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9 Best practices for first-time expats to South Africa

Becoming an expat in South Africa starts with dreaming, then internet research, a lot of planning, and decision-making.

At Language Recruiters we get plenty of emails like this one:

“Hi, I wonder if you can help us. My girlfriend and I are planning to relocate. We have always liked Africa and think South Africa is a good choice. We were wondering if it’s a good idea to come over for a holiday and look for work. Can you help us?”

As immigration and foreign language recruitment experts, we are familiar with the mistakes most frequently made by first-time expats. To help you make your move to South Africa as successful and pain-free as possible, we have compiled the 9 best practices for first-time expats to South Africa.

Expat tip 1: Plan your immigration - Get your paperwork in order before you leave your home country. On entering South Africa, you will be issued with a visitor's permit for South Africa, however, if you are planning to live and work in South Africa, you will want to apply for a work permit or business permit for South Africa.

Both these permits require certain documents that are better obtained while in your home country. The required documents depend on the permit you are applying for, but can include birth certificates, heritage certificates, and police clearance certificates from your home country. If you don’t have a retired friend with plenty of time, organizing documents in your home country can be a cumbersome task.

Keep in mind: visas for South Africa can take anything from two to six months to be processed. For permanent residency permits a two to three year waiting period has sadly become the norm. Make sure you allow for this time.

Expat tip 2: Opening a bank account - There is nothing exciting about having to open a bank account in a third world country, but having a bank account makes transactions in South Africa so much easier. In order to have a mobile phone contract (not just a prepaid card), an internet connection or a car, you will need a South African bank account.

What you are looking for initially as a tourist on a visitor’s visa is a non-resident bank account. A non-resident bank account, is not really an expat's dream but enables you to bring money into the country, but won’t allow you to deposit South African Rand (ZAR) into the account.

All major banks in South Africa will be able to assist with this, and some even have designated consultants to help expats with the administration. Once you have had your visa stamped with a temporary or permanent residency visa for South Africa, things become easier and you can change your bank account to a resident’s bank account, which has no restrictions, and you can access all the banking functionalities that you are used to.

Here is a list of major banks and their respective non-resident contacts:

For both resident and non-resident accounts you will have to supply the following documents:

  • Proof of identity (passport, including visa/work permit)
  • Proof of residency (i.e. utility bill, but if you have just moved here a copy of your lease agreement is best; and yes, bring the entire agreement)
  • Bank draft or cash in ZAR to put an opening deposit into your account. Note that maintaining a minimum balance may reduce your monthly service fees
  • Statement or reference from your existing bank in your home country
  • Letter from your employer stating your monthly salary

Expat tip 3: Securing work as an expat - Many expats become part of the evil circle: no work without a work permit, no work permit without work. South Africa’s unemployment rate is 25% but, despite employment equity, vacancies for educated candidates are available. The biggest hurdle for foreign nationals wanting to live and work in South Africa is the work permit, and many companies are quite reluctant to support a candidate’s work visa application.

There are companies, however, that are serious about their demand for unique skill sets and language proficiency. In possession of a corporate work permit for South Africa, the growing Business Process Outsourcing industry in South Africa is a large employer of foreign candidates. Due to the difficulties associated with general work permit applications, many foreign nationals initially choose to work for Business Process Outsourcing companies, where they take jobs as customer service representatives. This enables them to become part of the company’s corporate work permit. From there they start networking or looking at growth opportunities within the company. Language Recruiters is in a good position to help with job opportunities in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Expat tip 4: Medical Aid - When coming to South Africa as an expat, one of the big decisions is whether to belong to a medical aid in South Africa, or take out overseas or expat medical aid with one of the medical aid companies in your home country. Most visa applications require the applicant to be in possession of medical aid. There are expat medical aid providers in your home country that will insure you for a limited stay (one to three years) in South Africa.

The disadvantage of this is that if you fall ill during this time, the medical aid provider will most probably not extend your medical aid cover. You would then have to become part of one of the South African medical aids. South African medical aids are by law not allowed to turn applicants away, but can exclude chronic illnesses for up to a year. The standards of medical aid in Europe and South Africa, in terms of cost, cover and benefits etc., cannot be compared.

Expat tip 5: Crime - There is crime in South Africa, as you would expect in a place where rich and poor live right next to each other. Plan enough cash to buy a car and rent a house in a secure area or security complex.

Expat tip 6: Networking - Networking is important anywhere in the world but it is particularly useful in a country where there is no “social net” and where great service exists right alongside really bad or even fraudulent business ventures. A recommendation by a friend, for instance, on which dentist to go to should be received gratefully, because you could end up with a bad root canal and eventually lose a tooth if you rely on the Yellow Pages for this information.

There are several networking events around Cape Town and Johannesburg where future expats can make friends. The internations.org events are legendary for meeting expats or locals. They even have a policy ensuring that no-one is on their own longer than 15 seconds (cool!)

Expat tip 7: Location, location, location - At some stage during your planning you have to decide where you want to live in South Africa. Are you the Joburg type, in love with money, cars, shopping, parties and big houses? Or are you the Capetonian – the outdoorsy, artisan coffee-drinking, market-going hipster?

Jobs are generally much better paid in Johannesburg than in Cape Town, and in certain industries you cannot progress in your career beyond a certain level if you are not willing to relocate to Johannesburg. Cape Town is beautiful and friendly, however, and also the design capital 2014. If you don’t mind paying mountain and sea tax, this city can make you very happy.

Expat tip 8: Cars - A car will increase your quality of life considerably while you are living in South Africa. Despite a growing, safe public transport system, connectivity and safety especially on certain routes, over weekends, and in the evening is not of the European standard.

As with every major transaction, you need to be careful not to become a victim of crime. Expats often buy cars for cash, which exposes them to all sorts of fraudulent activities. Cars are poorly refurbished, ownership is dubious, or the vehicle has been stolen. Consider looking at demonstration models or used cars at approved dealerships, instead of buying cars through Gumtree or other small ads. All the major brands, e.g. Mercedes, VW, Ford, Toyota etc., are available. Some of them are manufactured in South Africa (which doesn’t make them any cheaper). If you cannot avoid buying a car from a small dealership or through private sale, make sure the Automobile Association (AA) checks it thoroughly beforehand.

Expat tip 9: Shipping your possessions - Shipping your furniture to South Africa can be a good idea if you are sure about your move. A six metre container delivering your goods from door to door will cost between R30,000 and R50,000. Delivery can take anything from six to eight weeks.

Most companies offer a ‘groupage’ option, meaning the container is shared with other parties. This gives you less space at a lower cost. Compile a list of items, get a number of quotes, and make sure the agency comes to look at your contents before submitting a quote to you.

If you are planning to become an expat get in touch! Language Recruiters, part of Initiate International, is in the privileged position to help first-time expats with their relocation to South Africa. For immigration advice and work opportunities, please contact us.