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Travel money guide: South Africa

How to manage your travel money when traveling to South Africa

South Africa has something for every kind of traveler, from wineries, hiking trails to surfing. You’ll find most types of payments are accepted, including credit cards, debit cards and cash, with cash taking precedence in more rural areas.

A credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, is a smart addition to your trip. But you’ll need to balance your card use with cash depending on your South Africa sojourn.

Our picks for traveling to South Africa

Travel rewards with no annual fee

Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card

Go to site
on Capital One's secure site

Rewards

Up to 1.25 x miles

Annual fee

$0

All-around travel value

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

Go to site
on Capital One's secure site

Rewards

Up to 5 x miles

Annual fee

$95

Cash back with no foreign fees

Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card

Go to site
on Capital One's secure site

Rewards

Up to 1.5 % cash back

Annual fee

$0

Travel card, debit card or credit card?

It’s fairly easy to find ATMs throughout cities in South Africa, and credit cards are widely accepted. However, if you plan to leave the city for the rainforests or go on a hike, plan to bring cash.

Bank of America customers can look for ABSA banks, one of the larger banks in South Africa and a member of the Global ATM Alliance. This means you won’t pay an international ATM fee each time you withdraw money.

  • Tip: Inform your card issuer about your travel plans ahead of time. Credit card fraud is common in South Africa and your bank may block your card if you make a payment or withdrawal in South Africa.

These are your options for spending money in South Africa

Using a credit card

Credit cards give you the most purchasing power on expensive items like hotels and flights. Find yourself a credit card that waives foreign transaction fees, like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card.

Carrying a credit card gives you the added benefit of travel insurance and discounts, depending on your provider. It pays to compare travel card options prior to your trip to find a card that benefits your travel habits most.

Pros
  • Use for big ticket purchases
  • Protected by PIN and chip
  • Accepted worldwide
  • May come with benefits like travel insurance
  • Interest-free days when you pay your account in full
  • Emergency card replacement
Cons
  • Fees and interest for cash withdrawal

Which credit card issuers are accepted in South Africa?

While some merchants accept American Express or Discover cards, Visa and Mastercard are accepted more commonly.

For cash withdrawals, look for Standard Bank ATMs for Discover cards. Amex cardholders can choose from ATMs of Nedbank and from smaller banks’ ATMs.

Merchant acceptanceATM acceptance
Visa
check mark iconHigh
check mark iconHigh
Mastercard
check mark iconHigh
check mark iconHigh
American Express
exclamation point iconMedium
check mark iconHigh
Discover
exclamation point iconMedium
cross mark iconLow

Potential credit card fees in South Africa

There are two main types of fees you could incur using a credit card abroad:

  • Foreign transaction fees. If your card comes with foreign transaction fees, you could pay a fee of up to 3% on every purchase made abroad.
  • Currency conversion fees. Instead of paying in local currency, a merchant could offer you to pay in US dollars — but beware. This is known as a Dynamic Currency Conversion and it comes with additional fees and a poor exchange rate. You’re better off paying in local currency.

Compare travel credit cards

Narrow down top travel credit cards by welcome offers, rewards and annual fees to find the best for your budget and financial goals. Select Compare for up to four products to see their benefits side by side.

1 - 3 of 43
Name Product Welcome Offer Rewards Annual fee Filter values
Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card
Earn a bonus of 20,000 miles once you spend $500 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $200 in travel
Up to 1.25x miles
$0
Earn 20,000 bonus miles once you spend $500 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening.
American Express® Gold Card
60,000 points after spending $4,000 on eligible purchases in the first 6 months
Up to 4x points
$250

Rose Gold is here to stay. Card Members can choose between a Gold or Rose Gold Card.

Earn up to 4x points on select purchases and enjoy a bevy of travel perks with this upper-mid tier travel card. Terms apply, see rates & fees
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

Up to 5x miles
$95
Earn 75,000 bonus miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first 3 months ​from account opening.
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Compare up to 4 providers

Using a debit card

A debit card could be a good travel money choice to take to South Africa. Most ATMs and EFTPOS machines in South Africa accept Mastercard and Visa debit cards and don’t charge a local ATM fee. It can also pay to have a travel-friendly debit card that doesn’t charge international ATM fees, like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card.

You’ll have access to cash each time you come across an ATM, without carrying lots of cash on you all at once. And because you’re spending your own money, you avoid interest charges.

  • Tip: A debit card can be used to shop over the counter, online and for ATM withdrawals in South Africa.
Pros
  • Use at stores and hotels, online and ATMs
  • Protected by PIN and chip
  • Spending your own money means avoiding interest charges
Cons
  • International ATM and currency conversion fees
  • No access to cash advances

Using a prepaid travel card

Travel cards can lock in conversion rates once you load USD. Use it for purchases without worrying about rates each time you spend — debit and credit cards often charge 3% for each transaction.

Where you save in the conversion rates you may pay in fees. You’ll pay fees each time you load the card, ATM withdrawals and sometimes even an inactivity fee.

  • Tip: Banks that provide travel cards make money by applying a higher margin to the exchange rate. You can get a better rate using a debit card or credit card.
Pros
  • Lock in exchange rates
  • Protected by PIN and chip
  • Emergency card replacement and backup cards.
  • Reloadable online
Cons
  • Come with lots of fees for loading and reloading, inactivity and ATM withdrawals.
  • Businesses won’t accept prepaid cards

Using traveler’s checks

Security is the main advantage of using traveler’s checks. Each check has a unique serial number and can only be cashed with photo identification. Fees are the main disadvantage.

You need to visit a South African bank to cash traveler’s checks — and pay a commission. You’re better off using a debit or travel card which lets you make cheap or free ATM withdrawals to get South African rand.

  • Tip: Traveler’s checks are good for locking in a good exchange rate. So if you watch the forex market, get them while the getting’s good.
Pros
  • Security
  • Cash at any bank
Cons
  • Fees for purchasing and cashing checks
  • Not accepted by many merchants
  • Currency exchange rate varies over time
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South African currency

South African banknotes have a portrait of Nelson Mandela on the front and come in denominations of 10, 20, 50, 100, 200. You can easily tell these notes apart by their bright colors.

5 South African rand10 South African rand20 South African rand
50 South African rand100 South African rand

The main banks in South Africa are:

  • ABSA
  • Nedbank
  • FNB
  • Standard Bank
  • Bidvest
  • Capitec

What you need to know about getting cash in South Africa

Unlike banks in the US, South African banks do not charge you to use their ATMs. So you can save on ATM withdrawal fees altogether by choosing a card that doesn’t charge for international ATM withdrawals, like one from Betterment Checking.

  • Global ATM Alliances with South African banks
    Bank of America has a partnership with South African bank ABSA, one of South Africa’s big four banks and are common around the region. IF you hold a Bank of America bank card, you won’t be charged an ATM fee.
  • ATM withdrawal limits
    The maximum amount you can withdraw from an ATM in South Africa is 3,000 rand or about $200 at a time. To get more money visit a bank branch and show an ID.
  • Getting your money changed in South Africa
    You may be approached to get your money changed by a street vendor in South Africa. Although the rates tend to be better than banks, this is dangerous and illegal. There’s a good chance you could be robbed or cheated. It’s best to exchange your currency at banks or ATMs or you can always send your money to South Africa ahead of time with a money transfer service and have it waiting to be picked up when you arrive.
  • Which product gives you the best rate?
    You won’t find a big difference in foreign exchange rates between credit, debit and travel cards. The real savings come by avoiding international and local ATM fees. Since South African banks don’t charge ATM fees, try to get a card that waives foreign exchange and international ATM fees to save money on your withdrawals.

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ATMS in South Africa

Keep your travel money safe while in South Africa

Crime is high in South Africa — including violent crime — and is the number one risk for travelers. Most frequently reported are muggings, armed assaults and theft most commonly occurring in areas that are popular among tourists. Keep your money hidden at all times.

In terms of money safety, South Africa is known for credit card fraud. One of the popular frauds is someone offering you assistance to use an ATM while they steal your card and information. Follow these tips to improve your safety:

  • Select ATMs with care. Stick to ATMs attached to banks. These are less likely to be tampered with and you can easily retrieve your card if the machine eats it.
  • Take two cards. Having a backup can ensure you’re covered if something happens to your primary card.
  • Keep your card in sight. Avoid card cloning or misuse by watching your card every time you pay.

What should you budget for your trip to South Africa?

Once to get to South Africa, you’ll find you can get by on less than $40 a day if you budget your money right. Save money by pitching a tent outside the hostel or cook your own food.

For those interested in a little less rugged experience, plan to spend between $100 to $250 a day. All prices are in US dollars.

Cape CityBudgetMidrangeLuxury
AccommodationBudget rooms or hostels
$20–$40
2-star hotel
$45–$90
5-star hotel
$100–$500
MealsFast food
$10–$15
Dinner at a midrange restaurant
$20 per person
5-star restaurant
$80 per person
ActivitiesBoat trip
$10 per person
Cape Peninsula full day tour
$76
Full-day Safari
$220

Prices are approximate and are subject to change.

Exchange rate history

Historically, the US dollar has been stronger against the rand. And over the past decade, the dollar has increased in strength — in 2007, the annual average exchange rate was 7.05 rand to the dollar.

Frequently asked questions

What are the business hours for South African banks?

Banks open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. You may be able to find banks in shopping centers and airports with extended hours.

What’s the policy on tipping?

It’s common to give small change to people carrying bags or serving drinks. When you dine out, it’s standard to tip 15% of the total bill. Tour guides and rangers in parks depend on tips for their income.

Which is it better: to use a card with no currency conversion fees or a card that doesn’t charge for ATM withdrawals?

This snapshot doesn’t factor in travel card load and reload fees nor card application fees and interest charges.

No currency conversion fee debit cardNo international ATM fee debit cardTravel cardNo currency conversion fee credit cardNo international ATM fee credit card
$300 purchase$300$309$300$300$306
$300 withdrawal$305$309$302$311$306

Assumptions:

  • The currency conversion fee is 3%
  • The international ATM withdrawal fee is $5
  • There is no local ATM operator fee
  • The transaction amount is $300
  • ZAR loaded onto the travel card
  • 20 Rand travel card ATM withdrawal fee
  • 2% credit card cash advance fee
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