Essential South Africa Guide for Expats

When living and working in South Africa it can take time to know the essentials of day-to-day living like where to go for recycling, what number to call in an emergency and if tipping waiters is culturally acceptable.

We’ve compiled a brief guide of essential information you need to know about South Africa which will be useful for anyone planning a trip or intending to live and work in the country.

Emergency numbers in South Africa

Should things go wrong you will need to know who to contact in an emergency.

– The international dialing code for South Africa is 27

– Emergencies: 10111

– Ambulance 10177

– If you have a mobile phone the GSM standard emergency number to call is 112 which will work even if you have no credit or the phone is locked.

Official Languages of South Africa

There are a number of different languages spoken in South Africa which vary according to which region you will be visiting. The most common language is English followed by Afrikaans. Other languages include; isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, Siswati, Tshivenda and Xitsonga.


The South African plug is 3 pronged like the UK plug, but whereas the UK has square prongs, the South African ones are rounded so you will need an adapter.

The voltage is 220v which is the same as in Europe, so you will not need a transformer unless your appliances run at a lower voltage or are from the US.


Roadside recycling collections often have to be organised by the neighbourhood from a private company who will charge to collect your recycling. Ecomonkey is one of the large private recycling companies. Alternatively you could bag it all up and drop it off at a municipal recycling centre.

Out and About

Generally in restaurants and bars it is polite to tip the waiter or bartender around 10-15% if the service charge is not already included.

Tourist spots may be patrolled by parking attendants who offer to watch your car for you. It’s best to give them a few rands, even if you are not a tourist. Anyone else offering a service such as porters will also expect a couple of rands. Read more about tipping and etiquette in South Africa.

Do note that the legal drinking age in South Africa is 18 and although the authorities have considered putting this up to 21, so far the law hasn’t been approved.

Safety and Hygiene

Crime can be rife in the tourist areas so it’s best to stay where you know and don’t go exploring late at night. Townships in particular are to be avoided unless you have a local guide.

You will need to take anti-malaria treatment before you travel to South Africa as this disease is still prevalent in some parts of the country. Drinking water is safe to drink but don’t drink water that has not come out of the tap.

There are few poisonous animals, especially in built-up areas. Snakes, spiders and scorpions can be a threat in the open. Generally the advice is to take a picture or get a description of whatever bit you and phone the hospital.