How to Travel Safely in South Africa

Six Methods:GeneralArrive safeAvoiding crimeWalking aroundCar hire and car travelCaring for your health

While South Africa has a bad reputation for crime, this reputation is somewhat inflated, and almost everywhere is safe to visit. Like many places in the world, it is about being a responsible, knowledgeable traveler rather than assuming that everywhere is dangerous. By taking a few sensible precautions, you can avoid sticky situations and possible health problems, allowing you to enjoy what is a fantastic country, seeing all you want to see with confidence.

Method 1

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    Be a sensible traveller. The same rules apply for South Africa as for almost any country you travel in, including most likely your own. This means:
    • Doing your research before you travel. As with all travel, background reading will enhance your experience and will not only guide you on the places you'd like to visit but will also give you ideas about what challenges might present themselves.
    • Keeping updated with news events.
    • Using common sense, being responsible, and asking for advice from trusted persons.

Method 2
Arrive safe

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    Be aware that tourists can be targets of crime. Safety begins before you depart by leaving prepared. Know where you are going to stay before you depart and know how you intend to get there. Loitering tourists have been victims of crime near travel facilities.
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    Pack your bags carefully and ensure they are secure before checking in for your flight. South African airports have a reputation for luggage tampering and theft, as can be seen in news reports. It is sensible to use tamper evident seals to check if your luggage is intact upon arrival.
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    Do not accept offers of transport from anyone who is not authorized to offer transportation to the public. Offers of car transport should only be accepted from airport counters or a staffed taxi rank / marked vehicles.

Method 3
Avoiding crime

South Africa does have crime problems but once you are aware of the types and location of the crime problems, you will be set for a safe journey. Reassuringly, tourists do not tend to be targeted and most tourists visit South Africa without incident.[1] The most common types of crime you might encounter will be con artists, hustlers, touts, and scam merchants.[2]

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    Avoid visiting places that are known crime hotspots. Ask your hotel or guest house concierge or other trusted people where it is safe to go and to warn you of places to keep away from. Some important things to keep in mind include:
    • Avoid going anywhere that is isolated, that is known for drug crimes, gang violence, etc. (ask so that you're aware!).
    • Don't go into the central business areas of main cities at night.[3]
    • Always take taxis at night. [4]
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    Be cautious when using electronic payment systems. As with most places, it is important to take sensible precautions when using ATMs and credit cards.
    • Keep your PIN covered whenever using an ATM. Use ATM's that are in well-lit places and not isolated.[5] If people try crowding around you, leave that ATM and find another one. If there is any commotion at the ATM, leave, or suggest that people seek help from the bank - con artists can try any sort of distraction to part you from your money.
    • Don't let any payment by credit be made out of your sight. If a merchant tries to do this, demand the card back immediately and either find cash or don't proceed with the purchase. If it is a restaurant, go up to the payment counter and insist on seeing the transaction being performed. If you're worried that your card is compromised, contact your card provider immediately.
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    Take the standard travel precautions for not looking like a tourist:
    • Don't flaunt your valuables. Leave the expensive jewellery at home, avoid accessories or bags that are too flashy. Lonely Planet even recommends not wearing watches, no matter how inexpensive.[6] Place all valuables and your passport in the hotel safety deposit box. Even then, place items inside sealed envelopes or lockable containers to prevent staff theft.
    • Dress down.
    • Speak quietly. Don't attract unwanted attention by being overly loud or brash.
    • Avoid looking at your guidebook or map in the open. Duck into a store or cafe to review where you're headed.
    • Keep bags well-held, never wear a wallet in your back pocket, and avoid carrying too much cash on you. Wear money pouches hidden well under your clothing if you need to carry a lot of cash.
    • Keep cameras in your shoulder bag rather than around your neck.

Method 4
Walking around

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    Ask advice from a member of the community about the areas that you intend to visit. Ask friends, hoteliers, concierges, retailers in malls, etc., where it is safe to walk and visit. Local knowledge is always preferable to even that in guidebooks, so don't be shy. Be careful, however, not to ask a stranger straight off the street.
    • See if it is possible to go with someone who is knowledgeable about the area you want to go to if you are afraid of getting lost.
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    Avoid walking anywhere that is isolated.
    • Use common sense. If something doesn't feel right, don't go there, or leave quickly if you are there already.
    • SA Places recommends that you talk to the local people before walking into the very isolated areas of Kwazulu-Natal and the the Wild Coast of Transkei on your own. [7]
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    Have the most up-to-date maps and information. Ask for copies of recent maps from the hotel or guest house.

Method 5
Car hire and car travel

Driving in any new country carries some hazards for the unfamiliar driver, and it is important to take the necessary precautions. Drunken driving is commonplace in South Africa, and although attempts are being made to address this, over 1000 people die on South African roads during the Christmas holiday season alone, giving you some idea of the need to take care.[8] The following steps will help you to drive safely when hiring a car in South Africa.

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    When hiring a car, ask for one that has GPS installed. If you bring your own, make sure that it has current southern African maps on it.
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    Keep your driver's license with you at all times when driving. This is required under South African law.
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    Be ready for left side drive. If you're from a country with right side drive, it can be a challenge to switch driving modes and requires constant vigilance. This means not driving when you are tired, as you are more likely to lapse into driving the way that feels most natural.
    • It also takes time to learn the rhythm of how people drive in another country, so be wary at all times, including being prepared for suddenly stopping vehicles, such as minibus taxis.
    • Watch for aggressive driving. Gary Ronald, spokesman for the Automobile Association of South Africa, says that aggressive driving in South Africa can intimidate people who are not used to it.
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    Keep to roads that are well signposted and that are in good condition. If you try to drive on roads with potholes and poorly sealed surfaces, damage to the car could leave you stranded and vulnerable. For long trips, plan your route in advance, and be sure that the car is in good working order, and that you have adequate fuel and cash.
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    Follow standard car crime reduction basics:
    • Keep valuables out of sight at all times, including when you're in the car. Items such as cameras, handbags, iPods, laptops, parcels, etc., should be kept in the trunk (boot) of the car.
    • When driving through a downtown area that is crowded, keep the car windows up and all the doors locked.[9] This will prevent anyone from attempting to reach in when you're waiting at lights, etc.
    • Don't give anyone a lift.
    • Lock car doors when you park. Park in well-lit areas and set the alarm if you have one.
    • If you get lost, ask a police or traffic officer for directions.

Method 6
Caring for your health

On the whole you will find that South Africa has good levels of hygiene in tourist areas and health threats are not the same as elsewhere in Africa.

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    Be sure to purchase health insurance cover before leaving your own country. You should find out the details from your personal provider. Some credit cards will cover certain travel insurance.
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    Try to use private hospitals over public hospitals if you need to use a hospital. You won't wait as long, the staff will be attentive and the standards are high.[10] Pharmacies are well stocked in major centres.
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    Ask your doctor's advice for your own health needs before leaving. Unless you are coming from another African country, you won't need any specific vaccinations; tropical disease concerns are not generally an issue in South Africa. However, malaria is a major health issue in some parts of South Africa (Kruger National Park, some areas in Mpumalanga, Limpopo, and northern KwaZulu-Natal),[11] dependent on season, climate, and location. There is no risk of malaria in the major cities. Speak to your doctor or health clinic about the necessity of taking appropriate precautions - the advice is constantly updated.[12] Moreover, it is standard good travel practice to have tetanus, typhoid, and hepatitis A shots up-to-date.[13]
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    Beware the South African sun. It's hot and a lot of tourists don't realize this until the sunburn sets in. Wear a hat, adequate clothing, and use sunscreen and sunglasses to protect yourself during the heat of the day.
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    Practice safe sex measures. South Africa has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world.[14] Take appropriate precautions and do not share needles or injections.
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    If you are undertaking outdoor activities, such as hiking and camping, be aware that there are the usual outdoor concerns:[15]
    • Tick bites can bring on tick fever - take care when walking through long grass and pull them off or use grease to remove them
    • Rabies is present, especially in dogs - seek immediate medical help if bitten
    • Snakes are present although usually not a problem
    • Shake wood before using to remove scorpions and spiders - their bites are painful but rarely lethal
    • Malaria - see discussion above
    • Water is generally safe to drink from taps except in rural or informal areas but do not drink water straight from rivers or streams, especially those downstream from cities and other human settlements[16]
    • Hospital and medical facilities away from urban areas are not always available or of good quality.


  • Find out if you can use your mobile/cell phone; and if applicable, hire a rental phone.
  • Make sure you have important telephone numbers handy; this includes the emergency numbers, the number of the place where you are staying, and if applicable the numbers of your health or travel insurance and your car rental firm. The police emergency number is 10111.
  • Before you travel, contact the travel bureau or consulate for contact information on travel contacts where you won't get ripped off.
  • Bring more than one credit or debit card, but don't carry them all - take one per day. Also make photocopies of the front and back and keep those somewhere safe so that you can report them if stolen. Most hotels provide room safes.
  • Find out if your credit/debit card is accepted; almost all major cards are.
  • If at the beach, avoid taking valuables and pin keys to your bathing suit and place any cash in a waterproof wrist holder or wallet that can be attached to your body (around the neck, etc.)
  • Never leave anything of value unattended, not even in the hotel lobby.
  • Don't put all your eggs in one basket; if you are unlucky enough to get something stolen, at least you don't lose everything.
  • Lots of petrol (gas) stations only accept cash, no cards, especially in rural areas.
  • Keep some loose change on your person to be used for tipping, telephone boxes, and if need be to pay for your journey home.
  • Exchange some currency (Rand) before you get into the country. There is however a large amount of exchange services at the main airports and large malls. Be sure to bring proof of residence.
  • Don't worry about Ebola. Nigeria, where the disease started, is far from South Africa. Bring medicine along, just in case, though!


  • Avoid sponsorship sign-up scams - simply make it a rule not to sign or donate anything a person asks you to sign on the street.
  • South Africa's flu season is May–August (winter months); consider getting vaccinated if you are susceptible (talk to your doctor).
  • Contact the Embassy or Consulate General of your country in South Africa, so that they know you are there in case of emergency or legal issues.
  • Buy all transportation and other tickets from official sellers, not from anyone on the street or around an official venue.
  • Using and trading in illegal substances in South Africa can lead to a jail term.
  • Avoid catching a minibus after dark, especially if you are traveling alone, or you are a woman traveler.[17]
  • Lonely Planet warns of the common "jammed card in the ATM" scam. The con artist fiddles with the ATM to cause your card to get stuck, and while you go inside the bank to complain, your cash is stolen.[18]

Things You'll Need

  • Maps, and knowledge/people with knowledge of the areas that you intend to visit
  • Credit and debit cards (major cards are accepted almost everywhere)
  • Currency prior to arrival
  • Bookings for accommodation and transportation (rental cars, coaches and hotels); public transport can be of poor quality and, in most cases, is not recommended.
  • New R200 are replacing the one above,be sure not to take the old ones as they will not be accepted.

Sources and Citations

  1. MSNBC, Keeping safe in South Africa, at
  2. Southern Africa Places CC,, accessed 28 May, 2010 and Lonely Planet, Southern Africa, p. 744, 4th edition, (2007), ISBN 978-1-74059-745-6
  3. Southern Africa Places CC,, accessed 28 May, 2010
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