It’s no secret South Africa is one of my favorite places in the world. I did live here for a few years and it gave birth to my blog, Johnny Africa. I spent two years living in Johannesburg, all the while traveling throughout the country. I had the best of times and will someday, without a doubt, return to the Rainbow nation.
For those moving, or planning to move to South Africa, this is a summary of everything I learned, with links to detailed accounts I had about the country.
Visas and work permits
Well you can’t move and live in South Africa without some sort of visa. As I came to South Africa for a job, I obtained a General Work Permit through my work. This was a long and arduous process to say the least, unlike my experience applying for a Blue Card in Europe. It took me almost 5 months to get this visa done from my home base of New York City.
There are numerous other visas that you can apply for but South Africa is not known for their efficient bureaucracy so expect long waits. Here is a detailed write up about my experiences applying for the general work permit.
Lifestyle, culture, and language
Johannesburg is an attractive expat option because of its good work/life balance. It’s a green city, with plenty of open spaces. There is a strong local love of sport, with rugby and cricket high on the agenda. Watching a match is a great way to get involved in the community, as well as seeing some world-quality games. With such a wonderfully mild climate, there is a lot of sunshine but no oppressive heat, so weekends and downtime can be spent exploring outside.
Expect to see some of the worst income disparity in the world, something that was very hard for me to get used to. It’s normal life for folks here but it will be shocking at first. Apartheid has left its mark on the country and even though it ended over 20 years ago, its impact will continue on for many more generations.
Nevertheless, there is a real mix of cultures in the city, with many different languages to be heard around the streets. While the official language is English, people will regularly converse in their mother tongues of Sotho, Zulu, Tswana, Afrikaans and more. People here are very friendly and you can always expect to see smiles. I was pretty surprised at how friendly everyone was but became pleasantly used to it in short time. People here like to have a good time, so if you are keen as well, you will have a good time!
Is Johannesburg Dangerous?
Johannesburg has a bad, if not the worst, reputation for crime. It is consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous places in the world. You regularly hear about people getting carjacked, robbed, break and enter etc. This is also why gated communities are the norm and not the exception. With that said, I lived in the Sandton CBD area and never really experienced any of that. Granted I never drove too far from where I lived, but it is not some war zone that people make it out to be. Nothing ever happened to me in the two years I lived in Johannesburg.
I found the people to be incredibly friendly in South Africa. Black, White, Indian, whatever it was, I felt more hospitality here than most other countries I had been to. I visited Soweto many times as well, and had some of my best memories and parties in the townships. While most people might think it dangerous, it is totally untrue.
I wrote about this in detail about whether South Africa is safe or not so read and decide for yourself!
Mobile Phones, Internet and Cable
There are a big variety of mobile data plans in South Africa. The unlimited plans are very expensive compared to other countries, but you can also customize plans depending on how much you use which can be significantly cheaper. The main mobile carriers in South Africa are:
Overall, I would consider Vodacom to be the best in terms of service, speed, and reliability. They are also the most expensive but I generally was able to save a lot of money as I purchased data only plans and paid for calling/text as I went.
As I had no one to call on a regular basis, I spent almost no money on calls. People all use Whatsapp in South Africa so there was no need for texting, and whatsapp calls only use data so I really was not spending anything on calling/text. I would try and survive on 2-3gb of data a month and pay R100-R150 per month. If you can’t survive like this and want unlimited plans (unlimited text/call/data), prepare to spend much more on a cellular plan than in other countries like the UK or even the US.
Read in detail my cellphone and home internet experiences.
As for home internet, South Africa is among the more expensive in the world. There is ADSL and Fibre internet. I would recommend the Fibre internet as you have to pay an additional R199 to Telkom to use ADSL on any provider. The main providers of internet are:
You can expect to pay R800-R1000 for an uncapped internet package up to 10mbps.
Apartment Hunting In Johannesburg
Looking for an apartment in Johannesburg can be a daunting task. It’s not like New york or Hong Kong with their astronomical prices, but it can be hectic as well.
There are many furnished apartment rentals in Johannesburg as there are many people here on short term assignment. I didn’t want the hassle of buying furniture (plus they don’t have Ikea here), so I searched only for furnished rentals. They are slightly more expensive of course, but not by much. There are an abundance of apartment complexes, buildings, townhouses, etc. for rent in the Sandton and surrounding areas. A one month security deposit is standard with the main ancillary fees to be paid being electricity.
Coming from New York, apartments here are much nicer and of course much cheaper for what you can get. I was in heaven with the amount of apartment I could afford.
The primary websites to use for apartment search is property24.com
Gated communities in most country means opulent wealth and exclusivity. Because of Johannesburg’s reputation for crime, people here live in gated complexes as a way of life. Even the most modest and cheap complexes will have security in the form of walls, gates, and the likes. When you drive through the city, expect to see nothing but fancy walls!
Johannesburg is a large and sprawling city. It is spread out and there are many choices of places to live. As there is no viable public transportation in the city, where you live will determine how long you have to battle Johannesburg’s famous traffic for in getting to work. Most of the offices are either in Johanesburg’s CBD, or in Sandton. In recent years, much of the financial companies have moved their headquarters to Sandton. This is where I lived, as well as most of my friends.
The Fourways and Sunninghill areas are perfect for families and those looking to pay less in rent. Your commute into Santon CBD will be terrible, but there are plenty of good private schools and a large concentration of security estates here.
Sandton is where all the big companies are located. Within the CBD, there are numerous apartment buildings that are in safe and central locations. Real estate here is among the most expensive in the country as this area is expat central. Nearby neighborhoods like Sandhurst and Hyde Park house mega mansions for the super rich.
Morningside is to the north of Sandton CBD and is slightly less expensive but still offers a short commute into work. Bryanston is further north and also less expensive. you can expect beautiful freestanding homes on tree-lined streets here.
For more information about neighborhoods, Sine from Joburg Expat does a great job of going into the details!
Banks and Credit Cards
I find that South Africa’s banking system to be quite advanced for a developing country. The entire country uses and accepts credit cards. You can use credit cards to pay for literally everything. Even in a Soweto street Braai, I’ve been able to use credit cards.
The main banking institutions within South Africa are the following:
- Standard Bank
There are smaller institutions as well like Capitec and African Bank. Most banks charge fees for their checking accounts that can be waived depending on the level of account you get. ATM fees are largely not standardized and taking money from another bank’s ATM will surely result in fees.
Opening bank accounts and credit cards are quite easy but do not expect any meaningful credit card rewards (for those coming from the US, you know what I’m talking about).
As South Africa is a developing country, interest rates are high so you can expect to get 6-7% in a regular savings account with higher rates available for fixed term deposits.
Restaurants and dining scene
One of my favorite parts of South Africa was its cuisine. There’s just so much good food in this country to explore. Whether it’s top quality steaks, fresh seafood, biltong (my absolute favorite), Nandos, Cape Malay food, and a host of different International cuisines, I loved it all.
Food and wine at restaurants are quite affordable in my opinion. Steaks, especially are incredibly delicious and cheap in comparison to how much people earn. Make sure to also check out the local food markets in Johannesburg like Neighbourgoods Market on Saturdays, and Market on Main on Sundays for a guaranteed good time.
Tipping is standard in South Africa with 10% being the norm. Since everyone uses credit card, you can just add 10% to your bill and tell the waiter the total amount to charge your card.
The main grocery store chains in Johannesburg are Pick N Pay, Shoprite, Checkers, Spar, and Woolworths. Woolworth’s is the more upscale one if I had to choose. As I prefer eating out, I’m not a good authority on what’s what in the grocery store scene. They have all you need to live any lifestyle you want. Wine and meats are generally cheaper here than other countries I’ve been to.
Gyms and Working out
The gym culture is strong in South Africa. People like to stay fit and whether that’s because of the warm weather or the people wanting to impress others, there are plenty of gym options to go around in Johannesburg.
The two biggest gym chains are Planet Fitness (not the one from the US), and Virgin Active. Each chain has multiple locations throughout the city. The high end gyms and the nicest clubs are Virgin Active Alice Lane, and Planet Fitness Platinum. Expect to pay about R2,000 a month for Virgin Active Alice Lane, and slightly less for Planet Fitness Platinum. Note that there’s a good chance your health insurance will provide discounts through Momentum or Discovery.
Buying a car
A car is absolutely essential to living in Johannesburg in my opinion. Things are very much spaced out from each other and there is no public transportation to speak of. The Gautrain is a train to go to the airport and not a viable option to get around town in my opinion.
People love their cars here and it is a big status symbol. Some people will spend more on their cars than their apartments! Nowhere else in the world have I seen more BMWs, Mercedes, Audis etc than around Sandton. Not even in Germany.
Buying a car in South Africa is like any other country in my opinion. There are loads of car dealerships around town and autotrader.co.za is the main resource for any second hand sales. I bought a used BMW 320d second hand, as I believe a car is the worst investment you can make in life. You can expect cars in South Africa to also depreciate faster than other countries. All the major banks make car financing easy to get.
As an unrelated note, the police like to set up road blocks to screen for drunk drivers. Even if you’ve had one beer, they may and probably will try to extort you for a bribe. Beats having to go to jail, but might come as a shock for the uninitiated.
Uber in South Africa
In recent years, Uber has really made an impact in South Africa. It is not readily available for use in all the major cities. It makes getting around Johannesburg a breeze, especially for those nights where you’ve had one too many to drive safely. It is also quite affordable with UberX rates being far cheaper than standard cab fares. I still think not having a car in Johannesburg is very difficult, but the rise of Uber really makes a case for not having one. If you live in the city center, can walk to work, then you could potentially use Uber for everything else and spend less a month than owning a car outright.
Cost of living in Johannesburg
Johannesburg is not an expensive place to live, but not really cheap either. It is the financial capital of Africa and should be viewed as such. If you want to live in the CBD near Sandton, you can expect to pay very high rents compared to living 30 minutes outside of town.
Food and alcohol are generally very cheap in South Africa in comparison to other major cities. I loved being able to have delicious food and wine at a price that didn’t make me hurt inside.
I have a very detailed breakdown of my monthly expenses here for those looking to get an idea of what it costs. Of course, everyone’s situation is different so keep that in mind when you see my numbers!
Detailed run down of the cost of living in Johannesburg
Also, one of my readers living in Cape Town kindly broke down the cost of living in Cape Town as well.
Weather in Johannesburg
One of my favorite parts of Johannesburg is the weather. Located at around 1,000m elevation, Johannesburg enjoys a dry, mountain-like climate throughout the year. Weather extremes are limited in the city. In the winter months, you can expect weather to be in the teens, with temperatures rarely getting below freezing. Expect to see the sun for pretty much the entire season. It is literally sunny and mild for the entire winter which is fantastic.
In the summers, the weather is around 25 to 30 degrees, with it rarely getting above 35. The humidity is not extreme either. Expect to see the sun for most of the day, with the most epic thunderstorms of your life coming through town in the late afternoon. I really cherished these thunderstorms from the view from my balcony.
Observations of South Africa
Living in another country, you are guaranteed to come across cultural differences and quirky things. South Africa is full of these. From some of the funny slang that is used here, to severe income disparity, to the weather and more, there was no end to the amount of differences I observed. I wrote a journal series of all the little things I picked up while living in South Africa
- Two weeks of living in South Africa
- Two months of living in South Africa
- Six months after living in South Africa
- One year in the Rainbow Nation
Traveling around South Africa
If you live in Johannesburg and you don’t see the rest of the country, there is something wrong with you. South Africa is easily one of the most beautiful and most amazing countries I’ve ever seen. Whether it’s Cape Town, the Garden Route, or the countless areas where you can see the Big 5, there is something here for everyone.
There are numerous discount airlines here that make your South Africa travel dreams true. Mango Airlines, Kulula, FlySAFair, and Comair fly regularly from Johannesburg to Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban, George etc. for very affordable prices (R700-R800 for one way flights between Johannesburg and Cape Town).
Don’t feel like flying? Johannesburg just happens to be driving distance to hundreds of different game reserves like the Kruger National Park where you can view wild animals! The quintessential safari can be had for a weekend if you wanted to.
Make absolutely sure to travel around the country. If you need inspiration, here are all the places I visited in South Africa!
Traveling around Africa
If you’re going to live in South Africa, might as well see the surrounding countries as well! In short, Africa is just a stunning place. So much geographical and cultural diversity on the continent that you will never get bored of the place. Unfortunately, there are no budget airlines that connect the continent but airlines such as South African Airways and Kenyan Airways do a good job of connecting the countries.
I traveled through almost all of Southern and Eastern Africa during my time here. I went on countless safaris, visited the most pristine beaches in the world, seen otherworldly landscapes, and much more.
I summarized it all in my Best of Africa Travel post where I count down my favorite places based on travel category.
- How To Move To South Africa
- Living on the Dollar vs Living on the Rand
- Is Johannesburg Really The World’s Unfriendliest City?
- First Two Weeks In South Africa
- What I’ve Learned After One Year Living In South Africa
- First 6 Months in South Africa As An Expat
- Cost of Living In Johannesburg, South Africa
- Why South Africa Is The Perfect Destination To Learn English
- Watching The Superbowl in South Africa
- Guide To Visiting The Soweto Township, South Africa
- What I Love About Living In Frankfurt, Germany
- Ultimate Guide To Apartment Hunting in Johannesburg, South Africa