Buying a Car in South Africa

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Buying a car in South AfricaBuying a car in South Africa won’t be the easiest item to check off an expat’s moving list, but it will be the most appreciated, as a car will definitely be needed no matter where in the country they’re living.

The task is best approached with the mindset that it will take several weeks, if not longer. There is some extra paperwork required of foreigners in addition to what is required by the notoriously slow South African bureaucracy, most likely making this process more time-consuming than in an expat’s home country. 

The most important document that will be needed in order to buy a car, by far, is the buyer’s passport with a permanent visa stamped into it. This can be in the form of a work permit, or a resident’s visa. Temporary visas that some might have entered the country on will not be sufficient. 

So before doing anything else, expats should make sure their visa situation is in order, or negotiate with their employer for a long-term rental car.

On the bright side, the one thing many expats won’t need to get is a driving licence. Foreign licences are perfectly fine, as long they are issued in one of South Africa’s eleven official languages (most likely in English), has a picture of the applicant attached to it, and has not expired.
Contrary to popular belief, expats will not even need an International Driving Permit in addition to their licence, unless of course it isn’t in English. 

Choosing a car in South Africa

It’s a good idea for expats to get started on the car buying process while still in their home country by making a few decisions upfront. Are they going to buy a new or a used car? What size? What make? Diesel or petrol? To make this decision, there are a few things that should be known about South Africa. 
  1. Car prices are about twice as high on average as in the United States, and still substantially higher than in Europe
  2. Gasoline/petrol is about twice as expensive as in the United States, but still well below European prices
  3. Most roads are good, especially in metropolitan areas (although drivers should always beware of potholes), but an expat may venture into the bush during their stay, in which case a four-wheel drive will come in handy

New versus used cars

Given the high cost of cars, many expats are tempted to buy a used car. The advantage of new cars, however, is that they typically include a motor plan that allows owners to get a free service for a number of years. Some used car dealerships will also offer a service plan of some type, but many do not. If a service plan is offered, find out how much mileage and for how long the plan is valid for.
Expats should also be wary that used cars in South Africa sold by private sellers often have questionable histories. If someone decides to buy from a private seller, they should arrange for the car to be inspected at a dealership or by a mechanic of their choice, just to make sure there aren’t any hidden problems. The dealership can also run the chassis number through their system to find out if the car being considered has ever been in an accident. Also, buyers should make sure the car has a roadworthiness certificate before they make the purchase.

Size and make

Regarding size, an expat would have to consider how many family members they want to accommodate, and keep in mind that sooner or later they may want to go on a safari or onto some of South Africa’s more rugged dirt roads. So it may be good to own a car made for that purpose, with features such as four-wheel drive, a trailer hitch, and perhaps a roof rack. 
Additionally, many people seem to feel safer in bigger cars, and ones that are higher off the ground.
That said, while Land Rovers and Toyotas are popular cars in South Africa, many smaller, luxury vehicles are also all over the roads. The relatively high incidence of crime does not seem to deter people from buying expensive cars. 
Do consider that purchasing a car make with little representation in South Africa will make it difficult to service, and will mean that spare parts are expensive and may need to be sourced from abroad. However, if an expat buyer mostly stays in one of the metropolitan areas, access to spare parts for most cars, including the European luxury makes, should not be a problem.

If a buyer is going to live in South Africa for a defined period of time then they should consider the re-sale value of the vehicle they buy. Cars that preserve their value the best, and are easy to sell when the time comes to do so, are the statistically most popular brands.
Tip: Consider a diesel car, as they typically run more efficiently and diesel is widely available throughout South Africa. Diesel fuel is also slightly cheaper than petrol.

Smash-and-grab protection

Unfortunately, given the high rates of theft from within cars in South Africa, one added amenity to look for when car-shopping is smash-and-grab protection. This film protects the windshield and windows against robbery, and is an easy way to feel safer and protect personal belongings. Most higher-end cars come already equipped with it, but if not, it can be added later.

Finding a car in South Africa

If buying a used car, expats should check used car websites and online classified portals to get a better idea of what’s out there. 
Used car websites
  • Autotrader
  • Vehicle Trader 
  • Car Find 
Additionally, neighbourhood associations may put out a newsletter with classifieds that could be scanned for cars on sale. 

Another option for more knowledgeable car buyers is auction houses. The most popular vehicle auctioneer is Burchmore's, which also allows one to buy directly from their showroom floor. Auctions are an opportunity to pick up a real bargain, with discounts on retail price ranging from 20 to 60 percent.
New cars, as is the case in all countries, are found at car dealerships.

Registering a car in South Africa

In South Africa, a buyer gains possession of their car once they pay for it, but they still need to register the vehicle to formally gain title ownership. The place to do this is at the nearest Licensing Office. 
Documents needed to register a car in South Africa
  • Roadworthy Certificate
  • Current registration (if the car was previously owned)
  • Invoice/proof of payment
  • Passport with valid work permit or permanent visa
  • Foreign driving licence
  • Proof of residence (copy of lease agreement)
  • Two passport pictures
  • Traffic Register Number
If buying a car from a dealership, the first three documents will be provided. If buying from a private person, a roadworthy certificate can be obtained from one of the licensing offices; it is strongly recommended to get it before actually buying the car.
The most difficult piece of documentation to obtain is the Traffic Register Number. This is a number given to foreigners in place of a South African ID for the sole purpose of purchasing a car, a fact that is unknown to many car dealers. 
In order to get this number, take all listed documents to a local licensing office, fill out an application and pay the license fee (depends on the size of the car, most likely between R300 and R1,000 per year). 
The applicant will then be asked to come back in a few days to pick up their Traffic Register Number certificate. At this time they should also be given their certificate of registration for the car they purchased, as well as their motor vehicle licence, licence disk and licence plates. 
The Traffic Register Number certificate and certificate of registration can go into an expat's personal files, although they might want to make copies to keep in their car in case they might be pulled over. This is not actually required, but some South African police officers are known to make up requirements on the spot, in hopes of a bribe.
Buyers will need to cut out the licence disk (which is renewable every year) and affix it to their windshield from the inside, as well as taping the license plates to the front and back of the car. 

Car Insurance in South Africa

Now that they have registered their car and affixed the licence plates, an expat is almost ready to go. They will, however, still need two things: Insurance and a tracking service.
Most car insurance companies in South Africa will insure a vehicle over the phone, and then follow up with an at-home visit to make sure the applicant actually owns a cars and isn’t buying phantom insurance. Some might ask that the car be inspected at a registered dealership.
Insurance companies in South Africa
  • Budget Insurance Brokers 
  • DialDirect
  • Hollard
  • Outsurance
  • 1st for Women
The price of car insurance in South Africa, as in most places, varies according to a number of factors, including the make of the car, the age and sex of the driver, and whether one has off-street parking, etc.
When obtaining insurance quotes, expats should make sure they enquire about roadside assistance. Most insurance companies do provide it, and it will take one more item off the moving checklist to have this already covered. It is also recommended that one asks the insurance company for guidelines on what to do in case of an accident. 
Some insurance companies will also give customers a discount on one's monthly premium if they have a tracking service, a service that electronically keeps tabs on the location of one's car through a GPS system. This service has evolved due to the high incidence of carjackings in South Africa. Most tracking companies offer various levels of support, like the addition of a panic button or more upgraded tracking services.
Tracking services in South Africa
  • Altech Netstar
  • Matrix 
  • Tracker
If an expat is buying a new car and opts for this service, the dealership will fit their car with a tracking device. If buying a used car, expats will need to find out which tracking device is already installed (if one is installed), and call the respective provider to set up an account and test the device to ensure it is working.

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Our South Africa Expert

Sine's picture
Sine Thieme
Born in Germany, American citizen, lived in Johannesburg 2010-2013. Brentwood, TN
When it became clear that our family of six would have to relocate to Johannesburg, South Africa in 2010, I immediately knew... more

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