One of the more complicated errands as a newly arrived expat in South Africa is figuring out your technology. Aside from buying a car, getting your TV, Internet, and phones all hooked up will likely keep you busy for months. Part of this has to do with the excruciatingly slow-moving South African bureaucracy. Anything that involves forms and signatures and banking transactions is doomed to be mired in the land of “I will call you back just now,” which more or less means you will never hear from them again.
The other reason you won’t be able to quickly get all your technology hooked up is that you simply won’t be able to decide. The sheer number of choices you’ll be faced with regarding a phone plan or an internet provider is mind-boggling. South African pricing is completely based on a model of exhausting the entire demand curve so that even the lowliest customer will find something affordable, which means that you will stare at pages and pages of information, unable to make a decision. Hopefully, this article will help you sort through it all with relative ease.
Let’s start with the easiest of them all, which is cable TV. There is really only one choice for this, ironically called Multichoice .
To get signed up for Multichoice, you have to do two things:
The monthly service for an extended bundle of channels (including ESPN and CNN) will cost you around ZAR650 per month.
Before you rush out to sign up for Multichoice, you should ask yourself if you’ll really need it. While you will get a few international channels, most of the series and shows you know from home will lag a few seasons behind.
For this reason, more and more expats turn to the internet to watch TV (which makes an uncapped internet connection crucial - more on that later). All you need is a VPN or DNS subscription service such as UnoTelly that allows you to watch channels like Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, and BBC iPlayer from overseas for around $3 to $5 per month. Combined with a device such as Roku or Apple TV or even your Wii or xBox, this allows you to stream online content from these channels not just to your computers but also on your big screen TV.
Please also note that South African law requires every household to obtain a so-called TV License (currently ZAR265 per year), to be applied for and renewed annually at the Post Office. Anybody who has a TV in their home needs a TV license, regardless of whether they sign up for cable or not. In fact, even expats who’ve left the country report of being billed for their TV licenses for years afterwards, and it can be quite a comical back-and-forth to convince the authorities that you no longer fall under the auspices of the South African Broadcast Corporation.
Not too long ago, there was only one choice for DSL internet service in South Africa, and that was through the national phone carrier Telkom. You can still get an internet connection directly from Telkom, but the problem with their basic plan is that it is capped – currently around 20 gigabytes per month. If you have more than one person living in your household, and especially if any of them are teenagers, you will do much better without a cap on your internet or you’ll forever be staring at a blank computer screen the last week of the month, wondering why on Earth your internet is down and furiously unplugging and replugging your modem to no avail - until it dawns on you that the cap has been reached once again.
You are much better served with a provider offering uncapped internet service, such as Mweb.co.za or Afrihost. Not only will you get more for a better price, you will also deal with better customer service should there be any problems with your connection. The only thing you need to be aware of is that these third party providers still rely on the Telkom lines, meaning that whatever bandwidth Telkom provides to a particular area is all you can get, even if the provider technically offers more. This means that even if Afrihost’s ZAR797 per month plan of uncapped data at 10 mbps sounds attractive to you, you should first find out if Telkom even has a 10 mbps line going into your neighborhood. Most likely, it’ll only be a 4 mbps line and you can save the extra money and get the ZAR397 per month plan.
You should note that the aforementioned line speeds of often not higher than 4 mbps lag behind most of the rest of the world, and that streaming movies, for instance, might not go as smoothly as you’re used to from your home country. However, high speed broadband installations have recently shown high growth rates in South Africa, so there is hope that low speeds won’t be such a big problem that much longer.
Phone landlines are provided by Telkom (for about ZAR130 per month), and you have to set-up an appointment to have it installed which could take up to six weeks.
However, before you set up a Telkom line, ask yourself if you really need one. Most business in South Africa is conducted via mobile phone. Having one single phone number actually makes this easier. Moreover, you will get your fair share of outages with your Telkom landline – often connected to storms, so that it may seem to you that whenever it rains the phones aren’t working – and as a result you might spend more time on the Telkom support line than actually using it to make any other calls.
The only reason you might want to have a landline is for international calls, but in the era of Skype, FaceTime, Voxer, and Viber, you should seriously consider using one of those (making sure you get an uncapped internet bundle as mentioned above – not from Telkom but from a third-party provider). If you need to make international calls to an end-user who is not connected to the internet, you can get a U.S. phone number from Vonage for $29.99 per month which allows you to make worldwide calls. Considering that this allows you to even make calls within South Africa for free (which Telkom, by contrast, charges for) this is a pretty good deal.
Vodacom, MTN, and Cell C are the three main cellphone providers in South Africa. There are hundreds of contract options available from each provider, and sorting through all of those to figure out which to choose can be quite overwhelming. Since you definitely need a mobile phone as soon as possible after your arrival, your best option is to buy a cheap prepaid phone and research plans later.
Rates and coverage do not vary greatly between providers, but you will have to choose whether you are going to sign a two-year contract (giving you cheaper per-minute rates) or whether you want to pay as you go. If you do sign a contract, make sure you bring you passport (with visa/work permit), lease agreement, and bank statement with you. Typically only the work permit holder can sign a phone contract. Pay-as-you-go plans are simpler to obtain, letting you top up your account by purchasing minutes at a grocery store or ATM, but the rates will be slightly higher.
If you want to save yourself from a lot of research, sign up for Vodacom’s Talk 130 plan, a 50 SMS bundle, and a 250 meg data bundle if you have a smartphone. That should be a good start, and you can always adjust your minutes upwards at a later date.
If you bring your phone from abroad, technically you just need to purchase a new SIM-card from one of the providers to start using it. This can be done by either signing a contract or purchasing minutes as you go. However, foreign (especially American) providers often lock their phones against such SIM-card swaps, and unless you unlock or jailbreak your phone, you won’t be able to use it in South Africa. Especially iPhones are notoriously difficult to “import” from abroad. You can purchase them locally, but they are very expensive. For this reason, BlackBerrys have enormous popularity in South Arica, especially among teenagers. They are much cheaper than iPhones and offer unlimited browsing and chatting (via BBM) for as low as ZAR65 a month.
Oh, and one last note. Whatever you do when you sign up your account with Telkom, Multichoice, or any of the other providers, make sure you sign up in the name of the person most likely to have time to deal with them on a regular basis such as your spouse. Very often the account holder ends up being the person first moving to South Africa, which is often the one with the job, but later on that person will have no time whatsoever to engage in lengthy phone calls to sort out technical problems, and if you’re “only the spouse” you will often get nowhere.
By Sine Thieme, an American repat just returned from a three-year assignment in Johannesburg with her husband an four children, where she loved the weather, the people, going on safari, and the fact that you never quite knew when exactly 'just now' would be.