South Africa is one of those countries with a relatively weak public transport system (practically non-existent in the case of Johannesburg) so buying a car is a must for expats. In order to streamline the process of finding, purchasing, and registering a car, there are a few things you can get started on before even moving here.
a) Car prices in South Africa are much higher than elsewhere (about twice as high as in the U.S.), so many expats try to find used, and perhaps even smaller, cars than they would at home.
b) Petrol prices might also be a factor (also almost twice as high as in the U.S. but substantially lower than Europe), making diesel cars (diesel is widely available throughout Africa) much more economical because of lower usage.
c) South African roads, overall, are in fairly good shape, however you might want to take advantage of the incredible travel opportunities available while living in Africa, some of them off-road, and opt for a 4x4 vehicle. In this case, go for a make that is widely represented, such as Toyota or Landrover, rather than models where spare parts might be difficult to obtain.
d) There is nothing wrong with buying a used car, however one factor in favor of new or relatively new cars is the fact that many companies offer so-called motor plans, typically valid for five years and inclusive of all service costs in that period.
e) Whether you buy new or used, make sure you start searching early, as some models can have a substantial backlog. A good place to start looking is online (i.e. Autotrader, Vehicle Trader, or Car Find). You can also contact your neighborhood association to find out if they have a monthly newsletter with a classifieds section, or you can try www.gumtree.co.za, the equivalent of Craigslist. Once in South Africa, visiting a dealership might be your best option.
a) The most important document for you to register a car in South Africa (or do much of anything else, for that matter) is the permanent visa stamped into your passport. It can be in the form of a 2-year work permit or a temporary residence permit for spouses. Because of the long backlogs at the Department of Home Affairs, many expats enter the country on a 6-month visitor visa before having it changed over, but that will not be sufficient to purchase a car.
b) If you don’t have a South African bank account yet, open one before you purchase a car, as it will make the transaction much easier. Online banking is widely used in South Africa and your life without a local bank account would be unnecessarily cumbersome.
c) Say you find a car you like, purchasing it is the easy part. You exchange money with the seller and it’s yours. If you’re buying from a private seller, it’s a good idea to have it checked out at a dealership first, where the chassis number can be checked against their system to see if it has been in an accident before.
d) You will now need to register your car at the licensing office (Johannesburg, Cape Town). You (or rather the person who is also the permanent visa holder) will most likely need two trips for this. On the first, bring the following documents:
You will fill out an application at the licensing office and turn it in together with the above documents and a registration fee (between ZAR 500-1000 for most models). After a few days, you will be able to go back and pick up the following:
Many dealers will offer to obtain the above documents for you, but what most of them don’t know is that as a foreigner you need a Traffic Register Number, which you have to apply for in person. This is a number given to foreigners in place of a South African ID in order to be allowed to purchase a car.
a) You’re now almost good to go, but you still need to insure your vehicle. Most insurance companies will insure your vehicle over the phone based on the make of the car and a few personal details, and then follow up with an at-home visit to make sure you actually own the car.
b) They will also most likely require you to have a tracking service like Altech Netstar in case of theft (about ZAR160 per month). A used car will most likely be already equipped with it and all you have to do is call the tracking service to activate it and organize a payment plan. If it’s a new car and not outfitted yet, there are service centres where you can take it.
c) Due to the unfortunate incidences of smash-and-grab break-ins, it is advisable to have your car windows protected with a certain film to protect against shattering. Again, if your car is not already equipped with smash-and-grab protection, you can have it added on at any dealership.
d) Counter to what most South African traffic cops will tell you, your foreign drivers license is perfectly sufficient as long as it is valid in the country of issue, has your picture on it, and is written in English. But how to deal with traffic stops and bribery is the topic for another blog post. As are the matters of rush hour traffic and the rules of the road.
If you follow all of the above steps, buying a car in South Africa is not very difficult, it might just take a bit longer than you expect. Owning a car and being free to come and go as you please will definitely make your expat life more enjoyable.
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.