South Africa travel guide
About South Africa
With golden beaches, jagged mountains and national parks overflowing with wildlife, South Africa is the Africa you’ve always imagined. While memories of a troubled past remain, the republic is well on the way to regaining its throne as the holiday capital of Africa, visited by nearly 10 million people every year.
Topping a long list of attractions is the republic’s spectacular wildlife and natural scenery. National parks and nature reserves preserve an incredible variety of landscapes – rolling plains, towering mountains, arid deserts, coastal fynbos (shrubland) and pure blue oceans – home to an incredible variety of wildlife, from lions and elephants to great white sharks and playful penguins.
South Africa's cities are no less varied. In the far south, lorded over by iconic Table Mountain, Cape Town is South Africa’s most accessible gateway, with gorgeous beaches, vibrant, multicultural neighbourhoods, famous vineyards, a lively nightlife and fine dining to rival any European capital. You’ll find a similarly cosmopolitan vibe in Johannesburg, the energetic capital, and in beachside Durban, where the hot sunshine is matched by the scorching curries cooked up by the South Asian community.
In between you can lose yourself for days on safari. The undisputed top spot for wildlife spotters is world-famous Kruger National Park, where the Big Five – lions, leopards, elephants, buffaloes and rhinos – are joined by hundreds of other African species.
If the landscape sounds diverse, wait until you meet the people. South Africa boasts 11 official languages and more than a dozen tribes, living alongside communities from Africa, Europe and the Indian subcontinent – little wonder this is known as the Rainbow Nation. This diversity is tangible everywhere, from the architecture and language to the nation’s spectacular cuisine.
Nevertheless, huge inequality remains, still sharply marked out along racial lines. To understand modern South Africa, everyone should visit Johannesburg’s moving Apartheid Museum, and Robben Island prison, where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years. Or you could join a township tour in Soweto, which, like the rest of your trip, you’ll never forget.
1,219,912 sq km (471,011 sq miles).
46 per sq km.
Cape Town (legislative); Pretoria (executive); Bloemfontein (judicial).
President Cyril Ramaphosa since 2018.
President Cyril Ramaphosa since 2018.
Last updated: 18 November 2019
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. 'We' refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Over 430,000 British tourists visit South Africa each year.
Most visits are trouble-free, but a small number of British people encounter problems in South Africa. You should take sensible precautions to protect your safety.
There is a high level of crime including rape and murder in South Africa. Most violent crimes tend to occur in townships, isolated areas and away from the normal tourist destinations. However, armed robberies, including one leading to the death of a tourist, have taken place on Table Mountain in Cape Town in recent years.
If you’re visiting South Africa for tourism or business purposes for a period of up to 90 days, you don’t need a visa. If you’re travelling to South Africa with a child, be prepared to provide additional documentation before being granted entry.
There have been incidents involving people being followed from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to their destinations and then robbed, often at gunpoint. Be vigilant in and around the airport and when driving away.
There are regular protest marches, strike related demonstrations, and periodic incidents of public disorder across South Africa, which can become violent. These can occur anywhere across South Africa, sometimes at short notice. You should avoid areas where protests, demonstrations or marches are taking place, especially in city centres and townships. Don’t attempt to cross protester roadblocks as this could provoke a violent reaction. You should monitor local and social media for updates.
Beach conditions and local safety provisions vary considerably throughout the South African coastline and every year several people drown due to the strong sea currents.
Terrorists are likely to try to carry out attacks in South Africa.
If you’re abroad and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission.
Safety and security
Call the police (on 10111 or on 112 from a mobile phone) at the first sign of danger. Mobile phone reception is generally good in major towns and cities but can be intermittent in more remote spots. South Africa has a high level of crime, including rape and murder. The risk of violent crime to visitors travelling to the main tourist destinations is generally low. The South African authorities prioritise protecting tourists and tourism police are deployed in several towns and cities. The most violent crimes tend to occur in townships on the outskirts of major cities and isolated areas – you should consult a reliable tour guide if you visit a township.
Central business districts (CBDs) of major cities have a greater threat of crime (including armed robbery) than suburban areas, and the threat increases after dark. If you’re visiting the CBD of any major city, remain alert at all times, do not leave valuables on show, and take safe and reliable transport to and from your destination.
If you’re hiking in National Parks, try to hike in groups and stick to popular trails on popular days (e.g. weekends). There have been violent attacks on hikers and tourists on Table Mountain National Park. Take care in quieter areas of the Park, especially early in the morning or just before the park closes. Cape Town residents use social media (Meet up, Facebook) to coordinate hikes in larger groups. More advice on hiking on Table Mountain is available on the South African Nationals Parks website.
Avoid isolated beaches and picnic spots. Don’t walk alone, especially in remote areas or on beaches after dark or when beachgoers have left.
There is a high incidence of credit card fraud, fraud involving ATMs and ‘card skimming’. Make sure you hide your PIN when withdrawing money from an ATM or making a transaction in a shop. Refuse offers of help from bystanders. Don’t change large sums of money in busy public areas. Try to use ATMs in banks or secure shopping malls and be discreet when making withdrawals.
Protect any documents containing details of credit cards or bank accounts and do not give personal or financial account information details to anyone. There are organised crime gangs operating in South Africa, who may target visitors and charities.
Crime increases in areas where large crowds gather, so be particularly vigilant if you’re attending sporting or other events that attract large numbers. There are regular protest marches and strike related demonstrations, and periodic incidents of public disorder across South Africa, which can turn violent. Such protests, marches and demonstrations can occur anywhere in South Africa, sometimes at short notice. You should avoid areas where protests, demonstrations, or marches are taking place, especially in city centres and townships. Don’t attempt to cross protester roadblocks as this could provoke a violent reaction. You should monitor local and social media for updates.
Thefts from baggage can occur at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. Consider vacuum-wrapping luggage where local regulations permit. Keep all valuables in your carry-on luggage.
The South African authorities publish indicative statistics on crime on the Statistics South Africa website.
There is an increasing threat of kidnap throughout South Africa. Kidnaps are generally for financial gain or motivated by criminality. In recent years several foreign nationals, including British nationals, have been kidnapped.
British nationals can be perceived as being wealthier than locals and may be at particular risk of kidnap for financial gain.
You can drive in South Africa with a valid UK photocard driving licence for up to 12 months. If you have a paper licence, you should also get an International Driving Permit (IDP) before you travel. If you’re living in South Africa, you should exchange your UK licence for a local licence within 12 months of your arrival. See our Living in South Africa guide for more information.
Incidents of vehicle hijacking and robbery are common, particularly after dark. Keep to main roads and park in well-lit areas. Vulnerable areas include, but are not limited to: traffic lights, junctions, and when approaching or pulling out from driveways. Take care at all times and be aware of your surroundings. Thieves have been known to employ various methods to make a vehicle stop (e.g. placing large stones or glass in the road) in order to rob the occupants. Don’t pick up strangers or stop to help apparently distressed motorists, as this is a technique sometimes used by hijackers. It is better to report any incident to the police. If you are involved in a hi-jacking, remain calm and surrender your valuables, and your vehicle if asked. Do not try to resist.
There are frequent incidents of car windows being broken and valuables taken while cars are waiting at junctions. Keep valuables out of sight.
There are ongoing tensions between Uber and metered taxi drivers, which at times escalate into armed violence. Tensions have been particularly strong at taxi ranks outside some Gautrain stations and airports. Uber passengers have reported being on the receiving end of harassment from metered drivers. The Uber app generally reports where the trouble spots are, but you should exercise caution when using either service.
The standard of driving in South Africa varies and in 2018, there were more than 12,000 deaths as a result of road accidents. On highways, overtaking can occur in any lane including the hard shoulder. On single-lane roads the hard shoulder is also sometimes used by trucks and slower vehicles to allow faster vehicles to overtake. At some intersections, including 4-way stops and where traffic lights are out of service, the first vehicle to arrive generally has priority. On roundabouts, you should give way to the right, although this rule is often ignored.
Road standards are mostly very good, but some roads in remote areas are less well maintained and may have potholes. Drive cautiously, obey speed limits and avoid unfamiliar rural areas at night. Read our advice on vehicle hi-jacking in Safety and Security
You’re advised not to use the Metrorail suburban railway in the larger cities of South Africa and the long distance train services operated by the Passenger Rail Authority of South Africa (PRASA). Both are unreliable and have high crime levels including theft of infrastructure and criminal activity on board trains.
The ‘Gautrain’ high speed commuter train service which runs between Johannesburg, Pretoria and the Oliver Tambo International Airport is secure and reliable. Buses and taxis are available at most Gautrain stations. Walking to and from Gautrain stations after dark isn’t advisable.
Luxury trains such as The Blue Train and Rovos Rail have very high levels of security and safety but can still be impacted by delays en route.
Beach conditions and local safety provisions vary and every year significant numbers of people drown due to the strong sea currents. Most beaches do not have warning signs, flags or life-saving equipment. In the absence of warning signs, you can speak to local people who are familiar with the conditions. If in doubt, do not enter the water. On busier tourist beaches, follow instructions from lifeguards and any warnings that may be displayed. Watch this video to understand how to avoid being caught in a rip current, and contact the National Sea Rescue Institute in case of emergency.
Local laws and customs
Always carry a copy of your passport data page and the page containing your visitors permit or residence permit for South Africa. South African officials may request identification and proof of legal residence at any time.
It’s safer to keep your passport in a hotel safe or another secure location rather than carry it on your person unless you need it for official identification purposes.
Drug-taking and smuggling is an offence.
It is illegal to buy, sell, kill or capture any protected wild animal or trade any of its parts without a permit. South Africa is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) under which there is a ban on trade in ivory and rhino horn. Anyone caught buying or trafficking banned goods will be prosecuted. Check UK customs requirements before buying meat and other products to take back to the UK.
Homosexuality is legal, and the South African authorities have introduced legislation which bans any discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. See our information and advice page for the LGBT community before you travel.
Terrorists are likely to try to carry out attacks in South Africa.
Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners such as shopping areas in major cities.
The main threat is from extremists linked to Daesh (formerly referred to as ISIL). In February 2018, two South African-British nationals were kidnapped and killed.
The long-standing policy of the British government is not to make substantive concessions to hostage takers. The British government considers that paying ransoms and releasing prisoners increases the risk of further hostage taking.
News reports suggest that a number of South African nationals have travelled to Syria, Iraq and Libya. They are likely to pose a security threat on their return. There’s also a threat from individuals who may have been inspired by terrorist groups, including Daesh, to carry out so called ‘lone actor’ attacks targeting public places including where foreigners may gather.
South African authorities have successfully disrupted several planned attacks and made a number of arrests related to terrorism offences including alleged plots to attack Jewish targets and western diplomatic missions. South African authorities have also been effective against right-wing extremists.
There’s a heightened threat of terrorist attack globally against UK interests and British nationals, from groups or individuals motivated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria. You should be vigilant at this time.
The information on this page covers the most common types of travel and reflects the UK government’s understanding of the rules currently in place. Unless otherwise stated, this information is for travellers using a full ‘British Citizen’ passport.
The authorities in the country or territory you’re travelling to are responsible for setting and enforcing the rules for entry. If you’re unclear about any aspect of the entry requirements, or you need further reassurance, you’ll need to contact the embassy, high commission or consulate of the country or territory you’re travelling to.
You should also consider checking with your transport provider or travel company to make sure your passport and other travel documents meet their requirements.
South Africa has implemented biometric capturing at all ports of entry. This may result in some delays at land borders. You should allow additional time for border crossings.
Technically, your passport should be valid for at least 30 days beyond your intended date of exit from South Africa, in line with South African immigration regulations. However, some immigration officials still request that a passport should have at least 6 months validity on the date of entry to South Africa. To avoid problems at the airport on arrival, you’re advised to ensure your passport meets this requirement.
Your passport should have at least 2 blank pages if you require a visa to enter the country. If you do not need a visa, one blank page will be sufficient.
If you are visiting South Africa for tourism or business purposes for a period of up to 90 days, you don’t need a visa.
If you overstay, you are likely to be declared undesirable and denied entry into South Africa in future. The enforcement of these penalties is strict, and appeals can take many months to process.
If you hold South African citizenship, you must enter and exit South Africa on your South African passport. It is an offence for a South African citizen aged 18 or over to enter or leave the country on a foreign passport.
Travelling with children (under 18)
If you’re travelling with children under the age of 18, additional documentation may be requested on arrival in South Africa. Requirements for visitors from visa exempt countries, including the UK, are set out in the Immigration Act and are summarized below:
Minors travelling with both parents generally do not need to supply additional documentation. However, South Africa reserves the right to request a copy of the child’s unabridged birth certificate before granting entry, at the discretion of individual immigration officers. Whilst South Africa has said it is unlikely documentation will be requested, we recommend that you’re prepared to present the unabridged birth certificate to border officials upon arrival, particularly where one parent’s surname differs from the child’s. The full unabridged birth certificate should list the child’s details and both parent’s details. The abridged (short) birth certificate which only lists the child’s particulars will not be accepted.
Minors travelling without one or both parents are more likely to be required to show a full unabridged birth certificate, in addition to other documentation set out in the 2015 Immigration Act. You’re advised to be prepared to present this documentation upon arrival. These requirements are set out under Section 4, part C, Amendment of regulation of the Regulations.
In the case of school tours, the parental consent letter may be replaced with a letter from the school principal confirming that all consent letters are held by the school. This special dispensation applies to all schools registered with the Department for Basic Education and its equivalent abroad. South African immigration advise that, with the exception of passport and visa requirements set out above, no additional documentation such as birth certificates or affidavits will be required.
The South African Department of Home Affairs have confirmed that no supporting documents will be required by people in direct transit through a South African international airport. Check with your airline to see whether you need to go through immigration on arrival in South Africa, collect luggage and check in again. If you do go through immigration you’ll need to provide the correct documentation.
Contact your nearest South African High Commission or Embassy if you have any specific questions about your trip.
UK Emergency Travel Documents
South African authorities advise that UK Emergency Travel Documents (ETDs) are usually accepted for entry, transit and exit from South Africa. ETDs should have a minimum of 6 months validity. If you’re planning to enter the country on an ETD, you must check requirements with the nearest South African Embassy, High Commission or Consulate before confirming your travel plans.
If you live in South Africa, you must have valid residence permit in your passport when entering and leaving the country. Receipts issued by the Department of Home Affairs for applications to renew a permit will not be accepted by the immigration authorities. For more information, contact the South African High Commission or the South African Department of Home Affairs.
Yellow fever certificate requirements
Check whether you need a yellow fever certificate by visiting the National Travel Health Network and Centre’s TravelHealthPro website.
If you need emergency medical assistance during your trip, dial 10177 and ask for an ambulance. You should contact your insurance/medical assistance company promptly if you are referred to a medical facility for treatment.
At least 8 weeks before your trip, check the latest country-specific health advice from the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) on the TravelHealthPro website. Each country-specific page has information on vaccine recommendations, any current health risks or outbreaks, and factsheets with information on staying healthy abroad. Guidance is also available from NHS (Scotland) on the FitForTravel website.
General information on travel vaccinations and a travel health checklist is available on the NHS website. You may then wish to contact your health adviser or pharmacy for advice on other preventive measures and managing any pre-existing medical conditions while you’re abroad.
The legal status and regulation of some medicines prescribed or purchased in the UK can be different in other countries. If you’re travelling with prescription or over-the-counter medicine, read this guidance from NaTHNaC on best practice when travelling with medicines. For further information on the legal status of a specific medicine, you’ll need to contact the embassy, high commission or consulate of the country or territory you’re travelling to.
While travel can be enjoyable, it can sometimes be challenging. There are clear links between mental and physical health, so looking after yourself during travel and when abroad is important. Information on travelling with mental health conditions is available in our guidance page. Further information is also available from the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC).
According to the 2018 UNAIDS Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic South Africa has the biggest HIV epidemic in the world, with 7.1 million people living with HIV. HIV prevalence is high among the general population at 18.9%. You should exercise normal precautions to avoid exposure to HIV/AIDS. There is no reciprocal health care agreement between the United Kingdom and South Africa.
Make sure you have adequate travel health insurance and accessible funds to cover the cost of any medical treatment abroad and repatriation. Private rehabilitation centres are widely accessible to foreigners visiting South Africa. The British High Commission does not usually contact or visit people who have travelled specifically for medical treatment. Further information on medical tourism is available from the National Travel Health Network and Centre. If you do choose to attend a rehabilitation centre in South Africa, you should:
- do extensive research in advance, ensuring you choose a reputable facility.
- ensure you have the appropriate visa for your stay.
- take out comprehensive travel insurance, which includes medical cover suitable for a rehab stay and your particular circumstances.
Substance use abroad can increase your vulnerability; and although travel does not cause substance dependence, it can provide an opportunity to misuse substances or cause relapse in addiction survivors. More information on the impact of travel and substance use is available on the website of the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers
Make sure to organise a contingency plan to cover what will happen if you relapse abroad, if the treatment plan is unsuccessful and/or you require unplanned repatriation to the UK (this plan may need to include additional availability of funds).
There are limits on the amount of currency you can bring into South Africa. For cash in South African Rand (ZAR), the limit is 25,000ZAR. For combinations of cash in other currencies, the limit is US$10,000 (or equivalent). You should declare any amount higher than this on entry to South Africa.
Travel advice help and support
If you’re abroad and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission. If you need urgent help because something has happened to a friend or relative abroad, contact the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London on 020 7008 1500 (24 hours).
Foreign travel checklist
Read our foreign travel checklist to help you plan for your trip abroad and stay safe while you’re there.
The FCO travel advice helps you make your own decisions about foreign travel. Your safety is our main concern, but we can’t provide tailored advice for individual trips. If you’re concerned about whether or not it’s safe for you to travel, you should read the travel advice for the country or territory you’re travelling to, together with information from other sources you’ve identified, before making your own decision on whether to travel. Only you can decide whether it’s safe for you to travel.
When we judge the level of risk to British nationals in a particular place has become unacceptably high, we’ll state on the travel advice page for that country or territory that we advise against all or all but essential travel. Read more about how the FCO assesses and categorises risk in foreign travel advice.
Our crisis overseas page suggests additional things you can do before and during foreign travel to help you stay safe.
Refunds and cancellations
If you wish to cancel or change a holiday that you’ve booked, you should contact your travel company. The question of refunds and cancellations is a matter for you and your travel company. Travel companies make their own decisions about whether or not to offer customers a refund. Many of them use our travel advice to help them reach these decisions, but we do not instruct travel companies on when they can or can’t offer a refund to their customers.
For more information about your rights if you wish to cancel a holiday, visit the Citizen’s Advice Bureau website. For help resolving problems with a flight booking, visit the website of the Civil Aviation Authority. For questions about travel insurance, contact your insurance provider and if you’re not happy with their response, you can complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service.
Registering your travel details with us
We’re no longer asking people to register with us before travel. Our foreign travel checklist and crisis overseas page suggest things you can do before and during foreign travel to plan your trip and stay safe.
Previous versions of FCO travel advice
If you’re a British national and you have a question about travelling abroad that isn’t covered in our foreign travel advice or elsewhere on GOV.UK, you can submit an enquiry. We’re not able to provide tailored advice for specific trips.
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