Home Finance Banking Guide to banks in South Africa
Last update on October 26, 2021
Written by Stephen Maunder

When moving to South Africa, you’ll need to set up a bank account to send and receive money. Use this guide to get acquainted with banks in South Africa.

The South African banking system has its own quirks but has made significant strides in implementing new technologies in the last decade. However, the type of bank account and financial services that you’ll be able to access will depend on your South African visa. This guide to banking in South Africa includes advice on the following:

The banking system in South Africa

The South African Reserve Bank oversees the banking system in South Africa. It works with the government to help form and implement economic policies. The Reserve Bank is charged with protecting the value of the South African rand (R) and controlling inflation.

South Africa is home to various types of banking institutions. These include locally controlled banks, mutual banks, co-operative banks, international banks and foreign banks. Banks in South Africa hold a total of around R6 trillion in deposits.

According to a 2019 report by Deloitte, around 80% of South Africans have a bank account, but the majority of day-to-day purchases are paid for with cash.

young man shops for groceries in south african supermarket

Currency in South Africa

South Africa uses the rand currency, with money available in rands (R) and Cents (C). Banknotes are printed in denominations of R200, R100, R50, R20 and R10. Coins come in denominations of R5, R2, R1, 50c, 20c, 10c and 5c.

The South African currency’s banknotes display the country’s ‘big five’ animals – the rhinoceros, elephant, lion, buffalo and leopard. They have advanced security features such as watermarks, raised printing and a security thread to make them hard to forge.

As of 2021, exchange rates are as follows:

  • US dollar: 0.072 – US$1 equals R13.84
  • Euro: 0.059 – €1 equals R16.95
  • UK pound sterling: 0.051 – £1 equals R19.60

Cash machines and ATMs in South Africa

ATMs are fairly easy to find in cities and larger towns. Major South African banks have branches where you can withdraw cash at machines or over the counter.

Cash machines charge a fee for withdrawals. This is usually a flat amount regardless of how much you withdraw. How much you’ll pay depends on your bank and the type of account you have. Some South African banks charge more if you use an ATM operated by a competitor.

Banks in South Africa

The four biggest banking groups in South Africa are Standard Bank Group, FirstRand Ltd (which operates First National Bank), Absa Group, and Nedbank Group. These four banking groups provide more than 80% of banking services in South Africa.

Woman banking online on her laptop

National banks have branches across South Africa. Bank branches are generally open from 9am to 3:30pm Monday to Friday (sometimes up to 4–5pm), and 8:30am to 11am on Saturdays (sometimes up to 12-1pm). Some branches open on Sunday mornings, but this is rare. Banks located in airports may adjust their hours to accommodate international flights.

Banking services in South Africa

In addition to current and savings accounts, most major South African banks offer loans, mortgages, and investment services. Some also provide car and home insurance services.

  • Current accounts: These accounts are for day-to-day banking. They allow you to withdraw money at branches and ATMs, and manage your account and send money online. Basic accounts are available with low monthly fees, but you’ll need to pay additional charges for transactions and cash withdrawals. Once you have an account, you can apply for an overdraft.
  • Savings and investments: Banks offer a range of savings and investment accounts. The rates you’ll get will depend on how much you’re saving or investing and whether you need instant access to the money or are willing to lock it up for a longer period.
  • Credit cards: The biggest banks offer a range of different credit cards. Most come with monthly fees, and some require you to earn a minimum amount each month to qualify.
  • Loans: Most major banks offer personal loans, with interest rates and maximum terms depending on how much you’re borrowing and your circumstances. Some banks will offer you cheaper loans if you switch your current account across when applying.
  • Mortgages: Most major banks offer mortgages, though expats need bigger deposits than South African nationals, and all loans must be approved by the South African Reserve Bank. You can find out more in our guide to mortgages in South Africa.

Opening a bank account in South Africa

The type of bank account you can open in South Africa will depend on the type of visa that you have. Expats with tourist visas can only open non-resident bank accounts, whereas those with temporary or permanent residence visas can open a resident bank account.

To open a bank account in South Africa, you’ll need to provide proof of residence, employment status, and a declaration of any assets you’ve brought into the country.

It is possible to arrange a resident account while still in your home country, but this can be complicated due to the amount of paperwork involved. You’ll also need to have a notary sign your documentation.

Payment methods in South Africa

Cash

Despite advances in banking technology, many people in South Africa continue to use cash as their main form of payment. A report by Deloitte found inadequate connectivity, high data costs, a lack of trust in alternatives, and low levels of financial literacy were among the reasons the country has yet to fully adopt digital payments.

young women shop for clothes in South Africa

Checks

Checks (cheques) are no longer common in South Africa, having been superseded by debit and credit technology. Most places won’t accept checks due to the increased prospect of fraud or forgeries when compared with other payment methods.

Debit cards and credit cards

Visa and Mastercard are the most common debit card types used with current accounts in South Africa. Both are recognized around the world and can be used in millions of locations from high street shops to online. Visa and Mastercard are popular primarily due to this coverage and their security features.

It’s also possible to pay using contactless technology operated by Mastercard Tap and Go and Visa payWave. Both of these services allow you to pay for transactions worth R500 or less by tapping your card on a reader. If your transaction costs more than R500, you’ll need to enter your PIN number.

American Express and Diners Club cards are also among the credit card options in South Africa, though they are less commonly used and are accepted in fewer places than Visa and Mastercard.

Direct debits and standing orders

It’s possible to use direct debits to pay your bills in South Africa, and as in other countries you’re able to set up recurring or one off payments.

There are several ways residents in South Africa can transfer money or pay utility bills. The three most commonly used debit orders in South Africa are:

  • EFT (Electronic Funds Transfer): bank transfer system in South Africa available for customers of ABSA, Nedbank, FNB and Standard Bank.
  • NAEDO (Non-authenticated Early Debit Order): uses paper or voice verification rather than PIN numbers.
  • AEDO (Authenticated Early Debit Order): An AEDO requires the account holder to enter their PIN to verify future dated payments.

Online and mobile payments

If you’re transferring money within South Africa, you’ll usually be able to do this through your online banking service. Some banks also allow you to transfer money via their app, though others only offer basic banking through their apps (such as checking your balance). Whether you’ll need to pay a fee when transferring money depends on which bank you and the recipient use.

couple online banking in South Africa

International money transfers

South Africa has tight controls on international money transfers outside of the Common Monetary Area (CMA) that it shares with Lesotho, Swaziland, and Namibia. Residents can transfer up to R1 million a year outside the CMA without having to seek permission.

Bank transfers can take up to a week, while SWIFT transfers (an international payment system used in South Africa) can usually be completed much quicker if you’re using a major bank in South Africa.

Transfer costs vary depending on commission, exchange rates and the complexity of the transfer. Some banks charge a flat fee for international transfers regardless of how much you’re sending and to where, while others can negotiate on fees if you’re transferring a large sum of money.

If you want to cut out the banks, you can use a specialist currency dealer to handle the transfer. This way, you can sometimes benefit from a better exchange rate or lower transfer fees. For international money transfers, there are alternative solutions to banks that could prove cheaper and more convenient, such as:

Banking fees in South Africa

There are a range of fees attached to current accounts in South Africa. The vast majority of accounts come with a monthly fee, which varies depending on the service offered.

Banks have been battling to to offer the cheapest deals on current accounts, leading to entry-level bank accounts only costing a few rand per month.

Mid-range ‘bundled’ bank accounts charge more but have lower fees for withdrawals and payments. Research by BusinessTech shows that the average monthly fee for the four biggest banks in 2021 is as follows:

  • First National Bank: R89
  • Absa: R109
  • Standard Bank: R110
  • Nedbank: R115

Withdrawal fees when taking out R500 range from R7.50 (Standard Bank) to R11 (Nedbank). Fees for depositing R500 at ATMs vary from zero (Nedbank) to R10 (Absa). Fees for sending money to other accounts vary depending on the type of account you hold and whether the recipient is with the same bank.

Offshore banking in South Africa

Expats living in South Africa may find that opening an international offshore account is a good way to manage their finances.

South African citizens can take a maximum of R10m a year offshore subject to tax clearance, or a maximum of R1m without tax clearance, although you will need to register this with the Reserve Bank.

If you decide to move money offshore, you’ll need to use an authorized bank to make the transaction. Once you’ve transferred your money, you can convert it into your currency of choice and leave it in an account or invest it.

Alternatively, it’s possible to deposit your savings in an offshore fund, although your cash will remain in South African currency as it won’t physically leave South Africa. The minimum deposits for these funds are a lot lower than directly banking offshore and you won’t need tax clearance.

If you’re considering investing your cash offshore, you should speak to a financial adviser to ensure you’re making the best use of your savings.

Ethical banking in South Africa

Banks in South Africa are undergoing a sustainability push at the moment, with leading banks committing to incorporate climate risk into their lending.

In May 2021, the International Finance Corp announced it would provide up to $150 million to Absa Bank to finance renewable energy and climate change projects.

solar panels, ethical banks in south africa

Banks are competing to offer more sustainable investing and saving. Nedbank describes itself as South Africa’s ‘green bank’, while Standard Bank sold a $200 million green bond to the International Finance Corp in 2020, with the intention of funding renewable energy projects and environmentally-friendly buildings.

Banking security and fraud in South Africa

South Africa has a problem with bank scams, despite banks using increasingly advanced security measures to protect their customers’ money. Data from the South African Banking Risk Information Centre shows that in 2019, fraud losses on South African issued bank cards grew by 20%, to reach R1.07 billion.

In April 2021, the Ombudsman for Banking Services (OBS) said it received daily complaints from consumers who had been deceived by phone calls from scammers claiming they work for their bank. In many cases, victims found it difficult or even impossible to get their money back.

The OBS says people who receive phone calls claiming to be from their bank should visit or call their nearest branch if they have any doubts about the legitimacy of the call. Standard Bank provides a list of the most common types of bank scams to be wary of.

Lost or stolen bank cards in South Africa

If you’ve lost your bank card or have had it stolen, you’ll need to call a 24-hour call centre operated by your bank. You may need to pay a fee to have the card replaced if your account doesn’t come with insurance against lost cards.

Replacement cards are usually sent to your home address or your local branch. While you’re waiting for your card to arrive you can access emergency cash at the bank, although this can also be subject to a charge.

Making a complaint about banks in South Africa

If you have an issue with a South African bank, you must first contact the bank and go through its complaints procedure. When responding to your complaint in writing, the bank should provide you with a complaint reference number.

If you’re unhappy with the response or don’t receive one within 20 days, you can escalate the complaint to the Ombudsman for Banking Services.

Useful resources