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When it comes to public transport and driving in South Africa, there isn't much choice, with driving being the only feasible option for most. Even within the big cities, public transport is limited – although efforts to improve this have been made – and virtually all expats moving to South Africa purchase a car.
Driving in South Africa
Cars in South Africa are somewhat expensive, even though petrol prices are still fairly low compared to Europe.
South Africa’s road network is extensive and is generally in good condition. However, in some of the more rural parts of the country, potholes can be a problem and can cause severe damage to cars.
In South Africa, driving is on the left-hand side of the road. Traffic, especially in the big cities, might be a bit more chaotic than expats are used to, but still far from the level of danger in countries with high road-fatality rates such as Thailand.
Drivers usually stick to their lanes, and when traffic lights (or 'robots' as they are referred to in South Africa) aren't working, the ensuing four-way-stop traffic is usually quite orderly. But don’t be surprised if minibus taxis illegally overtake on the left or perform other alarming and illegal manoeuvres during heavy traffic.
Once they are granted permanent residence, expats have one year to convert their driving licence to a South African one. Until then, they can legally drive in South Africa using their own country’s driver's licence as long as it has a photograph of the driver, is valid and is in English. If one's driver's licence doesn't meet these requirements, an International Driving Permit (IDP) can be used instead. Some traffic police will try to tell unsuspecting expats that their licences are invalid in hopes of soliciting a bribe, but if expats stay firm and know their rights, there is nothing to fear.
Renting a car
While an expat is still in the process of buying a car, or whenever they are travelling in other cities, renting a car in South Africa is a fairly inexpensive option. Most of the major international car rental companies are represented at airports and throughout the main cities. There are also several local car rental companies that might offer more competitive prices, especially for longer-term rentals.
Public transport in South Africa
The high-speed Gautrain has been operating in the greater Johannesburg area since 2010 and has been a big success on the few routes available – it is clean, safe and on time. But for the most part, it isn't developed enough yet to be a viable form of city-wide transport.
Metrobus is the official bus service provider in Johannesburg, but routes are limited. Unless one lives in or near the city centre, which most expats stay away from, they won't be able to use the Metrobus system to get to work. Another option is the Gautrain bus services, although designed to link commuters to the Gautrain, this is still a useful system on its own and can be used independently of the Gautrain itself.
Cape Town has a rapid bus service called MyCiTi, which also offers a shuttle service from the airport to the city. Ordinary buses in Cape Town are run by Golden Arrow Bus Services and aren't particularly reliable. Those more interested in sightseeing than commuting should consider a bus tour. Cape Town's red Hop-on, Hop-off Tour Bus is a popular way to go sightseeing.
Intercity bus travel is not particularly comfortable or fast, but those who wish to travel this way should go for companies such as Greyhound and Intercape.
Minibus taxis represent a cross between a bus and taxi service, and are used by some locals as their only form of public transport. There is an informal route system accompanied by various hand signals given by people waiting for a taxi at the roadside. However, taxis are generally considered unsafe and uncomfortable. Most of them don’t look especially roadworthy, and the hair-raising style of driving typical of taxis causes frequent accidents. As a result, these are rarely used by expats.
A wonderful way for expats to discover South Africa and its sweeping landscapes, if they have time, is by way of one of the luxury trains operating mainly between Johannesburg and Cape Town and a few other routes. It’s not the cheapest way to travel, but it’s a highly luxurious one. Taking a car along is an option on some routes.
The Blue Train, Premier Classe and Rovos Rail are the most prominent luxury train providers.
Air travel in South Africa
The easiest way to get around South Africa (and to its neighbouring countries) is by air. Domestic flights to all major cities are readily (and often affordably) available on the local airlines. South African Airways is the national carrier, while FlySafair, CemAir and Airlink offer low-cost options between major cities.
Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport is a modern and well-organised major hub for all of Southern Africa. Lanseria, a second, smaller airport on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg, offers daily flights to several destinations, often at a cheaper price, and Cape Town and Durban also have international airports.
►Getting Around in Cape Town and Getting Around Johannesburg provide information about each city's transport system
►For information on purchasing a car, see Buying a Car in South Africa
"Having a car is pretty much essential here. That being said, Uber works great in South Africa, and it’s generally your best and safest option if you’re not driving." Read Canadian expat Phil's interview about life in South Africa.
Are you an expat living in South Africa?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to South Africa. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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