South Africa uses its own currency, which is called the Rand (named after the Witswatersrand, the place where the currency was created). The international code for this is ZAR, which we abbreviate to a single capital letter ‘R’.
Confusingly for foreigners, South Africa uses a decimal point to separate the rands from the cents but doesn’t use a comma to separate the thousands. Instead, we use a space. As such, prices can get a little confusing to the foreign eye. For instance, the figure of ‘ten thousand rand’ is written ‘R10 000.00’ or more commonly just ‘R10 000’. It is not written ‘R10,000’. Often our clients get a bit confused between the ‘R’ and the number straight after it, thinking that combined they are the currency’s symbol (the confusion doubtless created by the use of the space instead of the comma). So for example, they see ‘R1 800’ and think the price is eight hundred rand, when in fact it’s one thousand eight hundred rand. Just remember that the ‘R’ is the equivalent of the ‘$’ or ‘€’ sign then it will be clear what the price is.
South Africa has very strict exchange controls which most countries in the world do not have. What this means for visitors is that it can be a challenge getting cash in rands overseas.
To pay for your flights, car hire and accommodation (those major expenses before the trip), we make life easier for you by offering a secure online payment gateway (Visa and Mastercard). We also have two bank accounts, one in UK sterling and one in South African Rand if you prefer to wire funds. Our European clients find it’s far easier to pay into a UK account than a South African one whereas our North American clients seem to prefer the online payment gateway. Either way, we have lots of options none of which will cost you anything so take your pick.
South Africa’s currency does fluctuate quite broadly in relation to major currencies, particularly when political announcements are made which the markets respond badly to. As such, we advise our clients to consider getting a currency card (most major banks offer these) which allow you to preload a certain amount of rand onto a card that functions just like a debit card. Whilst knowing exactly how many rand you have is of course a big advantage (no nasty surprises when you get home), the other big advantages of these cards are that they are much more secure than cash (they are PIN-protected) and you set the spend limit by how much you load onto the card. Thus if your currency card does get swiped or stolen, you can only lose what you preloaded onto the card, not the funds in your current account at home or your credit card limit.
We strongly advise our clients not to use ATMs if at all possible whilst in South Africa. If you have to use an ATM, please do not use ATMs on the street or in any public places (including airports and garages). Rather, physically go into the bank during banking hours and use the ATM inside the building. We unfortunately have a problem with card fraud at our ATMs which many people succumb to.
For this reason, if it’s relatively inexpensive to do so, we advise bringing around R2 000 – R5 000 in cash with you in your hand luggage. This will be cash that you will use for your first couple of days for taxis at the airport etc. until you have time to go the bank.
You’ll find that generally speaking in South Africa almost everyone pays for almost everything by credit card here. Even pensions and grants are paid by the government onto debit cards issued by the state social security department. There are even apps like SnapScan that you can download onto your smartphone where you can register any card you like, meaning that you only need to carry your phone with you, not your card. The only exceptions to this are taxis, markets and tips, where you are expected to pay cash. The more rural you go, though, the less credit cards are accepted so if you’re travelling deep into the Eastern Cape or Mpumalanga, for example, you will need a store of cash and preferably in a low denomination (like fifties or hundreds).