Things to know before visiting South Africa for the first time

 things to know before visiting South Africa
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If you are planning a trip and you are wondering what you need to know before visiting South Africa? You’ve come to the right place!

South Africa is one of the most beautiful countries in the world and it’s no surprise why we welcome over 16 million tourists annually.

With so many amazing things to do in South Africa, it’s really important to research what to expect and things to know before visiting South Africa for the first time.

Being a South African abroad, I get asked questions about my home country all the time. Over the years, I’ve also realized that most people don’t know much about our beautiful South Africa and it’s our job as locals to educate them.




Where is South Africa

South Africa, the southernmost country on the African continent, renowned for its varied topography, great natural beauty, and cultural diversity.

How big is South Africa

SA is the 24th-largest country in the world. It is about the same size as Colombia, twice the size of France, three times as big as Japan, four times the size of Italy and five times the size of the United Kingdom.

The country has nine provinces and a population of 58 million (2020).

Do I need a visa to visit South Africa?

Most nationalities don’t need a visa to visit South Africa but some do.

You can visit the Department of Home Affairs’ official website to find out if you need a visa or not.

Important things to know before visiting South Africa

I’ve made a list of things to know before visiting South Africa, to make the planning stage of your trip just that little bit easier.

Which language is mostly spoken in South Africa

South Africa boasts an incredible eleven official languages, of which English is one. Britain kinda colonized many African countries, so that’s why many of us speak English.

South African languages: Afrikaans, English, South Ndebele, Pedi, Southern Sotho, Swati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu.

In fact, South Africa is one of the 7 countries (including New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, the U.K, the US, and Australia) where English is considered as a native language. Hence, many Asia Teaching Work opportunities are open to South Africans.

We are also one of the few countries with a national anthem that has more than 4 languages.

Most South Africans are multilingual and the most common language spoken as a first language by South Africans is Zulu, Xhosa, and Afrikaans.

Read: Popular South African names

Currency of South Africa

ZAR (South African Rand) is the official currency of the Republic of South Africa.

Coins available: 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, R1, R2, and R5 and notes: R10, R20, R50, R100, and R200.

Visa and Mastercard debit and Credit cards are widely accepted. American Express is only accepted in some places.

Vaccinations for South Africa

You won’t need any vaccinations unless you are coming from a country where Yellow Fever and Malaria are prevalent.

International Adapter for South Africa

15 amp 3-prong, with round plugs.

Best Time To Visit South Africa

South Africa is a year-round destination. Personally, I travel all year round and always come home in winter (June to August). The weather is more bearable for me as I prefer cooler conditions. If I had to recommend the best time to visit South Africa I’d say from winter (June) to early summer (early November).

Read: Guide to the best time to visit South Africa

Is South Africa Safe to visit for tourists

SA often ends up in the news for the wrong reasons. Yes, it’s safe to visit South Africa but there are a few things to know before you come and who better than a local give you tips.

I’ve shared the ultimate travel and safety tips for South Africa guide and in a nutshell, South Africa is a place where precautions are needed to stay safe.

Is South African water safe to drink

South Africa’s water is rated 3rd best in the world.

Apps to download before visiting South Africa

  • Namola – SA’s leading safety app that helps you receive emergency assistance when you most need it.” The app also supports a family feature to ensure that your loved ones are safe.
  • Uber – The best way to get around if you don’t have a car in SA.
  • Bull Horns Panic Button – The app allows you to instantly, silently alert your community and emergency responders with just a shake of your phone.
  • MySOS SA – a panic button app that supports 2-way voice communication and GPS tracking used by more than 100 000 South Africans. The easy intuitive interface allows you to connect to emergency services.

What are the popular sports in South Africa

South Africans are crazy about sports, it’s hard to pick one favorite but the top 3 are definitely rugby, soccer, and cricket. We are also the only country in the world to have hosted the Soccer, Cricket and Rugby World Cup!

Our most popular sports stars include:

  • Lucas Radebe – SA national soccer team captain who played for Leeds United, where he played 256 matches for the Yorkshire side.
  • John Smit – mentioning South African rugby and not mentioning this legend would be a sin. He was the 50th captain of the South Africa national rugby team and led the team to win the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
  • Caster Semenya – Our champ from Limpopo is a middle-distance runner and 2016 Olympic gold medalist. She won gold in the women’s 800 meters at the 2009 World Championships with a time of 1:55.45 and at the 2017 World Championships in her new personal best, 1:55.16.
  • Makhaya Ntini – He was the first black player to play for the South African national cricket team.
  • Charlene Lynette Wittstock – a former South African Olympic swimmer who, after marrying Prince Albert II, became Charlene, Princess of Monaco.
  • Siya Kolisi – South Africa’s first black rugby national team captain. A national treasure!
  • Chad Le ClosSouth African swimmer who is an Olympic, World and Commonwealth Games champion as well as the Commonwealth record holder in the 50 and 100-meter butterfly.
  • AB de Villers – regarded as one of the greatest players of modern times. He has the 10th-most total centuries scored (47) among all international cricketers.

What’s the time in South Africa right now

South African Standard Time is two hours ahead of Greenwich Mean (or Universal Standard) Time, one hour ahead of Central European Winter Time, and seven hours ahead of the USA’s Eastern Standard Winter Time. We don’t have daylight savings.

Is South Africa LGBTI friendly

In 2006, South Africa was the first African country and the fifth country in the world to recognize same-sex marriage.

There are many gay-friendly bars, restaurants, and hotels scattered throughout the country. This doesn’t mean it’s 100% safe as you will probably meet homophobic individuals but most people don’t care about your sexuality.

Is Trevor Noah South African

Trevor Noah is a South African comedian and host of The Daily Show in the U.S. In Trevor Noah’s book he details how his black mother was jailed for having a relationship with his Swiss-German father.

He also shares stories from growing up as a biracial child in South Africa during Apartheid. It’s a must-read if you want to understand the past and present racial issues” in South Africa.

Interesting facts about South Africa

South Africa has it all: deserts, wetlands, grasslands, bush, subtropical forests, mountains, and escarpments. There is no other country in the world as UNIQUE as South Africa.

1. The only country in the world with three capital cities

  • Bloemfontein is the judicial capital.
  • Cape Town is the legislative capital.
  • Pretoria is the administrative and executive capital.

2. Home to some of the oldest mountains in the world.

Тhe Barberton Mountain range in the province of Mpumalanga is over 3.5 billion years old. Table Mountain in Cape Town is about 600 million years old.

3. 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

South Africa is home to the world’s largest visible craters, and the Cradle of Humankind near Johannesburg is where the oldest modern human remains were discovered.

4. Home of the worlds first heart transplant

Professor Christiaan Barnard performed the first successful heart transplant in 1967. CAT Scans and swimming pool vacuum cleaners are also South African inventions.

5. Rich in natural resources

80% of the world’s platinum and a fifth of the world’s gold, hails from South Africa. In fact, the world’s largest diamond (a 3,106-carat stone that weighed 1.33 pounds) was found in my home town of Pretoria on 25 January 1905. Today, it can be seen on top of the Queen of England’s Scepter with the Cross in the Tower of London. (thanks for stealing everything from us Britain ????).

6. Wine lovers Paradise

South Africa produces 7% of the world’s wine and The Cape Route 62 (or R62), is the world’s longest wine route (about 1 000 kilometers long).

7. Rooibos tea only grows in South Africa

Although farmers have tried to grow it elsewhere in the world, the climate, soil, and conditions just aren’t conducive… and we’d like to think that nature intended it that way.

8. 80% of the world’s dinosaur fossils were found in SA

The Karoo region in the Western Cape is home to some of the best fossils of early dinosaurs.

9. South Africa is one of the worlds adventure capitals

Bloukrans Bridge in the Eastern Cape Province is the highest commercial bungee jump in the world. You can go on a helicopter tour of most major cities. Horse riding safaris are a thing and the world’s best land-based whale-watching spot is located in Hermanus.

10. There’s a country within our country

Lesotho is a country that is surrounded entirely by South African borders and yes, we need a passport to go there. There are many things to do in Lesotho, but it’s most famous for its breathtaking mountains and ski resort.

South Africa Map


Important South Africa Laws and Customs to know

  1. Always carry your identity documentation or a copy of your passport.
  2. The legal drinking age was changed from 18 to 21 in 2017.
  3. South Africa has a tipping culture, and common courtesy is to include at least 10% of your bill.
  4. You don’t have to pour your own gas (petrol), we have petrol attendants. Don’t forget to tip them too!
  5. When on a safari, don’t feed or touch animals! If you do this and you die (this mostly happens to tourists), it’s honestly your fault! There are signs everywhere but no one obeys the laws.
  6. Don’t geotag your location, unless you want to be part of a shoot out with poachers trying to kill elephants for ivory and rhinos for their horns.
  7. Don’t try and bribe the cops. Some locals might do this, but this doesn’t mean you should, even if the police ask for a bribe, say no!
  8. South Africans are usually very respectful of older people and treat them with respect. Older men are frequently addressed respectfully with Tata (Xhosa word for father), Oom (Afrikaans word for uncle) or sir. Women elders can be heard being called Mama (Xhosa word for mum) or Tannie (Afrikaans word for aunt) or ma’am. Though this may seem odd to some, by speaking like this people are showing respect for their elders.
  9. Expat Tax comes into effect in March 2020. Learn more about South Africa’s New Expat Tax HERE!
  10. It’s illegal to show public displays of affection (PDA) if you’re under the age of 16.
  11. If you are ever driving in South Africa and a herder and his cattle want to cross the road, you must yield! Herders have the right of way on the road.
  12. If you’re under the age of 18, it’s illegal to sit more than 12 inches from strangers when wearing swimwear.
  13. Drugs are illegal. Medical marijuana is legal though!

How to get around in South Africa

Many people choose to rent a car during their time in South Africa. This provides you with more freedom and flexibility during your travels, but there are some things which you should be aware of.

Rental cars are available almost exclusively with manual transmissions. Automatic cars are more expensive.

Our public transport isn’t that great especially in the rural areas of the country. You can also opt to Cycle in South Africa, not only will this be a great way to save money on transportation, but it’s another great way to travel in South Africa.

Read: Guide to driving in South Africa

Annoying FAQ South Africans get asked abroad

The ignorance and stereotypes regarding Africa are alarming and I find it scary that most of these questions are asked by adults.

What is Africa like?

I honestly never know how to answer this. Like where do I even start? Do I tell people that Africa is not a country? Africa is the second-largest continent and home to 54 independent countries. Despite international artists announcing “world tours” yet Africa is never on their list. *side-eyes Beyoncé*. There is no way to describe Africa as the countries are different.


I know someone who lives in (insert place). Do you know him or her?

South Africa is not a village or a small town. It’s a country with a population of 58 million+. Our country is the 24th largest country in the world and twice the size of France. Your friend and I somehow knowing each other would be a miracle!

Are there white people in South Africa

My friend gets this all the time: “You’re from South Africa, why are you white?”

South Africa was colonized by the Dutch starting in 1652 and became a major British colony in 1795. South Africa is a diverse country with a population of 7.8% – white, 80.9% – black, 8.8% – colored (mixed race) and 2.5% – Asian, we are known as the ”rainbow nation”, and rightly so. African is not a race!

Some famous white South Africans:

I watched Blood Diamond. {insert comment about the sad story}

Blood Diamond is actually set in Sierra Leone during the civil war. The story of the film is pure fiction however, the brutality portrayed in the film is accurate but does not depict the daily occurrences in South Africa. Apart from having a few South African actors, the movie has nothing to do with South Africa.

There are animals galore

I have been asked on so many occasions if I’ve seen a lion and the answer is no. Believe it or not, there are people who live in SA and have never seen wild animals as they are kept in zoos or game reserves. So no, there are no wild animals roaming our streets, and yes, we have to pay to see them.

South African has more wildlife than anywhere else on the African continent. We even call our national rugby team, “the springboks” – a medium-sized antelope only found in Southern Africa.

SA is also home to the largest game reserve in the world – Kruger National Park. If you want to swim with crocodiles, go shark cage diving or even see African penguins at the beach, South Africa is the destination for you!

Get Insurance before traveling to South Africa

Use travel insurance while visiting SA so you are covered for theft and medical expenses. There are a lot of adventurous activities to do in South Africa, and it’s best to have peace of mind while swimming, hiking and trying some of the best food in the world.


Find out why I recommend World Nomads, check out my World Nomads Insurance review.

Disclaimer: This article contains affiliate links. This means that if you make a booking after clicking on a link, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you!

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