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Using a credit card in South Africa
Use our guide to get the best out of your plastic, and your cash, on holiday in South Africa.
South Africa is one of the most popular countries for tourism throughout the whole of Africa. Millions of people from overseas arrive every year to enjoy the national parks, beaches and picturesque rural landscapes, as well as major cities such as Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg.
The booming tourism industry means that credit cards are widely accepted across the nation.
Mastercard and Visa are widely accepted credit cards in South Africa. American Express cardholders may find less businesses accept their cards.
Compare cards with fee-free currency conversion in South Africa
Cash machines in South Africa
It should be easy to find a cash machine throughout all urban areas of South Africa, especially in train and bus stations, petrol stations, shopping centres and popular tourist destinations. They may be harder to come by in rural areas, so it’s worth withdrawing plenty of emergency cash before you head to these parts of the country. Bank-affiliated ATMs don’t usually impose additional fees to those your bank may levy.
Cash in South Africa
The South African currency is the rand (ZAR). While you can expect to be able to pay for most goods and services with credit card, it’s smart to carry some cash with you just in case. Retailers in smaller rural areas of South Africa are more likely to demand cash only, while some urban vendors may require you to pay in cash for smaller purchases.
Chip and PIN
South Africa has moved from magnetic-stripe to chip cards, and all banks in South Africa now issue the latter. You’ll still be able to use your magnetic-stripe card in South Africa, although you can expect some confusion. In the switching of technology, some retailers falsely believe that they can no longer accept magnetic-stripe cards while some others will not let you use them, to do their bit in reducing credit card fraud. All they basically need you to do is swipe your card instead of inserting it into the machine, and then get you to sign for the purchase.
If you use a chip-and-signature card, you can use it in South Africa just about everywhere you find a manned credit card machine. However, some businesses are hesitant in accepting them because they are not sure if it’s allowed and some others don’t accept them to cut down on credit card fraud. If you are getting tickets from a machine, you will need to enter a PIN, in which case your chip-and-signature card won’t work.
Is it safe to use my card in South Africa?
By exercising some caution when using your credit card in South Africa, you’ll have a relatively trouble-free experience.
- Keep your PIN safe. Use one hand to enter the PIN and the other to shield it from prying eyes and hidden cameras.
- Select cash machines with care. Try and stick to cash machines in banks and avoid using ones in the street.
- Watch out for “skimmers”. When installed in an ATM, a card skimmer works by stealing information from credit and debit cards. If you feel the card slot is not as smooth as it should be or if there is a problem with the keypad, cancel your transaction and look for another ATM.
Keeping your credit card (physically) safe
Remain alert to street crime, especially where two or more people work in distracting victims before decamping with their valuables. Instances of theft at airports are not uncommon, so stay vigilant while arriving and departing. There have been numerous instances of thefts from hired cars so don’t leave your wallet or purse in a parked car.
Potential credit card fees
Credit card fees can leave a noticeable dent in your pocket when you are travelling overseas, so know what you are up against well in advance and choose a card with no or low fees.
Foreign transaction fees
British credit card issuers typically charge a fee equivalent to 1% to 3% of your transaction, so carefully review your card’s fine print to avoid statement surprises. Some cards designed for travel come with no foreign transaction fees, so this could be a good time to switch.
Currency conversion fees
If a retailer offers to bill your credit card in sterling, dynamic currency conversion comes into play. While this might sound like a good deal, you’ll actually end up getting a worse exchange rate, and you might also end up paying currency conversion fees. Whenever you’re presented with an option, choose to pay in the local currency.
Cash advance fees
Using your credit card to withdraw money from an ATM may not make sense unless it’s a bona fide emergency. Each time you withdraw funds from an ATM, you’re likely to pay a cash advance fee. Your APR for cash advances is typically higher than your purchase APR, and you won’t get any grace period on interest – instead, you start paying interest immediately. Again, some cards designed for overseas spending will waive this fee.
The table below serves as an example of how much extra you may pay to use your credit card in South Africa.
What is a cash advance fee?A cash advance fee is calculated (and charged) when you withdraw cash from your credit card. It’s usually the greater of a flat fee or a percentage of the transaction. For example, “2.5% of the transaction, minimum £3.00”.
How to prepare before travelling to South Africa
- Go with Visa or Mastercard. Carry at least two cards on your trip to South Africa, preferably connected with Visa or Mastercard. If you just take an American Express card, you won’t get to use it in many places.
- Think no foreign transaction fees. When there are cards that come with no foreign transaction fees, using ones that charge 2% or 3% of each overseas transaction does not make sense. Some of these cards don’t charge an annual fee, either.
- Keep your bank informed. Banks, in their efforts to thwart fraudulent transactions, block credit cards if they detect suspicious activity such as unexpected overseas transactions. To make sure this does not happen to your card, let your bank know about your travel plans before you leave the UK.
- Keep the emergency number handy. Know which numbers you’ll need to call if you end up losing your card or if you need an emergency replacement.
- Know where you’ll get cash from. Consider using your debit card to withdraw cash from ATMs. If you need to exchange money, stick to banks or official money-exchange offices because possessing counterfeit money in South Africa is a serious crime. Try to avoid exchanging money at airports and popular tourist destinations because of typically poor exchange rates.
Ask yourself these simple questions before you leave so your spending in South Africa does not hit any roadblocks.
When you’re in South Africa, you’ll rarely have to worry about where and when you can use your credit card. Just keep some cash handy to pay for small purchases.
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