Joburg Expat: FAQs

FAQs

I've organized Joburg Expat around popular topics you will find in the tabs across the top (especially Expat Tips), and the Categories section on the right. If you haven't found it there, the following FAQs about life in South Africa might help:

Q: Will my Kindle work in South Africa?
A: YES. Click here to find out how.

Q: Will my iPhone work in South Africa?
A: YES, but not without some work. iPhones are widespread in South Africa but more expensive than in the U.S. If you don't want to buy the new one but use the one you brought instead, and if that one is as ancient as mine (I know, unlikely) it will have to be jailbroken and SIM-unlocked. Click here for more details.

Q: Is there a Starbucks in South Africa?
A: Sort of. Starbucks coffee is currently served in a few select places, like the Sun Square Hotel at Montecasino, but there is no actual Starbucks Cafe. There are, however, bags of Starbucks beans available at Spar and Checkers. Click here for more info on Starbucks and the local coffee scene.

*** Update: As of 2016, there are now 2 Starbucks locations in Johannesburg, one corner of Cradock Heights and Tyrwhitt Avenue in Rosebank, the other in the Mall of Africa in Midrand) ***

Q: Is there an IKEA in South Africa?
A: Again, sort of. I was told that a company called Nevada Furniture collects Ikea orders from customers and then receives one container shipment per month. They will arrange final delivery to the customer's location or the customer can pick up their order from Bowline in Midrand or Cape Town.

Q: Should I get a South African Driver's License?
A: NO. I've lived here for almost a year and have not had a need for one. Also, it is not clear to me if you even CAN get one, and I advise not to attempt any extra bureaucratic ventures, as you'll have your plate full with the unavoidable ones. You also don't really need an international driver's license, even though you might have been told so. All you need is a valid foreign driver's license. More detail on driver's licenses here.

Q: What should I do if my foreign driver's license expires?
A: First of all, make sure this doesn't happen right after you've moved here. Make sure you get it renewed before moving here, and then check your expiration date every time you go on home leave, to see if you can't renew it while there. Otherwise, check with the agency that issued your license, as there might be an online renewal option (some U.S. states offer that), or check with your country's embassy.

Q: What should I do if I get pulled over by the cops?
A: Do NOT be tempted to pay a bribe, even if you're threatened with arrest. Just show your driver's license, repeat your story of  "my foreign license is valid" again and again, and be patient. Click here for more details.

Q: What is the speed limit in South Africa?
A: 120 km/h on most highways, and 60 km/h or 80 km/h in the city as marked. It's wise to mostly stick by it, because there are camera traps everywhere, either fixed or mobile, the latter usually being a guy with a radar gun sitting under a bridge, so beware of bridges! If you get a ticket in the mail, there is debate whether you have to pay it or not if it's not actually sent by registered mail, but given the fact that an outstanding traffic fine is reason for arrest at a traffic stop, I'm not sure I'd take that risk. Click here for more information on how to pay traffic fines.

Q: Is there public transport in Johannesburg?
A: Essentially NO. Check out Is There Public Transport in South Africa, which also gives you information on various transport options throughout South Africa. But know that to live in Joburg, you will pretty much need a car.

Q: Should I buy or lease a car in South Africa?
A: I get this question a lot. Given the high price of cars in South Africa, you would think that more people turn towards leasing as an option, but for some reason I have never heard of anyone leasing their car. Most expat jobs get you a company car, and often those cars are leased, but I haven't heard about it on a private basis. Part of the problem might be that the term leasing is often used to mean renting, so I haven't been able to find anything online either other than your typical car rental companies. I did find one specializing in long-term car rental called Drive South Africa.

Q: How do I buy a car in South Africa?
A: The blog post I wrote about this topic gets by far the most pageviews of anything I've written, so you should probably start there. Just know ahead of time that buying a car will be a drawn-out process and that you might be pulling your hair out at some point. The good news is that once you have a car, your life in South Africa will can start in earnest, and nothing else will seem very complicated in comparison.

Q: Is there recycling in Joburg?
A: Essentially NO. There is no mandatory recycling, and the City of Joburg (PikiTup) does not offer any recycling bins. Your neighborhood might offer recycling but if it doesn't and you want to recycle, you have to get a private service for a fee (click here for more info). However, I recently learned that in South Africa all garbage is indeed picked through and separated into waste and recyclable materials, except that this is done not at the source, i.e. your home, but at the destination, i.e. the landfill. Apparently, there are people (women mostly) who are glad to have a job climbing over mountains of waste and picking through it so that materials that can be recycled don't go to waste.

Q: Do we need permanent visas to enter South Africa?
A: NO. Most likely the Department of Home Affairs will issue you and your family with a temporary visa allowing you to enter the country until such time as the permanent visa is approved. However, you will need a permanent visa for such tasks as getting a cell phone contract or buying a car, so I advise you to work diligently to obtain at least one permanent visa as quickly as possible. As for the required documentation to apply for your visa, contact Home Affairs and look for "Immigration Services."

Q: What do I do if my passport expires?
A: Oh, the joys of passports and their renewals. We have double the joy, because our family holds dual citizenship, so I know all about this topic.Make sure you get your passports renewed early, so as not to be stuck here when you're all ready to go on that dream vacation to Mauritius. Please also bear in mind that you often need one extra month or more on your passport if you want to enter the country, so waiting until it's expired is never a good option. I know this sounds anal, but I highly recommend setting up a spreadsheet with all your family's passport numbers and expiration dates, so that you can easily see which ones are coming up for renewal. The good news is that if you live in the Johannesburg area, most foreign embassies will be within easy driving distance (mostly in Pretoria, although the U.S. embassy has a large office in Sandton), and we have found that passports are often renewed more quickly via the embassy route than if we were doing it in our home countries. The bad news is that once you've renewed a passport, you will now have to carry two of them, since your visa will still be in the old one. This is how our family can often be found travelling with fifteen passports:-)

Q: What is required to open a South African bank account?
A: This is best done in person. I recommend researching which bank you might want to use and obtaining their application form. Most likely you will need:
  • Proof of identity (passport)
  • Proof of residency (i.e. utility bill, but if you have just moved here a copy of your lease agreement is best)
  • Application form
  • Rand bank draft to put money into your account
  • Reference from your existing bank

Q: Should I be worried about the healthcare options in South Africa?
A: NO. You will have access to excellent health care in South Africa, provided you have health insurance for private care. Most expats have their insurance through the home country, but if your contracts stipulates to get your own insurance, this will be another item on your to-do list. Just remember that health insurance is called medical aid here in South Africa. To find out more about hospitals, doctors, common diseases, and recommended immunizations, read Healthcare in South Africa.

Q: Our children currently receive orthodontic treatment - what should we do?
A: There are excellent orthodontists (as well as dentists) available in Johannesburg. Make sure you collect all the records of treatment from your existing orthodontist (as you should from all doctors) and try to schedule an appointment as early as possible after moving here, as there might be wait lists of several months. While we've found most local healthcare providers to be very inexpensive compared to the U.S. (and often with better service!) the same, sadly, is not true for orthodontists, so be prepared. Click here for more info.

Q: Are there public libraries in Johannesburg?
A: YES, but they are not very state of the art. I can highly recommend buying a Kindle while still in your home country, so that you will have the best access to books while living here.

Q: What is the best way to find domestic help?
A: Having domestic help is one of the things you will enjoy most about your life in South Africa, but it is a topic you should think about early, so that you can hit the ground running as soon as you arrive. Dealing with the stresses of settling in and unpacking your container is so much easier when the daily chores are taken care of. Read Hiring Domestic Help for more info on where to find someone, what to look for, and how to register for the UIF.

Q: Should our company offer a cost-of-living adjustment for South Africa?
A: YES. In our experience, life here is more expensive. Some cost-of-living calculators don't reflect this, but many day-to-day items are more expensive than in Europe and the U.S., mainly groceries, gas/petrol (only compared to the U.S.), cars, and clothing.Travel is also very expensive in Africa, with the exception of eating out - restaurants are good and affordable.

Q: What is the cost of living in South Africa?
A: I get that question a lot, and I cannot answer it beyond the information given in the previous question. Cost of living varies hugely depending on where you will live and the size of your family, and a ton of other factors. But if you plan for a 10%-15% cost of living increase, that should give you a good idea.

Q: Do I have to get a phone line installed?
A: YES. Even if you opt to forego the home phone (we hardly use ours, only for international calls, and those might be cheaper via Skype), you will still need to contact Telkom to install an ADSL internet connection at your house. Do this early, as it can take several weeks to get an appointment.

Q: Is there uncapped internet in South Africa?
A: YES. And you should gladly apply and pay for it. Trust me, having a cap on your internet, as we did initially, is definitely not fun at all, even if you're not a blogger. Telkom now finally offers uncapped internet, but I would check out Mweb or Afrihost instead. Click here for more info.

Q: Which cell phone provider should I choose?
A: I have no idea. The three biggest ones are Vodacom, MTN, and Cell C. I have Vodacom and am reasonably happy. If you want to read more about my search for a phone provider, click here. My recommendation is to not get too hung up about making the perfect choice. Mainly, you want to make a FAST choice, as your cellphone is your lifeline in South Africa, and nothing happens without it. You will need at least one work permit/visa in your family, including bank statements, to get a phone contract. Otherwise you can just use a prepaid phone until you can get a contract (and therefore better rates). For your kids, I suggest adding them to your contract but with a top-up option, meaning they have to top up their account once they've used their monthly allowance, so that you don't run into extra costs because they are constantly texting. In fact, since your kids will want to constantly text anyway, your cheapest choice in the long run is probably to get them blackberries, and let them use BBM, which currently only costs R60 per month for unlimited BBMs and internet browsing.

Q: How long will our container take to get here?
A: LONG. Don't hold your breath. In  my experience, three months is the minimum. I've never heard of anything faster. I would also recommend not being too eager for your air shipment to arrive, should you have one, because that may arrive after your container. Everything has to go through customs, and considering my experiences with South African bureaucracy, it's a miracle it gets here at all. Make sure you pack enough clothes in your suitcases to last you the first few months (including jackets and hats if you'll be here June, July, or August), and otherwise enjoy the fact that your kids will play no video games for a while.

Q: Is it safe to live in South Africa?
A: Judging from our family's experiences, I have to say YES. I've written several blog posts about this topic, you might start with this one and this one.

Q: Where should we look for housing?
A: This will depend greatly on where your (or your spouse's) job will be and where you plan on sending your kids to school. Most people choose to live close to the school, because getting the kids to and from there often requires several trips depending on their schedules. However, be aware that the commute to work will not be fun. Most people leave before 6:00 am to avoid Joburg's notorious traffic. I for one think you can't beat the convenience of having your school within walking distance. If you are looking at the Dainfern area, where many expats live, click here for a comparison of Dainfern and Dainfern Valley.

Q: Do South African houses come with heating?
A: YES, though not all of them. Many houses have underfloor heating, but to be honest, most of us haven't been using it lately because it uses so much electricity. Most people buy gas burners for the few cold months. Click here for more info.

Q: Should we send our kids to an international school?
A: Fortunately you have several options in Johannesburg. Many expats send their kids to the American International School, which operates on the same calendar and curriculum as schools in the U.S. However, having chosen a South African private school for our family, I can say that we are very happy with our choice and the way it has enriched our children's lives. If your company does not pay school fees, the choice for a South African school will likely be made for you, as it is much more affordable. Check South African Schools for a more detailed comparison and Private Schools in Johannesburg for a list of schools, including the international ones.

Q: Which calendar do South African schools follow?
A: South African schools typically have their summer break from early December to mid-January. The rest of the year varies according to school - most private schools are structured into three terms, with a month-long break in April and August each. The American International School of Johannesburg follows the American calendar, with a long break from June to August. This is something to consider when signing your children up for sports outside of school, i.e. the soccer season goes from March to October and if you'll be gone June to August you miss a big chunk of it.

Q: Will  my appliances run in South Africa?
A: That depends on where you're coming from. The voltage in South Africa, as it is in Europe and many Asian countries, is 220V, versus 120V in the U.S. If you want to run a 120V appliance here in South Africa, you will need to buy a transformer. Please don't confuse adapter plugs with a transformer. Adapter plugs is something else you will need here, because most plugs (even of appliances you buy here) don't actually fit into the outlets. Also see My Top Expat Tips and Power Talk. Back to the transformer - the more power an appliance uses, the bigger the transformer. A transformer for over 2000W isn't practical, so you should plan on having to buy items such as a toaster, hairdryer, curling iron, and vacuum cleaner locally. Note: Don't go out buying new lamps. All you really need is adapter plugs for them and new light bulbs, and they'll work just fine.

Q: What's the best place to buy appliances?
A: I've written an entire dissertation about this in Where Can I Find an Alarm Clock.

Q: What else should we buy before moving here?
A: Never fear, I've made a list for you. Just make sure you read all the reader comments below as well, some people  have found things I claimed you couldn't get here. Starbucks beans are also now available in some stores, so no need to stock up on those. In my experience, childrens clothing and shoes are the things you'll want to stock up on if you're coming from the U.S.

Q: Will I find similar grocery stores as in my home country?
A: I'd say mostly YES. The grocery stores are similar to those in the U.S. (though typically smaller) with free carts available and the cashiers bagging your stuff. It's more the hunt for particular items that will get you frustrated, but the stores are fine, in fact you might even find something you like better than at home. Click here for more detail on grocery stores.

Q: Will my TV run in South Africa?
A: MAYBE. You see, there are two issues with your TV. One is the voltage is described above. Chances are you will need a transformer. But that doesn't solve your troubles, because there are two different TV standards out there, NTSC and PAL, aside from the voltage. Yes, I know, whoever came up with that was an idiot. Nothing is more annoying for expats than the existence of those two standards. Most of the world runs on PAL, but again the U.S. insists on being different and runs on NTSC. Therefore, an NTSC TV will not show anything broadcast in PAL, ditto for a DVD player. Actually, the problem of the DVD player is one of regions that were created for copyright reasons, not the standard per se, but to not further confuse you let's just say there are two standards. The only way your U.S. TV is going to run here in South Africa is a) if you're just planning on watching U.S. DVDs with it that are played on a U.S. DVD player, or b) if it is a multi-system TV. If it's not a multi-system TV, you might as well  not bother bringing it here, unless - like we have it set up - you will use that particular TV only as a console for your U.S. DVDs as well as xBox and Wii players. xBox and Wii fall under the same regions/standard problem, so that a U.S. player will only play U.S. games. Curiously, the same is not true for Playstation - its games are interchangeable, at least so I've heard, but we don't own a Playstation so I can't be sure. If you want to use your TV to watch South African TV stations, you will either have to buy it here or bring a multi-system TV from the U.S. Remember that you still need to pay attention to the voltage, or you might fry your expensive multi-system TV by plugging it into 220V. Although most multi-system TVs should run on dual voltage to avoid that very problem. Have I thoroughly confused you?

Q: What's a TV license?
A: Just when you thought you had it all figured out, they throw new stuff at you in South Africa. Believe it or not, you actually need a license to operate your TV. One per household is enough, and it's R250 per year. I believe you can get it at any post office, but you can also register on this website and make your payment online.

Q: How do I sign up for cable TV?
A: What you need is to pay a visit to Multichoice, located in Randburg. They will sell you the decoder/PVR and also set up your account, as well as refer you to an authorized installer who will actually connect your satellite/cable. It was all very confusing and we probably paid way more than we should have, because we basically had cables coming into our house, it was just a matter of setting them up the right way. As often is the case, the guys came and made a big mess and charged a big bill, but I'm still not sure if it was all really necessary. The other thing that was a headache to set up was our bank draft so that Multichoice could automatically be paid on a monthly basis. Between the information in their system and the information at our bank, one initial in one of our names or something of the sort didn't match, and the autopay wouldn't go through, which I'd only find out about 5 days later because our cable was blocked, right as my kids had sat down to watch some important soccer match. Believe me when I say I was in Randburg often! You can also get what's called an XtraView decoder for a small additional fee, allowing you to run two TVs independently from each other. Or you can connect to the one PVR remotely from, say, your bedroom, by using what I think is called a MagicEye. Sorry if I can't be more specific, but cable TV at our house is still a mystery to  me. If it wasn't for the kids needing their Hannah Montana and CSI fix, we probably wouldn't have gotten it, there is nothing really great on anyway.

Q: Do I need a post office box to receive my mail?
A: YES. Most likely, if you live in one of the secure estates, your house won't have a mailbox (ours didn't even have a doorbell!) and you will need to rent one at one of the shopping centers nearby. Click here for more detail. You might also wanted to read this post regarding the South African postal service and its problems with fraud and reliability.

Q: Where do I find a pool maintenance service?
A: Most gardening services also provide pool maintenance. I suggest you ask several neighbors who they are using. Or you can opt to clean your own pool, as I've done (having it more sparkling than it ever was before), by brushing up on your pool care skills.


Do you still have questions? Feel free to post a comment so that I can answer, or contact me here.

I've tried to give you an overview of all the topics you will have questions about if you are indeed moving to South Africa and Johannesburg specifically, but if you're looking for more detailed answers including up-to-date links to the various service providers as well as prompt answers to your specific questions, you might want to buy Expat-Living.info's Guide to Johannesburg.