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I am a Canadian travelling to South Africa for two weeks. My flights, rental car and hotels are pre-paid. Obviously I'll want to have some money to spend on food, entertainment and unforeseen costs while I'm there.

My question is, how much cash should I bring? Carrying cash around is a bad idea but my limited experience is that travelers cheques are a pain to get cashed and are not accepted anywhere other than banks.

Will my mastercard (issued by a Canadian bank) serve me well? I understand that it should work at ATMs, but will it be accepted at stores, gas stations and restaurants?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Indeed, Mastercard South Africa even has an ATM search to show you where the best ATMs would be that support it.

How much cash? That depends on how much you're planning to spend. Or are willing to keep on you at all times. Depending on which study you read, Johannesburg (I assume one of the cities you're visiting) is the crime capital of the world. I personally tried not to keep too much cash on me.

Yes, don't bring traveller's cheques. They're a pain, nobody likes cashing them any more, and some places may even refuse. Of course, if you really wanted to, keep some as a backup in case of emergency. The one big benefit is that they're insured - if they're stolen you can get the cash back, whereas if you get mugged and cash is stolen; tough.

Most places accept credit cards - VISA and Mastercard. Most restaurants, gas stations for sure. Little corner stores and street vendors - not so much. It helps to have some cash on you for those purchases, which you can withdraw from an ATM.

To be fair I was there in 2005 for a month, and 2008 for 2 weeks. In 2005 the only time we had a problem with a card being 'accepted' was when we popped up to Zambia, and they used the old-school swipe + carbon copy of your card technique.

There's been seven years since then, so many more merchants have upgraded, and especially after the 2010 World Cup, it's definitely a tourist friendly country (in terms of transactions, at least).

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Having visited South Africa last year (Johannesberg and Cape Town), I had zero issues using an Australian-issued MasterCard credit card and Visa debit card. This was used in restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions, ATMs, etc.

We travelled with no Rand and got out a couple of hundred dollars in Rand from an ATM in the airport on arrival. I've found that that's generally cheaper than currency exchanges. We only used cash when credit/ATM cards were impractical (total was too small or they weren't available).

South Africa is basically a first world country when it comes to their financial infrastructure, as far as I could tell. There are still social and some utility-related issues (flaky power, phone or internet access), but in terms of accessing your money it was not a concern at any point for us. I can't speak for every small town, but then you may very well have the same issue travelling through parts of Australia in terms of ATM/credit card availability.

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As a local, I can confirm that credit card facilities are fairly widespread; in the larger cities, only the smallest shops lack them, and yes, you can use them at stores, and restaurants. Once, I had a gas station charge above the advertised price when using a credit card, since there's an extra charge for them (normally, we use a "garage card"), but they almost always have an ATM as well. I would also advise carrying some cash, depending on where you are going (rural areas, farms, etc). –  Daniel B Jul 31 '12 at 8:13
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Credit cards are accepted pretty much everywhere in SA, as the other people already mentioned in their answers, there are also many ATMs.

One thing I wanted to add is that ATM fraud seems to be quite serious there (my friend was almost a victim when I was there last year). Usually it involves some people trying to "help" you with the cash machine - often seemingly unrelated. They are trying to either scan your card or swap it to a different one (but of the same colour), and at the same time memorize your PIN code as you enter it. So they would try to make you enter your PIN a few times, claiming there are issues with the ATM, etc. In case of my friend just walking away solved the problem.

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