South Africa Travel: Visas, Health, Transport, & More

Aerial view of Johannesburg, South Africa
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South Africa is one of the African continent's most popular destinations for overseas travelers, and for good reason. Its spectacular natural wonders include beautiful beaches, vast expanses of semi-desert, snow-capped mountains, and game reserves filled with exotic wildlife. You can explore world-class restaurants, theaters, and art galleries in Cape Town and Johannesburg; or get an insight into tribal culture in South Africa's traditional rural villages. This article helps you to plan your trip with information about visas, health concerns, the weather, and more.

Visa Requirements

Citizens of most countries (including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, most European countries, Australia, and New Zealand) do not need a visa to enter South Africa for tourism purposes, as long as your stay doesn't exceed 90 days. Requirements of entry for visa-exempt nationals include a valid passport with at least one blank page, proof of return or onward travel, and proof of yellow fever vaccination if you are traveling from a yellow fever country. Your passport must be valid for at least 30 days after your intended date of departure.

Check the Department of Home Affairs website for an up-to-date list of visa-exempt countries, and to find out about applying for a tourist visa if your country isn't listed.

Health & Safety

Vaccinations & Malaria

The CDC advises that all travelers make sure their routine vaccinations are up-to-date before visiting South Africa. Hepatitis A and typhoid vaccinations are recommended for all visitors, while hepatitis B and rabies may be required for some travelers depending on their intended destination and activities. Malaria is a risk in areas of the Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, and prophylactis are advised. If you're traveling from a yellow fever endemic country, remember that proof of yellow fever vaccination is a compulsory entry requirement.

General Medical Advice

South Africa has some of the best doctors and hospitals in the world, although the standard of care in government facilities is often poor. Therefore, visitors should make sure that their travel insurance covers treatment in a private hospital in case of emergency. Tap water is generally safe to drink throughout the country, although it can taste and look off-color in some areas. Remember that drinking untreated water from rivers and lakes puts you at risk of contracting bilharzia. Additionally, South Africa has one of world's highest rates of HIV, so be sure to take the necessary precautions to avoid contact with contaminated bodily fluids.

Staying Safe

South Africa has a high crime rate, both for petty theft and for more serious crimes including car-jackings, home invasions, rape, and murder. However, violent crime is most common in informal settlements and the poorer areas of big cities, and rarely affects tourists. To avoid being a victim of petty theft, don't advertise large amounts of cash or expensive jewelry, and don't walk alone at night. South Africa's roads are amongst the best in Africa and renting a car is a great way to get around. However, try to travel during daylight hours, keep your windows and doors locked when driving through big cities, and don't leave valuables visible in a parked car.

Read this article for a more detailed overview on staying safe in South Africa.

Currency

The currency in South Africa is the South African rand, which is divided into 100 cents. Coins come in denominations of 10c, 20c, 50c, R1, R2, and R5, and notes in denominations of R10, R20, R50, R100, and R200. Smaller coins exist and are considered legal tender, but are no longer minted. Due to favorable exchange rates, South Africa is an inexpensive destination for most first-world visitors. Visa and Mastercard cards are widely accepted and ATM machines are readily available in most cities and towns. Tipping is normal; read this article for in-depth advice. In particular, remember to tip car guards (men in fluorescent tabards who look after your car in public parking areas).

Weather

South Africa's seasons are the reverse of those in the northern hemisphere. For example, summer lasts from November to February, while winter lasts from June to August. Summers can be very hot, especially in the northern provinces of the Northern Cape, North West, Limpopo, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, and KwaZulu-Natal. Summer coincides with the rainy season in every province except the Western Cape and can see high levels of humidity. Winters are generally mild, but can be much colder in the south of the country, with snow regularly falling on the mountainous regions of the Eastern and Western Cape provinces.

When to Go

South Africa is absolutely a year-round destination. Some seasons are better than others for specific activities, however. If you are planning on going on safari, the June to September dry season is traditionally considered the best time for wildlife-viewing. June to November is whale season along the east coast, while August and September are the best months for viewing the annual wildflower bloom on the west coast. Birders should time their visit with the summer months, when migrants arrive from North Africa and Europe and resident species are sporting their breeding plumage. Summer is also the best time for sunny beach days in and around Cape Town.

Most South Africans plan their vacations during the long school holiday from mid-December to the end of January so hotels, tours, and lodges book up quickly during this time.

Getting There

By Air

Most overseas visitors fly into South Africa. There are several international airports, but by far the biggest is O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. Major airlines fly into O.R. Tambo from all over the world, with Delta and South African Airways offering direct flights from Atlanta and New York respectively. The cheapest flights from North America will have a stop-over in Europe or the Middle East. South African Airways is the country's national carrier and used to have an excellent reputation for service and safety. At the time of writing, however, the airline's future is threatened by bankruptcy and travelers are advised to explore other options.

By Land

South Africa shares multiple land borders with Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. You can view a full list of these international border posts here, along with the latest opening times and advice for making the crossing with your own vehicle (whether it's owned or rented). Several bus companies offer overland services between various countries in Southern Africa. One of the most popular is Intercape, which operates in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique. You can also enter South Africa via train. The Shongololo Express offers luxury journeys through five Southern African countries.

Getting Around

If your time is limited, the quickest and easiest way to traverse the considerable distances between South Africa's major cities and tourist destinations is via aeroplane. South Africa has a wide choice of domestic airlines, with the biggest being South African Airways, SA Airlink, South African Express, Kulula.com, FlySafair, and Mango. If you have more time on your hands, rent a car and explore South Africa's well-maintained road network at your own pace. Major car rental companies including Hertz, Avis, and Europcar are all found in the country's bigger cities.

Cape Town's Metrorail and the Gautrain (which connects Johannesburg and Pretoria) are generally considered safe. Other trains and public mini-vans, known locally as taxis, are not. Uber is now available in several South African cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth, and Durban. Finally, several long-distance bus companies operate between South Africa's bigger towns and cities. Intercape and Greyhound are two of the biggest, while the Baz Bus remains a solid choice for backpackers on a budget.

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