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Moving to South Africa: The Ultimate Guide for Expats

With the oldest human art found in the Cradle of Humanity, more than 35 languages spoken in the country and breathtaking Karoos and beaches, South Africa is nothing but exciting. While the country does have its issues, it also offers much to the adventurous – so if you’re thinking about moving to South Africa, here’s a detailed guide to help you set your sails.

Updated: 21/11/2022
Read time: 21 minutes
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Moving to South Africa: Checklist

  • Check the visa requirements and prepare your documentation (also check what your family and pets need to join you).
  • Get to know South Africa as a country.
  • Decide where you’d like to live
  • Explore job opportunities + healthcare.
  • Administration in South Africa (banks, taxes, etc.).
  • Create a budget.
  • Plan for transportation options.
  • Take care of accommodation. 

South African Visa Requirements, Work Permits, and Residency Requirements

If you’re an American traveling to South Africa to visit for a period of fewer than 90 days, you won’t need a visa. However, if you want to stay longer than that or work in South Africa you will need to apply for some type of permit at the Embassy of The Republic of South Africa or the nearest South African consulate.

If you are not a US citizen or a green card holder, you can check if you need to get a visa for a visit shorter than 90 days and if you are obliged to pay visa fees.

Temporary Residence Permit (including the South African Work Visa)

A Temporary Residence Permit (also known as the Temporary Residence Visa or the Long-Stay South African Visa) is issued to those who want to stay in South Africa for a period of over three months but under three years. 

There are six types of Temporary Residence Visa:

  • Study Visa
  • Relative’s Visa
  • Medical Visa
  • Retired Person’s Visa
  • Business Visa
  • Work Visa

Work Permits for South Africa

There are three types of work visas for people who are planning on moving to South Africa for work. Apart from the General Work Visa which we will discuss in more detail here, there are also the Critical Skills Work Visa (with special conditions if you work in one of these professions) and the Intra-company Transfer Work Visa.

General Work Visa

As a rule, South Africa issues general work visas only for positions for which there aren’t more suitable South African candidates available. 

If you want to apply for the General Work Visa, start collecting the following documentation (as you’ll see it’s a rather long list):

  • A complete, signed application
  • Two passport photos
  • Passport valid for at least another month after your stay is over
  • Proof of reservation of round trip air tickets
  • Fee payment
  • A yellow fever vaccination certificate, if necessary
  • Proof of sufficient means of subsistence
  • Proof of accommodation
  • Medical and radiological reports (valid for six months, radiology reports not required for children under 12 and pregnant people) 
  • A police clearance certificate from any country you resided in for longer than 12 months 
  • A stamped statement in which your employer accepts any potential deportation expenses for you and your family
  • A stamped statement in which your employer accepts to inform the Director-General if you are no longer employed or no longer employed in the same role
  • A certificate from the Department of Labour proving a South African candidate was not available
  • Proof of qualifications evaluated by SAQA and translated by a sworn translator into one of the official languages
  • A work contract signed by both yourself and the employer
  • Full particulars of the employer, including proof of registration with the Registrar of Companies
  • All required documentation for accompanying family members 
  • Documentation regarding spouse or children (Marriage Certificate, Divorce Decree, Custody-related documentation etc.)

Emigrating to South Africa will require some patience and planning. It could take several weeks or even more for the visa to be issued, so avoid the mistake of buying your tickets too long in advance. Also, bear in mind that all documents must be machine-readable, and all copies must be stamped or certified in compliance with regulations.

You can never be too safe with paperwork, so we recommend reading about South African Visa Requirements in detail on the official website of the South African Consulate in the US.

Permanent Residence Permit

You qualify for permanent residency in South Africa if you:

  • Are a retiree
  • Have exceptional skills or qualifications (especially those critical to SA economy, like mining, IT, healthcare)
  • You or your spouse have worked in SA for more than five years on a temporary work permit
  • You got a permanent job offer in the country
  • You plan to start a business in SA
  • You qualify as a refugee
  • Are financially independent
  • Are a dependent of a South African citizen or permanent residence permit holder

The processing time for a permanent residence permit is significantly longer than for a temporary residence permit and it can last for between a year and year-and-a-half. If you’re in a rush to emigrate to South Africa, then the permanent residence permit might not be the best solution. However, it’s best to contact the nearest consulate or embassy in your country and ask about your particular case.

What to Know Before Moving to South Africa

Climate in South Africa

One of the benefits of living in South Africa is its diverse climate. The climate ranges from subtropical in the northeast to temperate with mild winters along the east and west coast. The southwest boasts a pleasant Mediterranean climate that gives South Africa its delicious wines, and finally, its warm dry desert region famous for its gorgeous blooming succulents.

The majority of the population lives in the urban areas of South Africa. Johannesburg, its largest city, enjoys a subtropical climate and plenty of sunshine. However, the nights can be particularly cool. The altitude of the city tempers the subtropical heat and summers are more often mild than scorching, but the UV index can be pretty high, so living in South Africa comes with getting used to wearing sunscreen.

Lying close to the ocean, Cape Town has a humid Mediterranean climate with sunny summers and mild, rainy winters. In the summer, two winds called the Berg and the Cape Doctor influence the weather in the city, with the first bringing in hot and dry air that can raise the mercury up to 35 °C, while the other brings refreshment and cool, clean air.

South African Cuisine

In South African cuisine, you will discover Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Indian, Malay, and Dutch culinary influences, among many others. What ties them all together is the importance of meat in South Africa, best reflected in the tradition of braai or shisa nyama (Zulu for burn the meat).

If you’re invited to a braai, you can expect a large grill, usually fueled by wood, and a galore of meats. The most important component of braai is its social character, as it is meant to connect friends and family. Once you’re living in South Africa as a foreigner and you’re invited to a braai, you’ll be a bit closer to becoming a South African.

Popular dishes also include Bunny Chow, a meal brought and perfected by Indian immigrants, which consists of hollowed out bread with many possible types of curry inside, and a Cape Dutch dish called bobotie, a type of baked minced meat dish baked with eggs and milk.

Languages Spoken in South Africa

South Africa is known as the rainbow nation for a reason—it would take you a lifetime to learn all the different languages and cultures that make up this country’s vibrant cultural landscape. The country has 11 official languages: Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, English, Sepedi, Swazi, Sesotho, Setswana, Xitsonga, Tshivenda, and Ndebele.

Zulu is the biggest language with around a quarter of the population speaking Zulu as their mother tongue. 16% speak Xhosa, and another 14% speak Afrikaans. English is the mother tongue of around 10% of the population.

If you set your mind to emigrate to South Africa, but this linguistic variety feels overwhelming, don’t worry. Most of the urban population speaks English, so you’ll have some time to adjust and maybe learn another of South Africa’s official languages. It’s another way to fit in as most South Africans are multilingual.

Many (and we do mean MANY) other languages are spoken throughout the country, including some endangered languages protected by the Constitution. These include Khoekhoegowab, !Orakobab, Xirikobab, N|uuki, !Xunthali, Khwedam, and Phuthi, but bear in mind that the list is not complete as around 35 languages are spoken in the country.

Expats in South Africa

Most expats in South Africa come from Zimbabwe (24%), Mozambique (12%), and Lesotho (7%). According to UN Data on migration, there are about 7,000 American-born expats living in South Africa. Most of them live in Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Bloemfontein.

It’s useful to know for an American moving to South Africa that there are also several American Corners across major SA cities which can help you connect to other people from the US as well as other South Africans. You can also contact the American Association of South Africa which often organizes different events. 

There are also over 200,000 British expats in South Africa, as well as Dutch, Belgian, German, and Irish expat communities. 

Safety in South Africa

Although serious crime has been decreasing in recent years, South Africa has a reputation for high levels of crime. The US Bureau of Consular Affairs sets out a list of security measures to take when traveling or living in South Africa. 

This is why many expats choose to live in gated communities and in more exclusive suburbs with stringent security measures. Common-sense precautions are advised – remember, the emergency line in the country is 1011. 

Relocating to South Africa

Transporting Your Belongings

Moving to South Africa from the USA can be quite expensive. So if you can wait for your furniture and belongings to arrive, we recommend using a shipping service instead of paying for air freight. Shipping companies usually offer several tiers of service, depending on who does the packing and whether the customer or the shipping company moves the cargo to and from port.

The regulations for importing a vehicle are tight as the country is looking to protect its automotive industry so it is best to wait until you are a permanent resident.

Transporting Your Pets

Moving to South Africa with a dog or a cat requires plenty of documentation, planning, and patience. You’ll start by getting an Import Permit from the South African Department of Agriculture (and reading the regulations very carefully, as incomplete paperwork can result in returning or even putting the pet down). 

Next, you’ll need a stamped and signed Veterinary Health Certificate from your country, which will need to be issued ten days before departure. The USDA has a list of useful tips for all pets traveling from the US to South Africa.

All pets need to be microchipped and vaccinated against rabies, but at least 30 days need to pass after a first-time vaccination. Your four-legged friends also need to test negative for a total of five diseases within 30 days of departure at approved laboratories, and by using methods approved by the SA Department of Agriculture.

When it comes to the move itself, unfortunately, pets have to fly as cargo and cannot stay with you in the plane. Also, you cannot import your pet through any airport. The airports which can let your pet through are the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, the Cape Town International Airport, and Durban International Airport (but the last is only for pets from countries that don’t fall under quarantine regulation, which includes the US). Finally, you need to present the paperwork at the airport so your pup can leave home with you.

Adapting to Life in South Africa

One relief when it comes to living in South Africa is that English is one of the official languages of the country. However, the tricky part is that there are ten more that you probably don’t know. For starters, it’s best to learn a few useful phrases in Zulu and the most commonly spoken language in the province you’re planning to move to.

One of the disadvantages of living in South Africa is its somewhat unstable electricity supply. In short, prepare to enjoy an occasional candlelit dinner, as the electric company Escom uses something known as load shedding to relieve some of the pressure on the energy supply. Also, depending on the area, there can be some water supply issues as parts of South Africa are indeed a desert.

When it comes to the South African culture, it is more correct to speak in plural, as the country consists of many nations, languages, and customs. In fact, there will always be something new to learn about the cultures in South Africa, so humility, curiosity, and respectfulness are tickets to success.

Also, unlike in the US, discussing politics is not such a popular pastime in SA, especially given its complex and difficult history. So one piece of advice on moving to South Africa is not to start a conversation about politics unless someone asks for your opinion specifically.

On the other hand, talking about sports, playing sports, and enjoying the outdoors are a great gateway to South African culture. Soccer, rugby, and cricket are three of the most popular sports in the country. Moreover, South Africa has produced many famous players and teams, such as Lucas Radebe and Benni McCarthy, or the Springboks rugby team.

Cost of Living in South Africa

When comparing the national averages, the cost of living in South Africa is 49.71% lower than in the United States. According to Numbeo, monthly living expenses for a single person in SA come at about $516 (R9,177) without rent. For a family of four, the costs climb to $1,797 (R31,965) without rent. Utilities are between 29% and 44% cheaper than in the US, however, the energy supply is not as stable in South Africa.

Clothing Prices

Clothing and footwear prices are similar to the prices in the US. Large retailers such as Zara might be a bit more affordable in South Africa, but respondents named the prices of footwear and Levi’s jeans as significantly higher. 

Food Prices

Food prices in SA are significantly lower, both for eating at restaurants and cooking at home. Milk prices are similar, but everything else including fresh produce and meat can be up to 70% cheaper. 

Average Rent in South Africa

The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city center is $445, dropping to $371 closer to the outskirts. For a three-bedroom apartment, the rent goes from 828.80 $ in the center to $743 in the suburbs. Compared to the US, the average rent in South Africa is about 70% lower.

Entertainment Cost

Watching a movie in an average South African cinema will cost you about R100 ($5.76), about half what you would pay in the US. Renting a tennis court in South Africa would also come at around 57% cheaper, while a gym membership would set you back by about $33 per month. Finally, South Africa is a sport-loving country, so expect to have plenty of opportunities for outdoor fun even at no cost.

The Most Expensive/Cheapest Place to Live in South Africa

While there are cheap places to live in South Africa, the best place to live in South Africa as an expat is one that comes with plenty of (well-paid) job opportunities. According to Adzuna’s findings, these are the best cities to live in South Africa as an expat:

  • Pretoria
  • Durban
  • Nelspruit
  • Centurion
  • Cape Town
  • Polokwane
  • East London

Transport and Infrastructure in South Africa

Driving in South Africa is the main choice for many expats and locals. However, one of the things to know before moving to South Africa is that driving is not always safe (with an average of 57 cases of vehicle hijacking a day). However, from Africa’s longest railway to buses, taxis, and domestic flights, it’s good to know there are other options besides your car.

Trains

At 20,964 km, South Africa has the longest railway system on the continent. The PRASA runs most lines in the country, with two levels of services:

  • Commuter rail services (Metrorail)
  • Mainline passenger service (intercity services between all nine provinces (Shosholoza Meyl) and the Premier Classe luxury train)

Buses and minibus taxis

Buses are a frequent choice in South Africa, as they’re usually very affordable – there are state-owned and private companies across the country with varying prices. Also, anyone living in South Africa will tell you about the country’s famous (or notorious) minibus taxis. They are the cheapest, most popular form of transportation, so expect drivers to rush to make the most of their time.

Air travel

As South Africa is almost two times the size of Texas, there is a lot of need for domestic flights. South African Airways is the national airline, but there are also private airlines in the country such as FlyAirlink, CemAir, FlySafair, and LIFT Airline.

Working in South Africa

South Africa has the highest unemployment rate in the world, which grew to 33.9% in 2021. This is why all jobs must be advertised nationally and why jobs will only be opened up to international workers if a South African candidate cannot be found. On the other hand, expats with skills critical to the economy or those that can establish a business and help improve employment are offered special visas.

The best jobs for expats in South Africa are engineers, teachers, data analysts, medical staff, IT specialists, chemists, mining technology experts, and textile and clothing technology specialists, as there is a shortage of these professionals in the country.

When it comes to the numbers, the average monthly salary in South Africa equaled R23,982 ($1390) in 2021. The gender pay gap is between 23% and 35%, significantly above the global average of 20% and with the higher estimate being almost double the pay gap in the US.

Healthcare in South Africa

The healthcare system in South Africa consists of a public, state-subsidized system which covers up to 40% of your expenses, and a private healthcare system that is expensive, but has a much higher standard of care. The public sector is available to everyone regardless of immigration status, however, the waiting lists can be pretty long.

Also, one thing to mention about living in South Africa is that the country has an ongoing HIV epidemic, with 18.3% of the population between 15 and 49 having an HIV-positive status. This epidemic put pressure on the country’s healthcare system, especially combined with the covid pandemic. 

Health Insurance in South Africa for Expats

Even though you will have access to the public healthcare sector, it’s advised to get a private health insurance policy in order to enjoy a care standard on par with Western standards.

School and Higher Education in South Africa

South Africa’s school system is still recovering from the Apartheid years, with the numbers showing the situation is improving for the younger generation. The youth have a literacy rate of 95.7%, while the literacy rate among 35-64 year-olds is 85.8%. However, the lingering inequality is seen in the fact that only 15% of 25-34 year-olds in South Africa had a tertiary degree in 2020, compared to the OECD average of 47%.

South Africa’s education system varies greatly depending on the region and whether the school is public, governing-body funded, international, or private. Some schools are completely free, while others require tuition or include some fees. A typical expat living in South Africa has their child either in a Model C school, an international, or a private school. 

Compulsory education in South Africa begins at the age of seven and ends at the age of 15. Primary education consists of junior (grades 0-3) and senior schools (grades 4-7). High school starts at grade 8 and lasts until grade 12, when the students take the finishing exam known as the Matric.

Tertiary education consists of short-cycle degrees, Bachelor’s, Master’s, and doctorate degrees. Public universities are divided into theoretical universities, universities of technology known as technikons, and comprehensive universities which are a combination of the two. 

Before deciding to study in South Africa, check to see if SA universities accept your qualifications and whether you need a TOEFL as courses are mostly in English. Besides getting a Student Visa, you can enjoy some benefits of living in South Africa like its amazing music and art, diverse and fascinating landscapes, and the opportunity to volunteer and improve the local community.

Finances, Taxes, and Remittance in South Africa

Remittance and Banking

To open a South African bank account on a residence visa, you will need your passport, your work or study permit or another visa, proof of address, and three months of bank statements. Also, if you’re a US citizen, you will need to report your bank account and foreign assets in the US, even as an expat to South Africa. Banks are required to report any accounts with yearly international money transfers that cumulatively exceed $10,000, even if you’re transferring between your own accounts.

Taxation

The VAT rate in South Africa is currently at 15%. There are basic goods and services that are exempt from the tax.

Individual taxation

South African residents are taxed on worldwide income but even non-residents need to pay taxes on real estate and capital gains from any South African income or business in the country. A person is considered a resident if they have been living in South Africa for more than 915 days in the preceding five tax years, and for more than 91 days in each year.

Real estate taxes include an occupation tax which varies depending on the municipality, as well as property acquisition taxes. Transfers to individuals are taxed progressively with 8% being the maximum rate.

Inheritance taxes include a 20% tax on the deceased resident’s worldwide net estate. In this case, the standard deduction amounts to R3.5 million, although other deductions sometimes apply.

If you plan on living in South Africa as an expat, you should be aware that South Africa has a progressive individual tax rate. For incomes up to 226,000, the rate is 18% of the taxable income for the tax year 2023, and it rises progressively from there, with thresholds being different than in the previous tax year.

In South Africa, the tax year ends on February 28th, and like in the US, latency comes with penalties and interest.

A friendly reminder—a US green card holder or a US citizen moving to South Africa would still need to file their tax returns annually in the US regardless of the taxes they already pay in SA.

Corporate taxation

The Corporate Income Tax rate for years ending March 31st, 2023, is 27%. Businesses also need to pay 1% to the Unemployment Insurance Fund, as well as a Securities Transfer Tax, among other taxes and royalties depending on the sector. If you’re considering moving to South Africa to start a business, check out the resources on Corporate Taxes offered by the South African Revenue Service.

Marrying and Starting a Family in South Africa

In order to get married to a South African as a foreigner, you need to provide a Letter of No Impediment from your embassy, get interviewed at the Department of Home Affairs, and receive a letter that you will give to your marriage officer. The remaining documentation your marriage officer will need includes a passport and birth certificate or another type of ID.

The procedure is the same for opposite-sex and same-sex couples. 

If you want to emigrate to South Africa to be with your spouse, the South African immigration law states you need to be married for five years or longer to qualify for permanent residency.

Buying Property in South Africa

Whether they’re for residential or rental purposes, properties in South Africa come in many shapes, from luxury villas on the beachfront to apartments in bustling cities such as Cape Town.

The average price per square meter for an apartment in the city center in South Africa is R17,567 ($1018), while the price for an apartment closer to the suburbs is R12,695 ($736) per square meter.

If you’re emigrating to South Africa and hoping to buy a place in Cape Town, you should know that real estate in Cape Town is significantly more expensive than in other cities. A square meter in the tavern of the seas will cost you R36,011 ($2088) on average in the center and R24,996 ($1449) on the outskirts.

The average price in downtown Pretoria is R8,125 ($471), while the suburbs are more expensive with R10,635 ($616) per square meter. The average Johannesburg prices vary from R13,237 ($767) in the center to R11,760 ($680) outside of the prime location.

Retiring in South Africa

Common reasons to move to South Africa are its mild climate with plenty of sunshine and outdoor activities as well as a diverse expat community, especially British retirees. As a retiree, you have an option to get a temporary retired person’s visa to enjoy South Africa seasonally for a period of three years, so it’s a good way to explore the country.

However, if moving to South Africa permanently feels more appealing to you, there are two ways to go about it as a retiree: a permanent retired person’s residence permit or an independent financial person’s permit (meaning you have sufficient funds to sustain yourself). 

Is Moving to South Africa a Good Idea?

While high crime rates may dissuade many, there are still plenty of upsides to living in South Africa. It’s a country with warm, welcoming people, many cultures to explore, and breathtaking landscapes from tropical beaches to blooming deserts with unique wildlife. If you are an adventurous spirit, moving to South Africa will bring you something new to explore every day.

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Dunja Radonic

Dunja is an English Literature graduate with years of experience as a writer and translator. She doesn’t mind diving into as many reports and numbers as she can—especially about topics like crypto that still need some translating to the public—’cause she loves to get the message across. When she’s not working, you’ll find her running wild with her pack of dogs, playing board games, or bingeing on pop science videos.

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