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Useful things to know before travelling to South Africa

Sam Botes

Contributing writer

While South Africa is a very accessible destination for international travellers, with English spoken widely throughout the country, understanding the local laws and quirks is essential to ensuring a hassle-free trip.

Here all some of the basics you need to know before travelling to South Africa, including useful information about safety and loadshedding.

Basic information


South Africa has strict smoking laws. Smoking is prohibited in enclosed public spaces, including restaurants, bars, and shopping centres. Designated smoking areas are available in some places.

Buying alcohol

The legal drinking age in South Africa is 18 years. You can purchase alcohol from licensed liquor stores, supermarkets, and restaurants. Avoid public consumption of alcohol and always drink responsibly.


Public restrooms are widely available in urban areas, including malls, restaurants, and tourist attractions. In more remote areas or during outdoor activities, it's advisable to carry hand sanitiser and tissues or wet wipes.

Opening Hours

Shops and restaurants generally operate from Monday to Saturday, with shorter hours on Sundays. However, malls and popular tourist areas mostly have extended hours and remain open on Sundays.

Tap Water

It is generally safe to drink tap water in urban areas of South Africa. However, if you are unsure or visiting rural areas, it's recommended to consume bottled water.

Weights and measures

South Africa uses the metric system for measurements, so familiarize yourself with kilometres, kilograms, Celsius, and litres.

Internet access

Access to the internet is readily available in most urban areas, including hotels, cafes, and shopping centres. Consider purchasing a local SIM card or activating an international data plan to stay connected throughout your trip.

WIFI is often available but don’t expect super-fast speeds, although it is improving.

Plug type

South Africa uses Type N and M electrical outlets. The Type N socket and plug are the official standard in South Africa, and this also fit Type C plugs (used in Europe). The older type M outlet is being phased out, but is still ubiquitous in the country, so it's worthwhile bringing adapters for both.

Staying safe in South Africa

While most visits to South Africa are trouble-free, the country does have a high crime rate and it's best to take some precautions when travelling there. Here are some key safety tips to keep in mind:

  • Avoid walking around cities at night, especially in unfamiliar or poorly lit areas. Stick to well-populated and well-lit areas, and rather use reputable transportation options like Ubers or hotel vehicles when moving around after dark.

  • If you are staying in a hotel, make use of the in-room safe or the hotel's safe deposit box to store your valuables, including passports, cash, and electronics. This reduces the risk of theft or loss. Don’t create temptation.

  • When driving, always keep your car doors locked and windows closed, especially in urban areas. Be vigilant and aware of your surroundings, particularly at traffic lights or intersections, where individuals might approach vehicles. Keep your eyes open and maintain a safe distance from unfamiliar or suspicious individuals.

  • Do not flash your valuable belongings around. Pack iPads, laptops, and mobile phones into your bag and zip the bag closed, as pickpocketing does happen.

  • Do not accept any help from strangers at the ATM machines. If the machine doesn’t return your card, cancel the card before moving away from the ATM machine.

  • Stay aware of your surroundings and trust your intuition. If the neighbourhood around you doesn't feel safe, it's best to turn around and leave.

Everyday behaviour


South Africans often greet each other with a handshake or a warm hug. It is customary to address older individuals or those in positions of authority with respect, using their titles or surnames.

Dining Etiquette

When invited to someone's home, it is polite to bring a small gift, such as flowers or a bottle of wine. In restaurants, tipping between 10-15% of the bill is customary for good service.

Taboo Subjects

Avoid discussing sensitive topics such as politics, race, or religion, unless the conversation is initiated by a local and conducted with respect and sensitivity.


Bargaining is common in markets and informal settings. It’s almost expected and people enjoy the haggle. However, it is not customary to negotiate prices in formal retail stores or established businesses.

Loadshedding in South Africa

While planning your trip to South Africa, it's important to note that there's an energy crisis in the country, which has resulted in ongoing scheduled power cuts known as load-shedding

During loadshedding, certain areas or groups of areas in South Africa will have scheduled power cuts for a specific length of time. The schedule is typically communicated by the power utility in advance, allowing residents and businesses to plan accordingly.

The best app to download to keep informed of loadshedding is called Eskom Se Push. Find out from your hotel which area or zone you are in, add the area to the app and it will alert you daily with the changes, and the hours that your area will be without power.

While load shedding can be an inconvenience, South Africans have adapted to this practice over the years. Many establishments, including hotels, restaurants, and shopping centres, have backup generators to minimize disruptions. It's also a good idea to have alternative lighting sources, such as flashlights or candles, readily available.

If you require medical equipment, such as a C-PAP machine or a refrigerator for medicine, contact the hotel you intend to stay at before you book your trip and find out what measures they have in place when the power is out.

During load shedding, it's important to conserve energy by switching off lights, appliances, and non-essential electrical devices. This helps reduce the strain on the power grid when the electricity supply is limited.

Packing essentials

When preparing for your trip to South Africa, consider including these essential items:

  • Sunscreen and hat: South Africa experiences abundant sunshine. Protect yourself from the strong UV rays with sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat.

  • Insect Repellent: Some regions in South Africa are prone to mosquitoes and other insects. Carry insect repellent to ensure a comfortable stay, especially if you plan to visit wildlife reserves or rural areas. For the latet and most up-to-date information on malaria, please contact your local travel clinic for information and advice.

  • Binoculars: Bring a pair of binoculars, as no matter where in the country you are travelling to, there is always something to look at.

  • Earphones or headphones: Pack in a pair, especially if you’ll be flying or traveling around. They are available in shops but they take up so little space, you might as well bring your own and avoid being bored on the long trips.

Useful words

Here are a few local words that may come in handy during your travels in South Africa:

  • Lekker (pronounced lek-uh): A slang word used to describe something that is good, great, or delicious. Example: "This food is lekker!"

  • Braai (pronounced bry): South African for a barbecue. Braais are a popular social gathering where friends and family come together to grill meat and enjoy a relaxed atmosphere.

  • Howzit: A casual greeting, similar to "How are you?" or "What's up?" Example: "Hey, howzit?"

  • Robot: Refers to traffic lights or signals. Example: "Turn left at the next robot."

  • Bakkie (pronounced bah-kee): A pickup truck or utility vehicle. Example: "We're going camping and taking the bakkie."

Get into the mindset

To enhance your understanding and appreciation of South Africa, consider exploring these recommended resources.


  • Long Walk to Freedom" by Nelson Mandela

  • "Cry, the Beloved Country" by Alan Paton

  • "Born a Crime" by Trevor Noah

These books offer unique insights into South Africa's history, struggles, and triumphs.


The documentary series "South Africa: An Aerial Journey" and the movie "Tsotsi" provide captivating visuals and narratives that showcase different aspects of the country.


  • South Africa Real Discoveries

  • The Good Things Guy

They offer listeners diverse perspectives on South African culture, travel, and inspiring stories.

Planning a trip to South Africa? Read our guides on:

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Sam Botes

Author - Sam Botes

Sam is a freelance writer, social media manager and mother of three, with over two decades' experience in travel and tourism. Safaris are her ultimate adventure and next on the list is Antarctica.

Last Updated 6 June 2023

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