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What you need to Know

A visit to Africa invokes images of jungles, safaris and elephants, deserts and adventure, cultural diversity, so many languages. While Africa indeed contains all these elements, visiting South Africa is an easy choice for most Westerners because inspite of all their diversity in ethnic, culture and languages, they speak the same language (English) and have a variety of cosmopolitan and modern culture that balances the unsullied wilds. In fact, South Africa has a vast range of opportunities for travellers, whether you're looking for a rugged adventure, a food and wine tour or a spiritual experience. South Africa is a place to be for everyone.

what you need to know

Here's everything you need to know before you travel to South Africa:

How long can I stay without a visa?

Many countries do not require a visa for South Africa provided your visit to the country is for less than 90 days long. In a case one is not sure if they need a visa, they need to note that their passport expiration date MUST be at least 30 days after the date of their intended return for US Citizen. It is advisable that you always check the latest regulations before any travelling just to be sure. It is ones responsibility to ensure that their passport is up to date. You'll need at least one blank page in your passport for the entry stamp which will be added at customs, and they recommend that you have two blank pages, just in case you get a squirrelly customs official.

What's the local currency? Do they take credit cards?

When you are in South Africa you will use the South African Rand which is the local currency. The Rand to the USD fluctuates regularly, sometimes extremely depending on the date of your travel, you should check the rates both when you price and when you book. Over the past 4 years, the highest it has been was 15 Rand and the lowest of 9 Rand.

Once you are in South Africa, you will get money out of an ATM in Rands, and you will be charged a foreign transaction fee of about 3% by your bank, whether you get cash out or use a credit card. This can be expensive, so make sure you budget for it. Some Note credit cards have no foreign transaction fees. Also, banks close early in South Africa; usually 3:30PM and are only open until noon or 1PM on Saturdays (and are closed Sundays), except in the International airports where they are opened as early as 2AM and closed as late as 11PM. It’s important that you plan accordingly.

Depending on where you are going in the country, in some rural areas ATMs may be unavailable in rural areas; this is one time you might want to consider bringing extra cash and really planning ahead, but note that a money belt especially an invisible one that you wear inside your clothes, is extremely important in that case.

It is of pivotal that you call and arrange with your bank before you leave your country for any foreign country to make sure that your debit/credit cards are activated to work in a foreign land. Many times, we have had tour guests calling back to their home country because their transactions were declined. It's a fraud concern for the banks, so they are all pretty careful.

Many places will take all the usual credit cards, but again, some may not, so its important to plan according to your trip. For any big city in South Africa like Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and many others it’s not a problem, but if you're staying in a rural area, plan for extra cash and extra vigilance to go along with it.

How do I get around?

Bussiness2Africa offers you a travelling experience with a tour guide. In any case if you are to travel the country with a group tour in a comfy air-conditioned coach there will be a tour guide/ leader. Alternatively you can also rent a car. South Africa has a good road network. For the most part the roads are tarred and well sign posted, one can also hire GPS units with your vehicle and your tour operator will supply driving directions to complement your GPS. Plan your trip in advance if you're driving; you may need a 4x4 for places where the road becomes gravel or dirt especially if you are going to rural areas, safaris.

In Johannesburg, the relatively new Gauteng Rail System, the Gautrain is a good option if you want to travel fast within the provincial cities. You can also take the train to the airport. You can choose what to use from a range of transport systems available in the country, from taxis, buses, trains, private cars and airplanes. But if you want to enjoy and explore a 4x4 is recommended as opposed to an airplane and train.

What languages do they speak?

South Africa is a diversed country with 11 official languages, and a few more other unofficial languages spoken in the country such as French, Chinese, and Portuguese. The country is often labelled as a 'rainbow nation' because of its cultural and ethnical diversity.

Although English is spoken throughout the country and is most used in a business environment, it is actually only the 5th most common home language spoken in the country. The most widely spoken home language is isiZulu, then isiXhosa (Nelson Mandela's 'home' language) and then Afrikaans. Most South Africans are multilingual, which means they will be able to converse with you in more than one language.

What customs are appropriate for me to follow?

In South Africa we normally pay 10% of the bill as a tip in a restaurant, but if you received an exciting service or for whatever reason you are feeling excited, you are more than welcome to tip with any amount of your choice above 10%.

For a porter you can pay any amount you like to pay. Just be sure it’s out of your own willingness, there is absolutely nothing wrong in giving. If you are self-driving, you will come across many 'car guards' in most public parking areas, Although it is not compulsory to tip the car guards, but it is pretty much the norm to tip up to R10 (approx. 1 USD). These car guards can be quite persistent and at times you may feel a little harassed; keep smiling! If you are driving yourself, know that driver is on the right in South African cars.

Do they drink/do drugs/party?

While you can drink in South Africa almost anywhere, but public spaces are respected and if caught drinking publicly you can be prosecuted. There are clubs in the big cities like Joburg and Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth as well as a plethora of bars and restaurants throughout South Africa, the drinking age in South Africa is 18 years and older.

Many of the most popular night clubs do charge an entrance fee. Although drugs are available in the bigger night clubs, this is not in plain sight. Marijuana is illegal in South Africa, but if you wish, I mean there is always a way.

Like most of the US, you can't smoke in restaurants or any public areas in South Africa. Some restaurants offer a smoking room, which is usually glassed-in and sealed-off. Certain restaurants do not allow you to smoke if you are dining alfresco (outdoors) which is similar to most US laws. It’s advisable that you always ask before lighting up.

What vaccines do I need prior to visiting South Africa?

You don't need any, unless you have been traveling through other countries in the "Yellow Fever Belt" in which case you will be required to show proof of a yellow fever shot. With the recent uprising of Ebola in the African continent, you might be required to take a test before entering South Africa, especially if you have been travelling the Ebola diagnosed countries. The CDC recommends many immunizations for all travellers (such as measles, mumps, polio, etc.) they also suggest rabies, hepatitis A, tetanus, and typhoid, as there is a risk of exposure to all of these. Please make your own decision with your doctor.

Is it safe? Should I buy travel insurance?

South Africa is relatively safe as far as homicide rates, with US cities like New Orleans and Detroit ranking far higher than any South African city, though Cape Town has a high rate of crime common to tourists, such as muggings.

But this absolutely shouldn't affect your choices to go; it does mean you should travel in groups and in larger cities like Cape Town or Joburg take extra precautions, and with the assistant of a tour guide who knows safe and dangerous corners and times in every city you will be safe.

For your own safety, do not leave your hotel grounds alone at night, keep your tour guide and other party members informed as to your whereabouts, keep your valuables in a safe place all the times, always be on a lookout to anything or anyone suspicious and be smart about your safety.

Make sure to keep your belongings hidden in public, don't leave them laying around in your car especially if there is no one in the car, and make sure to use your hotel's safe for your passport and any valuables. Consider leaving expensive jewellery at home or keep them safe in a hotel.

Of course it’s a good idea to consider travel insurance. If you are headed out into the bush, where medical treatment may not be available immediately or a local hospital may be below first-world standards, the medical part of your travel insurance policy will likely offer coverage called "medical evacuation." This means you can get airlifted out of the area to a nearest place where you can get best medication, or a trained nurse from the insurance company can fly to your location to assess whether you will be sent home or operated on.

What kind of power converter do I need?

South Africa uses a currency of 220/230 volts, 15 amps for a 3-prong, round pin plug and 5 amps for a 2-prong round pin plug. If you are coming from almost anywhere, you will need a power converter.

Will my cell phone work there (and cost more than I earn in a month to use?)

Like any other foreign country, it will be far cheaper for you to buy or bring a small cell phone and get a local number, than it will be for you to use your own cell phone and keep your home number. Ask at your hotel, tour guide, etc. It won't be their first time receiving such request, and they will gladly assist you.

How's the food? Can I drink the water?

If you're staying at a 4-star hotel in Johannesburg or any other city, they will definitely have a full water filtration system. On the other hand, if you are out in the bush, you are encouraged to bring tablets or a filtration system to make your available water potable. Make sure you plan ahead depending on the needs of your trip.

In remote locations at the game lodges, you will be able to purchase bottled water; most of the lodges will also offer filtered water, where you can fill up with a water bottle (a souvenir water bottle is often provided by lodge). Lodges focus on being ecologically friendly and bottled water is one of the blights on the environment with all the plastic

As to food, of course you can get fresh local food these days, and if you are on a high-end safari such as the Eco sport offered by Thula Thula, you will be dining on gourmet meals every night. That said, the variety of food offered may be different from what you are accustomed to. It’s always wise to make prior arrangements through your travel agent or tour operator if you have any dietary restrictions or allergies.

Enjoy the vastness of nature and the variety of culture in South Africa as you see the world through new eyes. Africa is not a wild land where you find wild animals sleeping with people in the same house. It’s just rich with nature.