Joburg Expat: Tips on Buying a Car in South Africa

April 29, 2011

Tips on Buying a Car in South Africa

One of the hassles most expats have to endure is having to buy a car in an entirely new country. Some expats might decide to skip the car and do with public transport, but South Africa is not the place for that. You will need a car here, trust me. And buying it won’t be the quickest or easiest thing you've ever done, so it’s best to come prepared. Here is my story to learn from:


When the kids and I first arrived in Johannesburg, I fully expected to find a shiny new car in the garage. After all, Noisette had already been here for months, and I consider car-buying to be “guy territory.” But, sadly, this was not the case. Things don’t move that quickly in South Africa, and he hadn't even gotten his own company car yet, driving a beat-up Toyota rental instead. If you’re the trailing spouse, my advice to you: Don’t rely on your better half to have set up much – he or she will be incredibly busy with a demanding and time-consuming new job with many challenges most previous jobs will not have prepared them for. You’ll be lucky if you've already got a place to live. However, most companies employ one or more drivers, so in our case I made use of that service quite a bit before I inherited aforementioned Toyota.

The first challenge of buying a car in South Africa is paying for it. Car prices are about twice as high on average as in the United States, so you best adjust your expectations. What’s more, the market is not quite as big, so once you've settled on a car you like, you might not be able to find one. Check some used car websites (like Autotrader) early to get a better idea of what’s out there. One thing to look for when car-shopping is smash-and-grab protection. It’s a film that protects your windshield and windows against being smashed in, and most higher-end cars will come already equipped with it. But if not, you can add it later. It’s a good thing to have if you're concerned about security and crime in South Africa.

The second challenge of buying a car is coming up with the actual money for it. You might not have a bank account yet, in which case you would need a bank draft made out in ZAR. But it's a good idea to set up a local bank account as one of your first items to do, and this might be a good time to do it. I'll be talking about the details of bank accounts some other time, but rest assured it will involve a bunch of documents - passport with residence permit, lease agreement, etc. You'll need all those as well when registering your car, which is what I'll talk about in a minute.

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Let’s say you found a car and have money in your bank account to pay for it – what next? In most places I’ve lived, you would now meet at the bank with the seller, transfer the title to the car in return for the money, and drive away. But not so fast. Here in South Africa, there is no such thing as a title. Rather, you get a “Certificate of Registration” when registering your car, but this takes some time, and most people obtain it later, after purchasing the car. This caused a bit of confusion for us, because we – my husband, mostly – were not about to hand over a stack of money without receiving some kind of document in return. Our car dealer assured us that this is how it’s done in South Africa. And, in hindsight, that is absolutely true. But we were new in the country, and still trying to figure things out. People who were trying to be helpful, like colleagues and relocation agents, instead gave us our first glimpse into South Africa's racial tensions. "Don't trust those Indians in Benoni" was the exact phrase that was used, several times, because our car dealer whom we'd found online happened to be located in Benoni, a historically Indian suburb of Joburg. I know this sounds incredibly offensive, but I want to give you the story as it happened. When you're about to hand over several hundred thousand rand, you are not going to just brush away a warning, no matter how insensitive. [Though I quite pride myself in mostly doing just that, in multiple instances while living in South Africa, or I would never have ventured into Alexandra. As it turned out, I DID buy the car from "the Indians in Benoni," Dadas Motorland to be exact, was quite happy with it for three years, and I'm glad to give them a free reference here.]

So, in hindsight, if you’re purchasing from a car dealership, you can go ahead and pay them, get the car in return, and let them then handle all your paperwork without worry.

But there is one thing you still have to do it in person, and that's applying for a Traffic Register Number. Foreign nationals need this number in lieu of a South African ID, a fact that some car dealerships are not aware of. Basically, the dealer you are buying from (I assume this is fairly similar for buying a new car) should provide you with the following:

  • Roadworthiness certificate
  • Current registration
  • Invoice/your proof of payment
  • New license plates

But before getting the new license plates, you will have to appear in person at your closest Licensing Department - most likely the Randburg Civic Centre if you live anywhere in the Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg (Corner Bram Fischer Drive and Jan Smuts Avenue in Randburg) but here is a list of all Licensing Offices in Johannesburg) - to apply for your Traffic Register Number or TRN as well as the Certificate of Registration. I'm told that as of recently, TRN applications can only be made on Wednesdays from 7:30 to 10:00 am at the Randburg licensing office. It’s best to go first thing in the morning and make sure you bring your lease agreement, passport, passport pictures, and foreign drivers’ license. The application process will take a few days, meaning you will have to go there again (on the Friday following the Wednesday) to pick up your certificates, at which time the transfer of ownership can take place. Once again, the car dealership might offer to apply for the Certificate of Registration on your behalf, but since you'll still need the Traffic Register Number, you might as well do both at the same time. I hope I'm not confusing you. Don’t be discouraged if the lines are long. Most people will be there for a drivers’ license renewal or something of that sort, and you should be whisked right through to the car registration counter.

Your Certificate of Registration for your car will look like this;
you will get a second, similar copy, from which you cut out
the round registration disk for your windshield.

In our case, this experience was pretty comical (only in hindsight of course – while you’re experiencing these things you tend to curse and foam at the mouth). Once we had found a car we liked – about 2 weeks – and then finally determined that we needed to get it registered before handing over any money – another week – I set out for the Licensing Department in Randburg, armed with all my paperwork. Or so I thought, until I discovered that a passport picture would be needed. Fortunately, some enterprising street vendors were at hand – as they are everywhere in South Africa – and beckoned me to a tent-like office where a picture could be taken and printed out instantaneously for R20. Armed with this I went back to my queue and proceeded to fill in the lengthy application. I eventually advanced to the inner sanctum where a very bored-looking woman took all my papers and proceeded to enter everything into a computer. Eventually she wanted to see my passport, but after a quick glance handed everything back to me and told me it was no good, she couldn’t give me the traffic register number. What? After all this hassle? It turns out that you can’t get a TRN – which, you’ll remember, is the key ingredient in getting the car registered – if you don’t have a permanent visa. My temporary one was no good. [Note: I have since learned that even a 2-year accompanying spouse visa is no good, the work permit holder is the one who will have to get the car registered, so save yourself the trouble if you're only the spouse].

Please note that you are never told these things upfront in South Africa. No one ever gives you a list with every single requirement. Instead you show up with what was mentioned over the phone, get sent home again because something that wasn’t mentioned is missing, and show up a few days later with the missing one, only to be told that now something else is required as well. Please also note the irony of driving back and forth between home and the licensing office when what you don’t actually have is a car

But there was nothing to do for me but to grab a new form, take it home to Noisette and somehow convince him to drive to Randburg through morning traffic and wait in line on my behalf – all another week’s worth of time gone by. But I was still lucky in that he had his permanent visa, whereas many expats arrive here without them, in which case they are stuck without a car. I have heard many such tales. And if you think hanging out at the Randburg Licensing Office is no fun, wait till you stalk the Department of Home Affairs for days or even weeks! 

Traffic Register Number Certificate; note that you only have
to apply for this once, it will be valid to purchase as many cars
as you wish; it's also a good idea to keep a copy in your car.

So, your number one requirement, if you want to purchase a car in South Africa, is to have at least one permanent visa together with a work permit in your family’s possession. Which is why I keep telling you to get your permanent visas as soon as possible!

Once you’ve purchased your car, stuck your license plates on, and affixed the round disk you’ve cut out from the registration certificate to the inside of your windshield (which by the way is renewable every year but you will get a notice in the mail for that), you will still need two things: Insurance and a tracking service. Most insurance companies will insure your vehicle over the phone according to the make of the car, and then follow up with an at-home visit to make sure you actually own a car and aren’t buying phantom insurance. They will also most likely require you to have a tracking service like Altech Netstar (about R180 per month).

I hope my tips will help you buy a car in less time than the month it took us. But remember, this is Africa, and things move a bit slower here. On the bright side, the one thing you won’t need to get is a drivers’ license. Your foreign license is perfectly fine as long as it is valid. I still haven’t been able to track down the exact wording of this rule, let alone where it might be written, but it seems to be true, as I’ve been stopped by police several times and my eclectic collection of Kansas/international/German licenses seemed to work every time. There you have one less errand to run that might have been on your moving checklist!

Check out the other car-related posts:

Tips on Buying a Car in South Africa
Tips on Selling a Car in South Africa
Expat Tip: Always Keep a Tire Lock Nut in your Car
Should I Get a South African Driver's License?
Six Things to Know about Renewing your Vehicle License Disk
Finding a Good Car Insurance
Getting Your Car Serviced in South Africa

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38 comments :

Anonymous said...

O dear... Until just now, I was under the assumption that there would be two cars waiting in our garage upon arrival... I might need to lower my expectations, hahaha. I look forward to this experience. Or not..
Br Malin

CC MISHRA said...

What you said is true. Things really move very very slow here. When I applied fro my telkom line I got it after 3 months. Also for the TRN, I have to visit office 3 times. Every time they will never say what all is needed. Once you go with once, another one that you did not bring will come-up. It is really a pain though.

Anonymous said...

Hi there...u say that a Permanent visa is required for one to get the Traffic Register Number. Do u know if a work permit would be sufficent? or is that not "permanent" enough?

Sine said...

Good question. I use the term "permanent visa" quite loosely, so let me clarify from what I understand: If you work here, you will have a work permit. You might be lucky and get a 2-year visa with it right away, which is what I call a "permanent visa". Or you might get a "temporary visa" which is 6 months and then has to be extended with a new stamp in your passport that says "extension of temporary visa". At least that is true for the spouse and kids, and I assume it's the same for the work permit holder. From my experience, what's needed to buy a car is that "extension of temporary visa." The 6-month visa wasn't enough. There is also something called permanent residency, which resembles more a US style green card, but that is a more extensive process and won't apply when you're just here for a work contract. Hope that helps and doesn't confuse more! Remember that I'm just writing from my own experience. If you have a work permit and are the bread winner so to speak, you should be okay with opening a bank account and buying a car and such things. It's the spouse without the work permit who usually has a harder time.

Jozie Days said...

I thought I might add an update on our situation. Today I went down to Randburg with my son who turned 17 last week so he could get a Traffic Register Number and apply for his learners licence (Just as I did 18 months ago with my eldest son). I thought seeing as we were there together I would also get a TRN as our Permanent Residence has just about come through. I was well equipped, passports, 2 black and white photos each (thanks to Prince and his little 'studio' just outside the gates), proof of residence, marriage certificate, the duly completed forms - and all of these photocopied and certified (just to be extra sure). When we got to the front of the queue the sullen City of Joburg clerk took one look at my sons papers and told him "Go and wait over there". He looked at my passport - which is in my maiden name (as all Italian passports are) and told me I must bring my husband and only then could he help me. Well I was furious and asked to see his supervisor. We waited 10 minutes and the supervisor came out to tell my son that he could not have a TRN until he was 18. We protested strongly and told him how when my eldest was 17 we got a TRN - he said it must have been done illegally! Luckily my technosavy teen quickly went onto the Dept of Transport website and showed him that at the age of 17 one can get at TRN and apply to do the written test for a licence. And as for me.... the supervisor explained that my husband MUST be present because the visa in my passport says "to accompany spouse". Now if only the sullen clerk could have been polite enough to explain that the first time around! The good news is that the technosavy teen gets his TRN after only 2 days! Just remember if you ever get Permanent Residence status in South Africa you have 1 year to apply for a conversion of your foreign drivers licence to a South African drivers licence or you will have to do the written test and the road test - along with all the teenagers!

Sine said...

Wow, that is great info, thanks! That'll be us in a couple of years. So typical, I can feel for you, that is exactly how those kinds of errands went for me. You're already going there knowing full well you'll be sent back home, but you can't possibly divine which thing it is that they want, so you could come prepared. Had you brought your husband that time, they would have asked for your utility bill 2 years back, or the copy of the passport of your cousin, once removed, on your mother's side.

Sine said...

These are the types of errands I could kick myself if I didn't bring anything to read. But on the bright side, you probably had a good bonding opportunity with your son. Then again, him being tech savvy, maybe not. I bet he looked at his phone the whole time:-)

Stelle Courney said...

Having a permanent visa can definitely help you with a lot of things, just as having a U.S. visa can help smoothen out paper procedures. These are very useful tips, and I'm sure a lot of people will find this useful if they do plan on buying a car in South Africa.

Unknown said...

Hi Sine,

Your blog has been a fantastic resource - thank you for all of the helpful information (we're relocating to Cape Town in 4 weeks). I'm now prepared for the hassle of buying a car in South Africa, but so far in my internet searching I haven't heard mention of LEASING a car. Are 2 or 3-year leases available in RSA? As you know, they are quite common in the U.S.

Thanks!

Sine said...

I'm pretty sure they are, my husband's company car is leased, and it is a 3-year commitment I think. But I have no idea what company does it. I can try and find out...

aqubzz said...

I got it real bad from these guys here, bought a car from a dealership and they told me I had to apply for a TRN. I didnt have a visa at the time and couldnt get it so I never got the Certificate of Registration.

Six months later after I finally got the visa the car dealership closed down. I was left driving a car with an expired license disc and you would not believe how lucky I got getting through police checkpoints unnoticed.

Im currently stuck with the car and need to sell it as I will be leaving soon a couple of visits to the Traffic Department was to no avail, they keep telling me I have to get hold of the company that sold me the car.

Does anyone know what I can do to get the certificate of registration?

Sine said...

I honestly have no idea. That sounds like just the kind of bureaucratic nightmare you can encounter in South Africa. So the dealership that's since then closed has the old registration for the car, and you need that to get it transferred to you, right? Do you at least have a copy? Can you perhaps go to another dealership dealing with that brand of cars - maybe they can go into the system, and print out something that shows the details of the car?

Bose said...

I moving to south africa in a week, happy that i came across this article, made my life easy in purchasing a car there.Car Purchase Agreement Form

Jonas said...

It is actually possible to get a TRN with just a "Temporary Residency Permit", you do not need to be permanent.
Helpful article still!

Sine said...

Hi Jonas - that is precisely so South Africa though. Even though it should be possible, if the lady behind the desk tells you it's not, what can you do but send your husband instead? Although it might be a matter of semantics. Neither I nor my husband are permanent residents, we both have temporary visas, based on his work permit. At the time, though, I only had the visitor's visa, not the extension. So I might have used the wrong term in this article. I don't think you can get the TRN as a regular tourist.

Anonymous said...

Took me time to read all the comments, however I really loved the article. It proved to be very useful to me and Im positive to all of the commenters here! Its all the time good when you cant only learn, but in addition engaged! I am certain you had joy penning this article. Anyway, in my language, there arent much good source like this.

Sine said...

I'm glad you found it useful and wish you luck in case you're buying a car in South Africa.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what timing on me reading this - should have seen it 6 months ago....

I've been an expat in Joburg 3 1/2 years and ONLY THIS year was I unable to re-register my wife's car because of the Traffic Registration Number thing (Post Office at Cedar Gate was useless). Once I sorted what this form really was (the web-sites are vague) I was sure to bring my usual batch of documents --- Certified Copy of Passport, Certified copy of work visa, Home Lease, employment contract and phone bill....and of course passport photos. I dropped it off on a Wednesday and had the number/form a week later (went to the Marlboro office which was surprisingly quicker than the typical California DMV.) I think our issue was that they didn't "mail" us the renewal so if the number was on it there we'd never know

One other bit I'd like to add is on the foreign driver's license - I typically hand over my California license with no issue. This last time, the genius police officer said it wasn't good enough and wrote me a ticket for being unlicensed. I kept asking for the code I was being written up for without luck. I only later remembered that I have a thing from Budget Rental with the wording of the traffic code saying that as long as it is in English you are ok...wish I would have remembered then. Now I get to figure out how to fight the ticket.

Sine said...

I'm so sorry to hear about your ticket. That cop makes me furious just reading about it. It has no basis in law, you are absolutely right about the license being in English. Wish you'd read my post about "Plan B" because it addresses exactly that, and what document to show them. In fact, read it now so you can print out the Road Traffic Act where the license issue is addressed. You will find it under "Transportation" under the Categories tab in the box to the right along with all my traffic cop stories (they are a treasure trove for my blogging!). Good luck fighting it. I'm sure it'll be worth another blog post, please let me know how it goes. I myself am off to fight a 12,000 Rand City of Joburg bill that I just randomly got slapped with...

Lynn said...

Sine,

Thanks so much for sharing your experience. My husband and I just relocated to Cape Town. My husband has a 3-year work permit with a University (so no company car, boo), and I am on the nearly-useless temporary visitors visa (but at least it's also for 3 years). Obviously we need to get a car, but unfortunately we don't have the cash, so I'm not sure how we're going to convince a bank to loan to us since we have no credit history. And there's a further complication in that my husband doesn't have a driver's license, only I do, so I cringe to think how that will throw yet another wrench into the bureaucratic works. It hadn't occurred to me (but it should have), that it will be such a drama getting the car registered, too. Maybe a long-term rental situation doesn't seem like such a bad idea after all.

Anyhow, thanks for sharing your experiences on this blog - you've inspired me to put my own experiences online. As you noted, there is *so* little concrete information available, and the rules are constantly changing. The more stories out there, maybe the easier it will be for future expats.

Sine said...

Hi Lynn,

whew, that DOES sound exhausting just reading about it, I do hope you get it worked out. Yep, long term rental is definitely an option you should look into. I think it is fairly inexpensive, probably even more so in Cape Town which is more of a tourist spot and has a lot of options in that regard. Please let me know how it works out. At least there is better public transport in Cape Town, it's easier to navigate there without a car I think, though of course I'm sure it depends on where you live. I'm glad you found my blog, and I'd love to read about your experiences as well!

Dave said...

I am purchasing two vehicles this week and my head is swimming with the traffic number registration stuff. Do I need this number before I am able to purchase the car or can I purchase the car and then get the number? I am buying new from a dealer.

My family is not here yet... and I can see a few wasted work hours going into this. Ugh.

Sine said...

Hi Dave - yep, some hours will go to waste but just think of it as an investment in the marriage account - it will make your wife SO happy to have this all done before she gets here.
No, you don't have to get the TRN before you buy the car. We were just a bit paranoid about buying the car without actually getting a "title" for it, so we did it before (remember, at the licensing office you will get the TRN and the registration certificate and the license plates and the little sticker that goes on the windshield). But you can easily buy the car first, especially if it's at a real dealer, and then take all the paperwork to Randburg (or wherever it is you are going to the licensing office but if you are in Joburg most likely that's the one) to deal with registration.
Hope that helps, email me at joburgexpat at gmail dot com if you have any more questions.

Itumeleng Tladi said...

I read this blog, then I experienced the story in it. WoW! They won't let you down at the traffic licencing in Waltoo. They will make sure you go back and fourth at least four times before they are finally say you have everything! I'm waiting to go collect my TRN for 6 weeks, just wondering if when I go after three they may be merciful and hand it over to me. Thanks to the blogger because his story helped me prepare...

Sine said...

Hi Itumeleng, you made me laugh. It does seem like they have a little checklist in your files somewhere so they can tick off how many times you've already been by, making sure you don't get off the hook without at least 3 or 4. Maybe they compete internally on who can lure the most "customers" back again and again:-)

Ahsan said...

Hi Sine, i do find myself referring to your blog for many things, it s is quite helpful. I do want to check with you in reference to car buying. Do you know or have you heard of foreigners getting car loans from banks to finance cars given that the work visa's are 18 months to 2 year max? i've been here a few months and what i've noticed is that banks would only give you a loan term for the length of the visa, an that inevitably means huge monthly payments.. do you have any insight or thoughts in this matter? Thanks!

Sine said...

Ahsan - first of all, thank you for visiting and I'm very happy my blog has proven helpful. Regarding your question re car loans, I'm sorry to say that I don't know an answer. I do know that getting loans in general in South Africa is not nearly as easy as in the US. But I'll go ahead and post your question on my Facebook Page for Joburg Expat (do visit it to follow me and you'll see the responses) and we will see if anyone else chimes in from the Joburg Expat community.

Louis Birnam said...

I thought i was the only one having difficulty with the South African system.About the Telkom line,it's very true,expect it after three months.I don't even want to comment on the licensing department.You have said it all.Luckily for me,i have a very good south African girlfriend and her id makes it a lot easier to get things done!

Sine said...

Ah, the South African girlfriend! Everyone needs one of those!

Seriously though, I must say that many of my South African friends marveled at how well I was able to navigate the system, as they had even more trouble with Eskom, Telkom, etc. I think it was because I was still full of my American can-do energy when I first arrived and just wouldn't take no for an answer, whereas most South Africans become jaded after living there all their lives and never seeing much progress. And perhaps I also had more energy in tackling these errands because I wanted to write a good story about it afterwards for my blog, and so stuck it out when otherwise I would have given up.

Mzwamadoda Luthi said...

Can an individual or company in South Africa purchase vehicle/s direct from the vehicle manufacturers without going through the dealer?

Mojo Felix said...

My 2 cents...

Preferably buy from reputable dealers in South Africa rather than the odd private seller, or ensure all the steps are followed as per the article.

If you are in the market for a used car try this website:
Motofinder

Sine said...

Mzwamadoda: Sure you can, as most manufacturers have their own dealerships. So you can go directly to Mercedes or Toyota or VW or whatever and buy a car there. It's still a dealer though. I've heard of people importing cars in South Africa, so that's possible, like you could buy directly from the manufacturer abroad and then ship it to South Africa, but the import duties are high so you're not likely to save any money that way.

OurMan InChad said...

I would like to buy a brand new company and bring it to another African country.
Is it possible to buy a new car net of tax for re-export?

Unknown said...

Hi all. Im a UK ex pat, recently arrived.I bought a Nissan X trail in Joburg yesterday from Imperial Nissan East Rand dealership. Within 5 hours of receiving the car, it broke down and got towed, and it looks like i'll need a new gasket. Does anyone know if the dealership will/are obliged to pay for the repairs needed?

Sine said...

Hi there, sorry for the late reply. I don't know the answers to either question. I know that SA has steep taxes on importing cars from abroad, but I don't know how it treats going the other way, ie. exporting, and whether you can buy net taxes. I doubt it. As for the repairs by the dealership, I would assume that most reputable dealerships would be interested in paying for such repairs if they occur so soon after purchase if they'd like to keep their good name. I hope you were able to have it sorted.

Ben said...

Hi,

How much is a TRN?

Is it free?

Sine said...

Ben, good question. As far as I remember, it doesn't have any fees attached to it. Also read http://www.joburgexpat.com/2014/02/how-to-register-car-in-south-africa.html for more info. However, there is a service in Fourways that does the TRN for you, and they charge a rather small fee, like ZAR 350. Of all the people who have used this service, everyone has been very happy. Message me if you want contact details.

Padhma said...

Really nice information you had provided here. And i hope this will be useful for many people. So please keep update like this.

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