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A Traveller’s Guide to Money and Currency in South Africa

Everything you need to know about foreign exchange, using credit, debit and travel money cards and spending cash in SA

For those unfamiliar with the sunny nation of South Africa (SA), the task of figuring out finances while on holiday or business here can seem about as daunting and confusing as a higher-grade trigonometry paper.

First of all, there’s the issue of getting a handle on the local currency. In SA, we work in rand (R), with each rand being comprised of 100 cents (c). Both coins (5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, R1, R2 and R5) and notes (R10, R20, R50, R100 and R200) are available, and the exchange rate is generally quite favourable for those coming from foreign countries.

Then of course, it’s necessary to figure out the best form of money to bring with you on your travels. Contrary to popular belief, SA has quite a well-developed financial system and extensive bank network and there are a number of different options available for tourists spending money here. Key alternatives include using your foreign credit or debit card (yes, there are ATMs everywhere in SA, even in rural towns), arranging a special travel money card or bringing cash to exchange or traveller’s cheques. Aside from these, there’s also the option of obtaining a URCard, a prepaid debit card that was developed by a reputable local travel company specifically to address the money-related challenges often faced by visitors here.

To help you make an informed decision, we’ve elaborated on these travel money alternatives below and highlighted the pros and cons of each so that you can get a feel for which would be the best fit for you.

TRAVEL MONEY OPTIONS IN SOUTH AFRICA

Debit and Credit Bank Cards

Ideal for creatures of habit who aren’t keen on mastering a new and unfamiliar money system, using your credit or debit card from home is a popular and handy, albeit potentially costly, option when travelling in SA. Major credit card brands, namely MasterCard and Visa, are widely accepted here, and debit cards and cheque cards, which give you access to your bank account in your home country, can generally be used over the counter and at ATMs wherever there’s a MasterCard or Visa sign. If choosing this option, there’s no need to pre-arrange travel money; though, there are, of course, issues associated with transacting in SA in foreign currency with foreign plastic.

Advantages:

  • Using a bank card from home is very convenient, as you already have one on hand and do not need to deal with the hassle of pre-arranging and figuring out other more unfamiliar travel money alternatives.
  • You have access to all of your funds back in your home country as well as to emergency cash advances in the case of a credit card, so you shouldn’t be out of pocket.
  • Some banks do offer favourable overseas rates and charges for travellers using debit or cheque cards specifically (less so with credit cards).
  • Credit cards can be used to book accommodation, plane tickets, activities and more online while you’re already in SA.

Disadvantages:

  • Safety is a core concern. SA has had a major problem with debit, cheque and credit card fraud, and because these cards give holders direct access to all funds, if you fall victim to a scam or if they’re stolen, the loss could be major. What’s more, while there is generally a money-back guarantee to cover fraud, there are usually a number of conditions involved and there may be certain policies that limit how protected you are when travelling.
  • If your bank card is lost, stolen or swallowed by an ATM, it can be a huge and costly hassle to get a replacement card from your overseas bank. It can take up to three or four weeks for the new card to arrive, which means you could be stranded without money for some time.
  • Overseas card usage fees can be very high and are often not made very clear, so you might not be aware of them. Banks usually charge a percentage of the amount withdrawn on top of other fees, so at the end of the day, you could pay over R200 in charges for a single transaction.
  • Because your money is still in foreign currency, you will pay a fee to convert it from this form to rand every time you use your card.
  • Similarly, you will be vulnerable to a fluctuating exchange rate, and if this drops so that it’s not in your favour, you could lose a portion of your travel budget.
  • Some debit and credit cards, especially new ones with advanced security features, may not be compatible with local ATMs and card machines.
  • If you forget to notify your bank that you are travelling and they see foreign activity, they will most likely block your credit card.

Travel Money Cards

A modern, electronic form of the old traveller’s cheque, prepaid travel cards and cash passports, which are similar to URCard, are issued by financial institutions specifically for the purpose of using money overseas. There are a number of different types  of these cards, but unlike the local URCard, they generally can only be pre-loaded with certain foreign currencies (usually US dollars, British pounds and euros) and not rand for SA. Regardless, they are ideal for those looking for a convenient option that boasts more security than standard credit and debit cards. It would be best to contact your bank or nearest foreign exchange store for more information on the specific options available.

Advantages:

  • As a prepaid option, travel cards are not attached to all your funds in your home country and therefore are quite a secure option.
  • Many travel cards come with a complimentary back-up card that can be used if the first is lost, swallowed by an ATM, stolen or broken.
  • Usage fees are generally a little lower than those associated with credit or debit cards.
  • Cash passports and other travel money cards lend themselves to budgeting, and it’s also generally possible to monitor your balance and your expenditure history easily online.

Disadvantages:

  • Because you normally cannot load rand on a travel card, you will still be transacting in foreign currency, which means you will be affected by changing exchange rates and will have to pay conversion fees whenever you pull money from the card. What’s more, there are two conversions involved: you are charged once to convert from your home currency to the currency of the card and then every time you swipe or draw to convert from the card currency to rand.
  • Organising a travel card can be an extra hassle, as you generally have to present a number of documents to qualify.
  • While fees may look low, there are often a number of hidden costs, and card holders should note that they will generally be charged a percentage on ATM withdrawals rather than a fixed rate.
  • Some travel cards are only valid for a short period of time and therefore must be cashed out on return, and you will have to go through the process of organising another one if you want to travel again.
  • Many types can only be reloaded at the place from which they were purchased (i.e., back home), which means if your balance reaches zero in SA, adding more cash to the card will be very difficult.
  • If you leave some money on the card after departing SA, you may be charged a monthly inactivity fee that will seriously dig into your remaining balance.

Traveller’s Cheques

Once a popular travel money option, traveller’s cheques, which are pre-printed coupons of a specific denomination that can be used as a substitute for cold cash, are no longer widely used or recognised in SA. In fact, the use of these cheques has dropped significantly since the 90s due to the rise of credit, debit and travel money cards, and therefore they’re no longer a viable option for anyone visiting our nation.

Advantages:

  • As a paper substitute for cash, traveller’s cheques are a very secure way to manage your money abroad.
  • If accepted, they offer you all the convenience of cash.
  • If lost, damaged or stolen, they can easily and quickly be cancelled and re-issued.

Disadvantages:

  • Most importantly, you will be hard pressed to find an establishment in SA that will still accept traveller’s cheques as a form of payment. Even banks are phasing them out.
  • There are occasionally issues with the validity of cheques or the clearing of money.

Cash

Certainly the most convenient option, carrying cold hard rand is ideal for those who aren’t keen to keep seeking out ATMs and who are looking for a sure-fire way to make hassle-free purchases fast. Cash can be used anywhere and is especially useful when travelling off the beaten path to more rural areas where electronic pay points may not be ubiquitous. However, while it’s always advisable to have some SA notes and coins on you, it’s certainly not wise to have all of your overseas spending money in this form.

Advantages:

  • It’s a handy form of currency that you’ll be able to use widely in SA, even in rural areas, informal markets and tiny shops where ATMs might be scarce and card machines absent.
  • Cash doesn’t come with any of the accompanying withdrawal fees or constant currency conversion surcharges typically attached to the international use of credit, debit or travel money cards.
  • Cash is in no way linked back to your greater bank accounts, so if it’s lost or stolen, there’s no reason to be concerned about thieves or fraudsters having access to all of your funds.

Disadvantages:

  • It’s not safe. Carrying a lot of cash makes you a target for thieves; not to mention, you’ll never be able to recover stolen cash in the same way that a bank will reimburse you for funds illegally taken from your account.
  • Notes and coins are bulky, awkward to cart around and can be a cause of unnecessary anxiety.
  • When converting foreign currency to cold cash, you will often get an unfavourable exchange rate and lose a lot in the process to admin and commission fees.
  • With cash, you can easily lose track of how much is going out, which can result in huge overspending.
  • In order to avoid carrying all your cash, you have to constantly estimate how much money to take out with you for activities and may find you sometimes come short.
  • When hiring a car, making a hotel reservation or booking similarly expensive services, you’ll likely need to provide a credit card for security deposit purposes. Cash is generally not accepted, and if it is, an inordinately large deposit is required.

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