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South Africa Driving Guide 2020

South Africa's scenery and cities are not to be missed. With your International Driving Permit, you'll be able to explore all of it at your own pace.

Lisa Brown

January 20, 2020

INTRODUCTION

South Africa is a gorgeous country with plenty of must-see locales. Don’t let the idea of driving in South Africa vs. the USA keep you from traveling and driving there. If you drive in South Africa, you’ll see scenery that will drop your jaw, and you’ll definitely want to have your own vehicle to travel in from place to place. To see the most incredible places that are out of the way or even in large cities, you’ll be most comfortable with a rental car so you can come and go as you want.

Hiring a vehicle is much more expedient than relying on public or private transportation because you can stick to your own itinerary. You can certainly get where you want to go in South Africa with its network of transportation hubs, but you’ll be dependent on their schedules and running around trying to make it to the station before the bus leaves or to the airport to catch the plane. If you travel with these or other similar modes of transportation, you miss out on so much of the scenery and local life.

South Africa is a fairly large-sized country with about 55,380,210 people, as of a July 2018 estimate. About 67 percent of the population lives in urban areas. In Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni, there are about 9.5 million people, and Cape Town, the legislative capital of the country, has about 4.5 million. Durban is another major urban area with about 3.1 million people, and Pretoria (administrative capital), has about 2.5 million people. In Port Elizabeth, there are about 1.24 million people, and about 769,000 in Vereeniging, as of 2019. So you have several cities in which you can tool around in your vehicle and explore the urban scene.

Driving in South Africa may make you a bit anxious since you don’t drive there on a daily basis. However, driving in the country won’t be difficult to master because of this driving guide. The country has rules and customs that you’ll get used to quickly, and you’ll soon be navigating roads and highways in South Africa with little trouble.

Renting a car will allow you to explore not just the big cities but also those all-important towns, villages and landmarks in South Africa.

Visiting South Africa

Tourism is an important part of the South African economy, and it accounted for 2.9 percent of South African gross domestic product in 2016. Tourism is even more important to the country’s economy than agriculture. Tourism jobs grew by 40,000 between 2012 and 2016. These numbers are a bit tricky to understand because activities related to tourism occur in more than one industry. For example, hotels are in the trade industry, and tour buses are considered transport, storage, and communication. Still, the impact of tourism on South Africa’s economy can’t be denied.

If you plan to travel to South Africa, especially during its busy summer season, you’ll be one of the millions who travel there to enjoy the country’s shores and beautiful scenery. In August of 2017 alone, 3.5 million visitors entered South Africa, with most of them coming from the US., the U.K., Germany, the Netherlands, and France. Nearly 100 percent of travelers to South Africa are there for holiday, and the rest are there for study and business.

According to the South African government, “visitors spent just over half a million rand [South African currency] (33,309$) every minute during the course of 2017!”. For the entire year, that was about R277 billion (18,453,728,920$). International visitors made up R121 billion (8,061,015,160$)- or about 44 percent of that, and domestic visitors made up the rest. Non-resident visitors spent most of their money on non-specific products, which was followed by lodging and products related to tourism, and the fourth and fifth most important line items in their budgets were road passenger and air transport (12 percent for each).

Transport equipment rental made up only 2 percent of what international visitors spent their money on in South Africa in 2017. Take advantage of the opportunity to rent a vehicle to get where you want to go in South Africa and spend your time differently than tourists who travel through the country but don’t really get to see it.

If you forget or make a last minute decision that you want to rent a car while you are in South Africa, it is possible to get an IDP through a premium fast track service, and it will be sent to you electronically in just a few hours.

What to See in South Africa

On your trip to South Africa, you may wonder what would be the best sites to visit are. One of the top places to check out on your list should be Kruger National Park. You can see so many types of wildlife there, such as lions, rhinoceros, leopards, elephants, and Cape buffalo. Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve is located in the northeastern area of South Africa, and it has a 33-kilometer gorge and tons of gorgeous landscapes. You can check out whales at Hermanus, Western Cape.

Also, make sure to visit Robben Island, which is the prison island near the coast of Cape Town and where Nelson Mandela was in held. For some fun in an urban area, check out Bo-Kaap in Cape Town. It’s a fun neighborhood with lots of restaurants with delicious food. A beautiful seaside location with a lighthouse is Umhlanga, KwaZulu-Natal. This is a resort town to the north of Durban, and it features a long promenade with gardens. You can also go swimming and surfing there.

If you’re into wine, check out the vineyards surrounded by mountains at Stellenbosch, the Cape Winelands. It features what it claims to be the only grape variety developed outside of Europe called Pinotage. If you head to Pretoria or Johannesburg in late October to early November, indulge your eyes with the purple Jacaranda blossoms hanging heavily from trees all over the South African cities.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

Do You Need an International Driving Permit in South Africa?

Traveling outside your home country and renting a car is one of the best ways to get a great feel for what the country is really like. You will need an International Driving Permit or International Driver’s License if you travel to certain countries. However, in South Africa, it’s alright if you don’t have an International Driving Permit, but still, it is advisable to have it in your pocket. Driving in South Africa with a foreign license and an international driving license or permit for South Africa will give you the confidence of a trouble-free trip.

Most car rental companies in South Africa, including First Car Rental, require foreign drivers to hold an International Driving Permit (IDP) as well as their foreign license. This is because there are certain Foreign Driver’s Licences that may not be covered in the event of an incident without the presence of an IDP. This car rental requirement is different from South African law, whereby international visitors who hold a Foreign Driver’s Licence are permitted to use that license to drive for up to a year after their arrival date in the country provided that the license is in English and has the driver’s photo.

You should carry your driver’s license with you all the time while you’re in South Africa. Make a copy, and put it in your luggage just in case the original is lost or stolen. Your friends and family should have a copy at home as well in case they need to send you a copy quickly.

What if You Plan to Travel Outside South Africa in Your Rental Vehicle?

Before you jump the gun and don’t get a permit, though, consider whether you plan to travel outside South Africa during your holiday. If a country that you want to visit requires an IDP, then you should plan to get one. That will save you some time and trouble when you’re on your trip because you’ll have it ready to go, and you can proceed with your travel plans without delay.

An IDP serves as a valid form of identification in many countries because it has your name, photo, and your driver information in 12 languages. If you have a valid driver’s license from any country, use it to apply online. You will also need a passport-sized photo to apply for your IDP.

If you think you will need a permit, it is a good idea to get it one week or two before you plan to travel for you to maximize the amount of time it is valid. You can apply for one online with little trouble and get it very quickly from the International Drivers Association website. An IDP is good for one year from the date it is issued, but if you travel a lot, you can apply for 2-3 years of validity. It is only valid when it is used along with a valid license.

Another consideration is whether your car rental company will allow you to take the car you rent out of the country. There may be restrictions on where you can drive the vehicle or how many miles you can put on the vehicle, so make sure you know the restrictions before you begin your trip. For example, you don’t want to travel outside the country if it is not permitted to avoid extra charges, and you don’t want to pay fees if you go over a mileage limit that your car rental company sets.

 

Renting a Car in South Africa

You will definitely want to rent a car if you want to see South Africa in all its glory. Plan well ahead of your visit to make sure you get the best price for the type of vehicle that you want. When you plan ahead, you don’t have to deal with any last-minute frustrations or overspending on services you don’t require or fees you don’t need to pay if you had allowed yourself the proper amount of time to carefully go over the process of renting a car in South Africa. You probably don’t want to mess with importing your car from the US to South Africa, especially if you’re there for just a short visit. Driving a US car in South Africa can take some serious planning and time to make sure you get all your documents in order before you import your vehicle.

As you read this article, carefully consider the driving law in South Africa and the driving direction in South Africa. The laws and the most basic idea of driving on the left can save you lots of trouble and hassle on your trip.

What is the minimum driving age in South Africa? The minimum age for driving certain types of motorcycles in South Africa is 17, and the legal driving age in South Africa for other types of vehicles is 18. This is true even if you have been issued a driver’s license in your home country. Many car rental companies require drivers to be over the age of 21, and you’ll probably have to pay extra fees if you’re under 25. Some companies won’t even rent a car to you if you’re not at least 25 years old. Some companies, however, do rent to those who are at least 18, the minimum age for driving a vehicle in the country.

So what’s the big deal about renting a car if you’re under 25? Well, the basic problem lies in the fact that drivers under 25 have many more accidents than older drivers. You’re going to pay a fee with most companies as a result if you’re under 25.

Check out at least a few rental car companies before you select one as they don’t offer the same prices on the same vehicles in many cases, and they may offer different promotions at different times. Join their mailing lists, or check out their websites and social media accounts often to get the latest on sales. You could get a break on the price of rentals if you rent your vehicle as part of a complete holiday package that includes lodging, airfare, etc. Joining a driving association can also save you some money as associations often partner with rental agencies to provide discounts to their members.

Read all of the documentation before you rent a vehicle. You should be aware of all of the potential charges that you could incur. For example, if you bring the vehicle back with less than a full tank of fuel, you’ll likely pay a surcharge. However, you may find this fee acceptable if you’re leaving early in the morning, and you don’t have time to fill the tank up before you go or if the price of fuel that the rental company has negotiated with fuel sellers is less than what you can purchase it for. Convenience and price might work in your favor in these circumstances.

Check out prices to rent a satellite navigation system if you don’t have your own, say on your mobile phone. Consider finding out what kind of navigation systems are available and if your personal option will work in South Africa by contacting rental companies directly. Additionally, there may be fees for additional insurance and driving on certain toll roads or highways. There could also be charges for driving over a certain number of miles or driving out of the country or out of a certain part of the country. The bottom line is to go over the fine print carefully before you rent a car and then to be aware of the potential charges before you leave the rental car company’s office.

Also, check on whether your car insurance will cover your rental in South Africa. You may not find that driving in South Africa with US insurance is a good idea. Check with your rental agency for insurance or perhaps with a travel insurance agency to see what your options are.

Now, if you’re thinking about truck driving jobs in South Africa or driving jobs in South Africa, then you may check with the national and local authorities on the requirements for the type of license you will need or get an International Driver’s Permit for your convenience. Your truck driving license from your country may not be acceptable.

Roads in South Africa

A US citizen driving in South Africa is likely to notice many differences and some similarities in the roads of South Africa compared to the US. When you drive on the main roads and highways in South Africa, you’ll find that they are well-maintained. They are long, no curves, and fast. You don’t need a four-wheel-drive vehicle in most places in the country. This is true even in the self-drive national parks and safari places like Kruger or Hluhluwe. There is some unevenness here and there, but you can drive over these places with little trouble with a two-wheel-drive vehicle.

Expect to pay a lot of tolls on the major roads as this helps to keep them in good shape. You may pay a few rands to over fifty rands for these tolls. You can pay through cash, or Visa or MasterCard credit cards on some. One exception is Gauteng, where you can buy prepaid tickets for one or more days. You’ll know well ahead of time that a toll road is coming up as there are signs that indicate their locations. You can also take alternative roads that are not toll roads, but you can expect these routes to take longer.

Renting a car can make these toll roads easier to handle because many companies put automatic toll readers in the car. So you just receive a bill from the rental company when you turn the vehicle back in with any tolls you have to pay. This is another fee to pay close attention to as you read through the paperwork on your rental.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

Speed Limits in South Africa

As an American driving in South Africa, you should know the speed limits. You don’t want to speed in South Africa. There are speed cameras all over the place in both larger cities and smaller towns. The fine will be sent straight to your car rental company. Then the rental company will charge your credit card for the amount.

Additionally, watch out for speed traps on the outside edges of towns. Police like to wait there for people to race out of town in an effort to get up to a faster speed once they leave a built-up area.

Speed limits in urban areas are 60 kilometers per hour, and it is 100 kph in rural areas. On highways (also called motorways), the speed limit is 120 kph.

 

South Africa Road Signs

Driving in South Africa can be a bit of an adventure because of the signage, or lack thereof, in the country. There may be no road signs when you expect them, and there may be some when you are looking for them. Even more interesting is the fact that the signs may not match with published road maps.

Be prepared for an adventure on your South African self-drive trip. You might think that the route is simple, but in areas that are more rural, you may find roads that pop up out of nowhere that don’t show up on your map or GPS at all. Even more fun is that road numbers and town names don’t always match what is on the map at times, and, sometimes, road signs stop completely.

Don’t be afraid to stop and ask for directions at a gas station or in a town. If someone helps you out with directions, you may hear, “Go right at the next robot.” A robot? What does that mean? Remember that English in different countries varies considerably. In South Africa, a “robot” refers to a traffic light.

As you drive, be careful because you will often see people walking on the side of the roads. Many children walk to school, and they may have a long way to go to get there. Don’t be surprised when you see livestock roaming across roads either, as they are not fenced in most situations. As you come across a hill or go around a curve, you may find cows right in front of you or goats eating grass. Drive carefully and slowly, and this is especially true at night when visibility is much lower than during the day.

South Africa Driving Laws

Driving in South Africa vs. the US can be very different, but driving in South Africa with US license is not a big deal. Just remember that you may need an IDP if you rent a car.

Before you go, make sure you know the driving rules in South Africa.
You’ll drive on the left side of the road in South Africa. All signs in the country are written in English. Additionally, you must wear a seat belt at all times in both the front and rear seats of a vehicle.

Avoid using your mobile phone when you drive as it is prohibited. Use a hands-free device, if there’s an urgent call. If you need to use your phone, you can also do so legally when you have safely parked the vehicle.

Driving under the influence in South Africa

The blood alcohol limit in South Africa is 50 mg per 100 mL of blood. Compare this to England, Wales, and Northern Ireland (except Scotland), where the BAC limit is 80 mg per 100 mL of blood.

Here are the national emergency numbers to know for driving: 10111 for police, and 10177 for fire and ambulance.

Children are not allowed to sit in front of a vehicle without a suitable restraint system. They can be in a rear-facing car seat up to three years old when the airbag is turned off. They must sit in the back of a vehicle with a booster seat up to twelve years old. When you rent your car, tell the rental company the particulars of your children (age, weight, height), so they can include the right safety seat for them.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

Police Stops

If you are stopped by the police in South Africa, give the officer your name, rental agency details, and the registration number for your vehicle. If you speed and are pulled over for this reason, ask for a speeding ticket. Then, turn the ticket into the hiring company when you turn the car in. If you forget to do this, the fine will automatically be sent to the rental company. Then the cost will be sent to you with an administration fee. You can also take the ticket to the local police station and pay it in-person. However, this can cut out on your holiday time and can take a long time to complete.

You might be asked to pay a fine on-the-spot if you are pulled over by an officer, but, beware: this is not legal. You don’t have to pay for it. In any instance, it’s typically a smart move to cooperate with whatever an officer wants you to do. Read the “Driving Safely in South Africa” section for more information about dealing with true police and those who pose as police.

Road Etiquette

Each country has its own unspoken and unwritten expectations for driving. You may find that driving in your country is much different than driving in South Africa. With the signage issues, and people and animals walking on the roads, you’re likely to find that your driving trip is more exciting than you’ve had in your own country. So it’s important to learn some of the expectations that locals have for driving in the country. You want to make a positive impression on them as you drive, so take note of these tips.

First, if you are not from a country where driving on the left is the norm, then this is one of the most important things to remember. Keep this in mind at all times so that you can avoid an accident. When you turn out of a fuel station,  make sure you move with the correct flow of traffic and don’t immediately turn right.

Have you ever wondered why some countries drive on the right and others on the left? The reasons involve history. In the past, people riding horses in Britain rode on the left side of the road so that their right arms would be free to wave at people they rode by or to draw their swords quickly in danger. Many former British colonies still drive on the left, including South Africa. In the United States, Teamsters drove animals rode the horse on the left while they drove a wagon so their right hands could whip the other horses. But to prevent accidents, they started driving on the right so they could better see other wagons’ wheels. Today, 165 countries drive on the right and 75 on the left, according to Rhino Car Hire’s website.

In South African cities, there is not much free parking. You’ll probably have to pay a meter or in a garage. The rates aren’t too expensive, so don’t spend a lot of time looking around for a cheaper place to park. You’ll get a parking ticket if you don’t move your vehicle in a reasonable amount of time. It will be clamped or towed if you don’t. You’ll also have to pay a release fee and a “pound” fee for the holding of your vehicle. Parking officers and traffic wardens are present in South Africa, so pay attention to the parking rules, and follow them closely.

Regarding disabled parking, you’ll probably find that your disability parking placard from your country will not be accepted in South Africa. The country does offer disability parking badges, but it is not known to always accept them from other nations.

You’ll likely be passed frequently as you drive in South Africa, no matter where you are. They can come from any lane, including the shoulder. Watch for them to come from all directions, and check your blind spots. Just pull over, if it’s safe, to let someone pass. Put your hazards on, and slow down if you can’t pull over immediately. You don’t need to speed up.
Cars to the right have the right of way at a four-way intersection.

Minibusses may not always drive safely, and they are often overloaded. Drivers disobey traffic laws in many cases, so be on the lookout for them.

South Africa Travel Advisory

Typically, it’s safe to drive in South Africa, but, in urban areas and townships, you should follow these precautions from Travel Butlers. Just to be safe, you might consider applying them no matter where you drive.

  • Lock your car when driving, and keep your windows up. This is especially true at stoplights.
  • Don’t pick up hitchhikers. If someone looks like they’re in need of help, report it in the next safe place.
  • Don’t leave valuables in your car, and stow them away where they can’t be seen if you have to. Lock your car always, no matter how little time you’ll be away from it.
  • Park your vehicle in busy, well-lit places.
  • Talk to locals to find out if there are areas tourists shouldn’t go through by car or on foot.
  • Stay in the car if you’re hit from behind under odd circumstances.
  • Don’t get worked up and have road rage while you’re driving.
  • Don’t let someone wash your window at a set of lights as they will demand money, and it can get ugly fast.
  • If you’re not sure if it’s really a police officer requesting you to pull over or demanding payment of a fine at the roadside, offer to go to the police station, or just drive to the closest station after motioning the “police” to follow you.
  • Don’t try to help another motorist who seems to have broken down. Have someone else in the car call the police, or alert the police in the next town or someone who has a phone.
  • Park in store lots or in a garage where possible as they are more likely to be guarded by security.
  • Drive around obstacles in the road as they may have been placed there on purpose by scam artists.
  • Carjacking is a problem, especially in isolated places and on non-primary roads in Northern KwaZulu-Natal and Zululand.
  • Keep your valuables out of sight in the car even when you drive as thieves like to wait near intersections and highway exits to try to rob drivers.

Car Accidents

The last thing you want to do when you are traveling around a country by car is to have an accident. However, sometimes, there’s nothing you can do to avoid one, and you have to work through it.

Never, ever leave the scene of an accident if someone is hurt or damage is done to someone’s vehicle. Even if you didn’t cause the accident, you should provide first aid if you’re qualified to do so to those who have been hurt until an ambulance arrives. Call a rescue unit or ambulance as soon as possible, even if the injuries don’t look that bad. Don’t move someone who’s been injured.

Turn your vehicle’s hazard lights on, but stay in your vehicle as some scam artists have caused accidents on purpose and then moved in to rob drivers and passengers. Have the other involved driver follow you to a public area or to a police station if you suspect foul play, and it is possible to do so. Move cars in the middle of traffic, but document their position on the road before you do. You can do this with chalk, spray paint, or photographs. Call a towing service to have a vehicle moved if you cannot do it yourself.

Stay and provide the other driver(s) involved with your details, such as name, phone number, car registration number, and the information for your car rental agency/insurance. Get the insurance, registration, name, and contact information for all involved parties. Also, take photos of the accident if you happen to have a camera or mobile phone with a camera available. This will help you to document the damage.

Other information to note is the make, model, color, estimated speed, direction, use of turn signals, number of passengers, and condition of all involved vehicles. Note traffic conditions, signs, road markings, weather, date, time, location, road names, landmarks, traffic signals, etc. All of this information will help you to draw a picture and to write a description of the accident on a police report. Try to get the information of any witnesses as well, and note damage done to property and people in detail.

Let the police know about the accident within 24 hours. If the police arrive at the scene of the accident, you may not move anything until they give you permission. Make sure to get an Accident Report (AR) number because you’ll need this for insurance claims or third party claims.
Make sure you report the accident to your rental car agency as soon as possible.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

What to Do if Your Car Breaks Down

If your car breaks, call the number provided to you in the car rental documentation provided to you by your rental country. Remember that you’re in a country that drives on the left side of the road, so move your car to that side as much as possible.

Call the emergency numbers if you need to, such as if your vehicle has broken down in the middle of the road, and you cannot move it. Having the police there to direct traffic around your vehicle until a tow truck arrives is very helpful. Put your hazard lights on as well to notify others that you are broken down.

Before you start your driving tour, put the phone numbers for the breakdown service in your mobile phone, or at least write them down on paper. Leave the paper with the numbers in your vehicle in the event of a vehicle malfunction. You’ll have them handy to use quickly when if you need them.

You might also consider purchasing some emergency supplies such as phone charger, extra car battery, non-perishable food, blanket, first aid kit, water, and outerwear for bad weather. Your car rental company may provide some equipment, such as road cones or markers. It isn’t necessary to spend a ton of money on these items, but they can be very helpful if you find yourself in a place where you are stuck without help for some time.

Fueling Your Car in South Africa

Buying fuel in another country can be stressful, as easy as it may seem. One of the first things to note about petrol stations in South Africa is that they are self-service. So there will be no attendant coming to pump petrol into your vehicle for you. You’ll be sent to an open pump by an attendant, who will typically be dressed in a uniform. You should know whether your vehicle takes diesel or unleaded fuel. You may end up with either type of vehicle in South Africa, so make sure you notify the attendant if your vehicle takes another type of fuel if you’re waved into the wrong kind of pump.

The attendant will clean your windshield for you, and they may clean all the other windows as well. You usually want to tip between R5-R10 to the attendants, but you could tip more if they do extra like check your oil, water level, tires, etc.

You’ll find that most large petrol stations will take credit cards from overseas, but if you’re at a smaller one, you may be out of luck if you don’t have cash. They usually have ATMs on-site, so you may be able to get cash if required. In more remote areas, ATMs may not be available, so be prepared before you leave for your driving adventure.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

enjoy driving in south africa

Driving in South Africa is not as difficult as you might initially expect. With a US driving license in South Africa, you shouldn’t have any problems, but getting an IDP is probably necessary for renting a car. Also, if you’re wondering, “What is the driving age in South Africa?” make sure to refer to the section about it in the article, so you will be aware. Being knowledgeable about the local driving rules and customs will help you to be prepared for just about any situation that comes your way. Being open to new experiences and driving off the beaten path can make your trip even more fun.

Meet locals if you have to ask for directions, and perhaps stay the night in a small town you hadn’t planned to explore if the worst happens, and the car breaks down. The country is full of the most amazing scenery, history, and roads of all kinds. Enjoying your time in South Africa should involve driving your rental vehicle wherever your heart leads you. Just stay alert; be prepared; follow the letter of the law, and you’ll have a fantastic time.

Don’t believe everything you see in the movies. South African drivers might have a few bad habits, but aggression is definitely not one of them, so drive with a smile on your face and enjoy the open road.