Home Living in South Africa Transport Advice for buying a car in South Africa as a foreigner
Last update on June 11, 2021

You will need a car here, trust me. And buying it won’t be the quickest or easiest thing you’ve ever done, so it’s best to come prepared.

One of the hassles of an overseas move is having to buy a car in an entirely new country. You might decide to forego the car and do with public transport, but South Africa is not the place for that. You will need a car here, trust me. And buying it won’t be the quickest or easiest thing you’ve ever done, so it’s best to come prepared.

Buying a car in South Africa

When the kids and I first arrived in Johannesburg, I fully expected to find a shiny new car in the garage. After all, my husband had already been here for months, and I consider car-buying to be “guy territory.” But, sadly, this was not the case. Things don’t move that quickly in South Africa, and he hadn’t even gotten his own company car yet, driving a beat-up Toyota rental instead.

If you’re the trailing spouse, my advice to you: Don’t rely on your better half to have set up much – he or she will be incredibly busy with a demanding and time-consuming new job with many challenges most previous jobs will not have prepared them for. You’ll be lucky if you’ve already got a place to live. However, most companies employ one or more drivers, so in our case I made use of that service quite a bit before I inherited the aforementioned Toyota.

The cost of buying a car

The first challenge of buying a car in South Africa is paying for it. Car prices are about twice as high on average as in the United States (admittedly a country with very low car prices), so you’d best adjust your expectations. What’s more, the market is not quite as big, so once you’ve settled on a car you like, you might not be able to find one. Check the relevant dealers or used car websites early to get a better idea of what’s out there.

Smash-and-grab protection

One thing to look for when car-shopping is smash-and-grab protection. It’s a film that protects your windshield and windows against being smashed in, and most higher-end cars will come already equipped with it. But if not, you can add it later. It’s a good thing to have, and your insurance company might require it.

Bank accounts

Paying for your car also involves actually having the money, which means you need a bank account. To set up your South African bank account, you will need to show proof of residence (like your utility bill, however you might not have that right away or not have it in your name, so the lease agreement with your address and your name on it is a good substitute) as well as your passport, including visa. You will need those documents again later when registering your car.

Ownership certificates

So let’s say you found a car and have money in your bank account to pay for it – what next?  In most places I’ve lived, you would now meet at the bank with the seller, transfer the title to the car in return for the money, and drive away. But not so fast. Here in South Africa, there is no such thing as a title. Rather, you get a “Certificate of Registration” instead. This takes some time, however, and most people obtain it later, after purchasing the car.

This caused a bit confusion for us, because we – my husband, mostly – were not about to hand over a stack of money without receiving some kind of document in return. Our car dealer assured us that this is how it’s done in South Africa, and even offered to obtain the registration for us, but we were suspicious (and actually told to be very suspicious by our relocation agent – looking back I would say some of the “advice” we got from them was a bit racially tinged), so we opted for the much longer route of obtaining the registration first. In hindsight, I would say that if you’re purchasing from a regular car dealership, you can go ahead and pay them, get the car in return, and let them then handle all your paperwork without worry.

South African paperwork

The paperwork in question is a) a roadworthiness certificate, b) the application for registration mentioned above, c) the current owner’s registration certificate d) proof of purchase, and e) a license plate. As I said, the car dealership will handle all of this for you, but even so, you will need to appear in person at your closest Licensing Department (most likely the Randburg Civic Centre if you live anywhere in the Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg) to apply for a Traffic Register Number. Foreign nationals need this number in lieu of a South African ID, a fact that some car dealerships are not aware of. It’s best to go first thing in the morning and make sure you bring your lease agreement, passport, passport pictures, and foreign drivers’ license. The application process will take a few days, meaning you will have to go there again to pick up your certificate, at which time the transfer of ownership can take place. Don’t be discouraged if the lines are long. Most people will be there for a drivers’ license renewal or something of that sort, and you should be whisked right through to the car registration counter.

Vehicle licensing

In our case, this experience was pretty comical (only in hindsight of course – while you’re experiencing these things you tend to curse and foam at the mouth). Once we had found a car we liked – after about two weeks – and then finally determined that we needed to get it registered before handing over any money – another week – I set out for the Licensing Department in Randburg, armed with all my paperwork. Or so I thought, until I discovered that a passport picture would be needed. Fortunately, some enterprising street vendors were at hand – as they are everywhere in South Africa – and beckoned me to a tent-like office where a picture could be taken and printed out instantaneously for R20. Armed with this I went back to my queue and proceeded to fill in the lengthy application. I eventually advanced to the inner sanctum where a very bored-looking woman took all my papers and proceeded to enter everything into a computer.

Eventually she wanted to see my passport, but after a quick glance handed everything back to me and told me it was no good, she couldn’t give me the traffic register number. What? After all this hassle? It turns out that you can’t get a traffic register number – which, you’ll remember, is the key ingredient in getting the car registered – if you don’t have a permanent visa. My temporary one was no good.

Please note that you are never told these things upfront in South Africa. No one ever gives you a list with every single requirement. Instead you show up with what was mentioned over the phone, get sent home again because something that wasn’t mentioned is missing, and show up a few days later with the missing one, only to be told that now something else is required as well. Please also note the irony of driving back and forth between home and the licensing office when what you don’t actually have is a car! But there was nothing to be done for me but to grab a new form, take it home to my husband, and strong-arm him into driving to Randburg through morning traffic and waiting in line on my behalf – all another week’s worth of time gone by. But I was still lucky in that he had his permanent visa, whereas many expats arrive here without them, in which case they are stuck without a car. So your number one requirement, if you want to purchase a car in South Africa, is to have at least one permanent visa in your family’s possession.

Insurance and tracking

Once you’ve purchased your car, stuck your license plates on, and affixed the round disk you’ve cut out from the registration certificate to the inside of your windshield (which by the way is renewable every year but you will get a notice in the mail for that), you will still need two things: Insurance and a tracking service. Most insurance companies will insure your vehicle over the phone according to the make of the car, and then follow up with an at-home visit to make sure you actually own a car and aren’t buying phantom insurance. They will also most likely require you to have a tracking service like Altech Netstar in case of theft (about R160 per month).

I hope my tips will help you buy a car in less time than the month it took us. But remember, this is Africa, and things move a bit more slowly here. On the bright side, the one thing you won’t need to get is a drivers’ license. Your foreign license is perfectly fine for a certain period. I’ve been stopped by police several times and my American license was sufficient every time. There you have one less errand to run that might have been on your moving checklist!


Car registration offices:

Reprinted with permission of Joburg Expat.