) I'll be moving from NYC and will be teaching at a school in Diepsloot. I'm very excited.... though it's all definitely a bit scary! I'm mostly concerned for the safety issues and driving. As I've lived in a city for over decade and haven't driven.... driving again and on the other side of the road freaks me out:) Do you have any tips for what kind of auto, practical for road trips, cheap car to get? How long have you lived there?

Sine said...

Not sure why you don't get notified, and also not sure how to turn that on from my side if that's even possible. Anyway, good luck with your move and let me know if you have any questions. Diepsloot is right down the road from us, do you know where you'll be living? Do you have to find (and pay) something yourself?
We've lived here exactly one year. As for a car, most locals seem to like Toyotas as they are the easiest to get parts for, and also the cheapest (cars are not cheap here). For bush trips, the Fortuner seems to be the best value, but if you're just one person that's definitely too big. Gasoline here is more expensive than in the US but not nearly as bad as Europe. If you're planning many road trips, I would probably get a Diesel as they use much less.

Sine said...

Evelyn, one more comment: I've noticed that you don't have a public Google profile, which might be the reason you don't get notified. But maybe you can check in your Google account and see if there is a place where you can click "get email notification" or "subscribe to future comments" or something of the sort.

Evelyn W. said...

Thanks! I'll look into that, but I still didn't get notified this time:)

I actually HATE driving and haven't really driven much in the past 12 years (I've lived in NYC, where I didn't need a car.) So getting the car and driving on the other side of the road is scary!

The school finds and provides housing for us, which makes things a lot easier. I'll keep you posted on that. We do have to buy the car ourselves and they provide us with a rental car for the first two weeks we're there.

Is there anything you'd recommend I should stock up on before the move? As in, are the products that are way more expensive or unavailable over there?

What internet or cell phone providers would you recommend? I'm not planning on getting a TV so I'd like to rely on my online Netflicks subscription, which needs pretty fast internet:)
My address is evelynwchang@gmail.com, if you wouldn't mind responding there? Thanks again- I'm finding your blog so thorough and helpful! It's getting me very excited for my move!

Sine said...

Hi Evelyn,
I'll reply to you directly, but real briefly, for the benefit of others with similar questions:
1) things to stock up on: tennis shoes (expensive here) and ziplok bags (not available as far as I've seen)
2) internet: find uncapped service if you're wanting to watch movies, like afrihost or mweb (I've got a post under expat tips I think with more detail).

Jozie Days said...

Hi Sine,

We have been in Joburg for 6 years now. A few tips for you.

1) Ziplok bags can be bought at the Plastic Shop at Fourways (there are actually 2 plastic shops - one next to Builders Warehouse and one near Fabric Fusion.

2) Keep a copy of your Permit and drivers licence with you in case you are stopped by the police. The copies must be certified by the police and are only valid for 3 months. I learnt the hard way.

I have enjoyed reading through all of your blogs.

Sine said...

Thanks, great advice! I actually also just found some very good quality ziplok bags in Chinatown. Would never have found them without my friend from Singapore.

Jim said...

A good selection of tips, but I notice that you haven't really mentioned insurance, I was under the impression that it was essential to get expat health insurance if you are staying somewhere for longer than 3 or so months (surely after that it's not a holiday?!)

Sine said...

A valid point, Jim. I left it off as for us that was already part of the company package, and I think it is the same for many other expats. However, it would certainly be worthwhile to explore different health insurance options, including the local medical aid plans, which might be cheaper than global plans because healthcare is also cheaper here.

Anonymous said...

Hi SIne,
Thanks for your fantastic information . much appreciated and i am following each and every tip to successfully settle down in Jo'burg
and now i do have one last question . what would be the standard of living for a couple with a kid (10 years) in jo'burg with 60K Rand / Month .. will that amount of money will be enough to have upper class living in south africa , could we save some of them ... i will be living near sandton (mandela squar )....
thank you in advance for your help

Sine said...

Hi and welcome to my blog! Yikes - standard of living questions are the toughest to answer. However, if you want to send me a direct email, I can forward you a response I wrote to another reader a while back. I think your number should be fine, but the big question is, does it include rent or is rent paid by your company (as is customary for expats I think)? Makes a big different. Housing in the Dainfern area will easily cost you between R30K and R40K, however those are big houses and plus you won't want to be so far from Mandela Square. Good luck, and let me know if I can help with anything else!

Hokie02 said...

Hi sine. I'm so glad I found your blog! We are moving to joburg in May (via Dubai, but born and raised in Washington dc) and your tips/info are much appreciated. We were planning on renting in midstream estates (midrand) as it seems cheaper than dainfern. Is it just as safe? Or would you recommend dainfern over midstream? We have been living in Dubai for three years now and love it! I'm very nervous about starting all over again!

Sine said...

I'm glad you found my blog, and am excited you'll be moving here! I know how you feel about starting over again. I have had that feeling every time we move, just until you've made new friends, and then you always end up wondering why you were nervous because it seems even better than before. I'm sorry but I don't know Midstream Estates at all. However, if it is similar in setup to Dainfern, i.e. you have a round-the clock guarded security gate, I would say it's just as good as Dainfern. We have many friends who live in other estates than Dainfern, some of them fairly small ones with just one security guard, and I've never heard of any problems. The thing is, incidents DO happen, Dainfern just does a better job of marketing themselves. But incidents DO happen all over the world and so far they haven't been of any big concern to us. The factor I would most consider is proximity to school and work, as traffic is the most annoying part about living here.

Good luck, and feel free to contact me (via the contact page) if you have any more questions!

Hokie02 said...

Thanks sine. Think we will just have to take a look when we get there. Midstream is definitely closer to work, but I understand further away from shops/restaurants, etc. Guess we'll weigh our options when we see the different areas. Thanks so much for your blog! My husband has been traveling to joburg once a month since the world cup and he absolutely raves about it, but I still had no desire to move. Now with the move pending, im so relieved to learn there are other expats in joburg who love it and wants others to love it too. Your blog has definitely calm my anxiety, and now I dare say, I'm even a bit excited about this new adventure.

Sine said...

Wonderful. I'm so excited for you.

W. A. Jeffrey said...

I very rarely get stumped on the visa stuff but I'm confused this time. If you have to have a permanent visa to get an Eskom account, how do you get electricity while you are waiting for the permit? As I have been reliably informed the permit can take up to 2 years to receive. And what do people with temporary retired person's visas (good for 4 years) do if they opt never to get permanent residency?

Sine said...

I'll have to change the language in this post - I wrote this way before I did all my research to write future posts. What I meant with "permanent" was really just an actual visa versus a tourist visa. Like a temporary work permit or other temporary permit. So the terminology I use is totally wrong. I'll go ahead and fix it now. Sorry to have been so confusing, and good catch!