This expat guide offers information and advice if you are moving to Cape Town. Click on the different tabs to find out about anything from tax rules and banking to education and cultural highlights.
You can also read our guides to South Africa and Johannesburg.
Moving to Cape TownCape Town's considerable popularity as an expat destination rests on its celebrated natural beauty and many outdoor attractions. That's coupled with a fairly relaxed lifestyle, easily accessible culture and mild climate.
Despite its size, Cape Town has all the trappings of an international city with excellent restaurants and cafes, world-class shopping, and top quality private healthcare.
The laid-back atmosphere of the city appeals to expats looking for a healthy, balanced alternative to the high stress work environment of other international cities. Rush-hour traffic is benign compared with that of Johannesburg, especially if you reside in the city bowl, which is close to the central business district.
Cape Town is South Africa's most efficiently run metropolis and crime levels are lower than any of the country's other large cities. However, public transport is poor and it's often necessary to rent or purchase your own vehicle.
Working in Cape TownCape Town follows an eight-hour, five-day working week. The city does not have the aggressive work culture of Johannesburg, and many expats enjoy the more balanced lifestyle afforded by the many outdoor activities and natural attractions available close to the city.
A work visa is required before taking up employment. You can apply for this at the South African consulate in your country of origin. You are at a big advantage if you are being relocated to Cape Town by your company as it will demonstrate that you have key skills - a prime requisite for being granted a work visa.
Commercially, Cape Town is small compared with Johannesburg and other international cities, but the media industry, IT sector and asset management businesses are well represented here, and a relatively high-proportion of expats work in these sectors. Cape Town is also becoming a hub for the west African oil industry and hosts big employers such as BAT and De Beers.
For more information about work permits, banking and more read the South Africa guide.
Shipping and removalsShipping costs depend on volume and length of shipping time. Air freight is quickest but more expensive. A cost-effective shipping solution from Europe will take approximately four weeks.
Customs clearance may add further time. Note that left-hand vehicles cannot be imported into the country.
To ship pets to South Africa you will need a Veterinary Health Certificate, or equivalent, and your animals may need to undergo quarantine period of up to six months
AccommodationCape Town is a fairly compact city and the most convenient and safe neighbourhoods are clustered in the city bowl, or around the coast within 10 kilometres of the city centre.
House prices are among the highest in the country but rental prices are good value. It is recommended to rent a serviced apartment before arrival while researching which area to live in. Note that furnished accommodation in Cape Town is difficult to find and more expensive to rent during the summer tourist season. A big advantage to accommodation in Cape Town is the affordability of domestic help.
Favourite expat areas in the city bowl are Tamboerskloof, Oranjezicht, Higgovale, and Gardens, while Sea Point, Green Point, Clifton, and Camps Bay on the Atlantic seaboard are also popular. In the suburbs, some 30 minutes from the city, the leafy areas of Rondebosch, Claremont, Newlands are also popular with families due to larger property sizes and their proximity to good schools.
Areas and suburbsChief among the many advantages to expat life in Cape Town is the opportunity to live in the heart of the city without experiencing the urban rush. The most popular areas for expats living in the City Bowl are Gardens and Vredehoek, which offer good value property and rental in exchange for a barrelling wind off the the mountain that causes trees to grow at improbable angles.
Closer to the heart of the city and lapping the slopes of Lion’s Head are the attractive and affluent suburbs of Orangezicht and Tamboerskloof, known for Victorian double-volume houses in close proximity. Across the Kloof Nek Road, Higgovale offers more modern properties on large, secluded plots.
It is also possible to live in the heart of the city, as office blocks are repurposed into apartments and residential lifestyle centres; a good example of such a development is the Rhodes-Mandela Place building opposite St George’s Cathedral.
Southern suburbsLong-term expats often drift away from the city centre to the leafy idylls of the southern suburbs. Many families choose to live in the Southern Suburbs as houses and gardens are larger and many of the better schools are here. Additionally, the beaches of False bay are not far away. The areas around UCT, such as Mowbray, Rosebank, and Observatory are bohemian and inexpensive, although chiefly colonised by students.
A little further away are middle-class bastions of Rondebosch, Claremont, Newlands and Kenilworth with free-standing homes, and with good schools and parks nearby. Further around the mountain you will find the affluent suburbs of Constantia and Bishopscourt - the embassy district – both with a quasi-rural feel thanks to enormous properties and frequent sightings of horses trotting about. The key disadvantage to living in the Southern Suburbs is the traffic to town during rush hour.
False BayThe False Bay seaboard encompasses Muizenberg, Fish Hoek and Simonstown, quiet, historic towns linked by a scenic drive and railway line winding along the coast. These areas are becoming increasingly popular with first-time home buyers, although will only appeal to the expat with either an aversion to city life or an addiction to surfing.
Atlantic seaboardTo the east of the City Bowl, folding along the seaboard around Lion’s Head, are the suburbs of Greenpoint, Seapoint, Clifton and Camps Bay. Greenpoint, now centred around the recently completed World Cup Stadium and close to the V&A Waterfront, is a vibrant mix of trendy apartments and bars, and well established old timers. Properties tend to be densely packed and mostly flats and apartments.
Seapoint, its neighbour, is a mix of high-rise apartments facing the sea, and housing dotting the slopes of Lion’s Head. The area is centre of Cape Town’s Jewish community and is popular too with the young and trendy. Further along the coast is Clifton, home to South Africa's most expensive real estate where apartments sell for up to R40 million and even parking bays change hands for R1 million or more. This area overlooks Clifton’s picturesque four beaches, which are framed by granite boulders, and feels removed from the city despite being only a short drive away.
Camps BayThe drive over Kloof Nek takes one into Camps Bay, the sloping area positioned between the 12 Apostles of Table Mountain and the beach below.
Ever popular with expats due to the dramatic scenery and close proximity to both sea and city, there is a wide range of accommodation available from free-standing homes to upmarket bachelor flats. Other advantages are that the commute into town is benign even in rush hour, and that Camps Bay receives the last of the city’s sunshine each day. On the other hand the strong south-eastern winds in summer can be unpleasant.
Hout BayOne of the more popular areas for those expats wishing to live outside the city is Hout Bay, starting point for Chapman’s Peak drive. Hout Bay has its own beach and a charming little harbour, reinforcing the village-like atmosphere that residents enjoy. On the downside is a rapidly growing informal settlement that encroaches on the established properties.
Northern suburbsDurbanville and its surrounding conurbation rivals Cape Town for size, and is popular with expats seeking to live outside the city centre, closer to the Winelands. The area has a reputation for both safety and urban mundanity. The morning commute into the city centre along the N1 frequently exceeds one hour.
Table BayThe areas of Table View and Bloubergstrand sit across the bay from the city centre and have magnificent views of Table Mountain. This area is popular because of the close proximity to the beach and moderate property values when compared to the city bowl. The area is a globally renowned water sports centre during the summer months. The downside of living here is the traffic congestion experienced if commuting to the City Bowl.
Renting propertyMost expats will rent a property initially. In many cases a rented property may be provided through your employer.
Renting in Cape Town is a simple process. All that is generally required is one month's deposit, proof of income and, in some cases, a letter of introduction from your employer.
There is wide range of accommodation available to suit every budget and taste, including both furnished and unfurnished accommodation. Townhouses and clusters are normally located inside a secure development, with access security and electrified perimeters.
Property agentsProvide the agent a list of your requirements, but give only a broad budget as rentals are negotiable within a 10-20% range. Tenants pay no fees for the agent’s services and they will additionally provide and expedite any paperwork required when signing the lease. Note that tenants are liable for the utilities bills, although rates are included in the rental.
Other sources for finding rental accommodation in Cape Town include the classifieds section of the Argus newspaper (Saturday edition) and the Cape Times property section on Wednesdays. A popular online resource is Gumtree (www.gumtree.co.za) where you will find useful list of estate agents.
The best time to look for rentals is between May and September; during the summer months apartments are often reserved for lucrative short-term holiday lets.
Domestic helpIt is very normal in South Africa to employ domestic staff such as cleaners/maids, nannies and gardeners. For many expats in Cape Town, particularly those with small children, the availability of cheap staff is a major bonus. You should not consider employing domestic staff as exploitation, this industry is a major employer in South Africa and the prospect of relatively well paid work also attracts many Malawians and Zimbabweans to Cape Town.
What is a thirteenth cheque?This is a payment of an additional month's pay in December; it is a bonus, but is still expected by domestic staff.
Annual leaveThe annual leave entitlement is 21 days, which works out as 15 working days. Staff often want to take leave over Christmas, when South African staff often head back to the Eastern Cape and Malawi and Zimbabwe staff take the long trip home to see their families. Try to agree dates well in advance.
New mothers are entitled to four months unpaid maternity leave, and the job must be kept open for them.
South African staff can often request to take leave to attend a funeral of one of their extended family. The entitlement for compassionate leave is five days a year, but flexibility is usually given.
HIV / AidsWith the high rate of Aids in South Africa, new expats to Cape Town often ask if they can get nannies tested for HIV. Note that you cannot demand that they get tested and nor can their employment depend on this. The chances of infection are very low, but it is often sensible to send new employees on a first aid course, where precautions are explained.
See the Marvellous Maids website for more detail on employing domestic help in South Africa.
Living in Cape Town
LifestyleLife in Cape Town is a lesson in the art of leisure. Capetonians are self-proclaimed hedonists and expats moving to the Mother City will be hard pressed to turn a blind eye to the intricacies of indulgence for too long.
The city is a naturalist’s playground with a cosmopolitan heartbeat. Those relocating can enjoy a lifestyle that balances an emphasis on the great outdoors and an appreciation for arts, culture and entertainment.
It’s possible to climb Table Mountain in the morning, go wine tasting in the afternoon and enjoy a 12-course dinner in one of the world’s top 100 restaurants in the evening.
ShoppingCape Town has an abundance of locally inspired and uniquely creative shopping options. The city has a strong counterculture movement that makes for a fertile ground of young designers, stylists, artisans and craftspeople. In many cases, each individual or collective has their own shop or studio. There are also plenty of standard department stores to satisfy every consumerist need.
The Old Biscuit Mill outdoor organic market has gone global and is a great way to spend a Saturday morning.
For a more standard mall experience, the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront houses all the main stores in South Africa as well as some very high-end international names.
See and doCape Town might have less business opportunities than its big brother city in Gauteng but it has far more going for it in terms of world-class attractions and things to see and do.
Whether you’re into historic sites and moving museums, or scenic cruises and gorgeous beaches, Cape Town has plenty to keep its expat residents occupied on weekends and in the latter half of the short work days.
Unusually for a South African city, Cape Town centre is safe and suitable for exploring on foot. Maps and self-directed itineraries are available from the tourist office on Long Street. Some of the key sites include Robben Island, former prison to Nelson Mandela; Table Mountain which can be accessed by walking path or cable car; and the Winelands, a short drive or bus tour away.
Castle of Good HopeBy some margin the oldest building in the country, the pentagonal Castle was built in 1679 to replace the first mud fort built by Jan van Riebeck. The stone walls were previously lapped by waves before a land reclamation project in the 19th century.
Tel: 021 787 1249
Greenmarket SquareFrom slave market to flea market, Greenmarket Square has undergone many transformations. Today it is the vibrant centre of the city, lined with hotels, chic stores, coffee shops while the centre is packed with African craft vendors.
Table MountainNamed for the tablecloth of cloud that regularly covers its plateau, this mountain is the most popular tourist attraction and worldwide symbol of the city. There are numerous walking routes up, but the rotating cable car is the most popular way to access the stunning views from the top.
Tel: 021 424 8181
Kirstenbosch Botanical GardensFamous for its astounding collection of plantlife, rolling lawns and sculptures, Kirstenbosch enjoys a magnificent setting on the slopes of Table Mountain, a short drive from the city centre. The Sunday sunset concerts held in summer are a great - though busy - time to visit.
Tel: 021 799 8783
Clifton and Camps Bay beachesThe Atlantic seafront has the closest beaches to the city centre and some of its best. Clifton beaches 1 to 4 are known for privacy and granite boulders; Camps Bay for its pristine stretch of golden sand and cosmopolitan vibe.
District Six MuseumDistrict Six was until the 1960s a vibrant area near the city centre before the forced removal of its residents by the Apartheid government. Visit this excellent museum to understand the experiences of its residents and subsequent repercussions, still being felt today.
Tel: 021 466 7200
Victoria & Alfred (V&A) WaterfrontThe Waterfront is popular with expats, locals and tourists for its variety and safe surrounds. After all, it is a busy harbour, richly historical site and the city’s busiest shopping and restaurant centre.
Tel: 021 408 7600
Bo-KaapThe Bo-Kaap is the historical Malay Quarter of the city, known for its brightly coloured houses and proud Muslim heritage. Less of a tourist site, rather a colourful and resilient reminder of the multi-cultural heritage at the heart of Cape Town’s history.
Two Oceans AquariumThis world-class aquarium is based at the V&A Waterfront and houses over 3,000 sea animals from both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Educational and hugely entertaining.
Tel: 021 418 3823
Cost of livingExpats find Cape Town to be very good value in terms of accommodation, entertainment, clothing and staff. Vehicles are comparatively expensive as are international flights. Credit is expensive with a prime lending rate of around 14%.
LanguageEnglish is widely spoken and is the lingua franca for business and government. Afrikaans, closely related to Dutch, and Xhosa are technically the two most popular languages.
WeatherCape Town has a mild Mediterranean climate with dry, windy winters (Jul-Oct), and rainy, hot summer months (Dec - Apr). Atlantic currents ensure the sea water is very cold.
Where can I meet other expats?There are substantial populations of British, German, French and American expats in Cape Town. Each community has vibrant sporting and social clubs to help recent arrivals get connected. Examples include the Swiss Social and Sports Club, Alliance Française, and the local branch of Hash House Harriers running club.
Attractions for kidsIf you’re moving to Cape Town with kids you will be mercifully free of the drastic adjustments required for other expat destinations. Cultural adjustments are few, and provided they speak English your children have the advantage of being understood by the locals.
Child-friendly activitiesAround Table Mountain, areas such as Kirstenbosch, False Bay, Silvermine and Cape Point are perfect for a day out in splendid nature with long walks and plenty of wildlife to appreciate. There are also lots of gentle bike tracks on the mountain and at Cape Point.
There are also the beaches, which are scenic, clean and free. Watch out for the water, though, as it is normally very cold. Another way to enjoy a hot day with the family is to head off to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens which has safe and expansive lawns for children to run around on and lots of gorgeous scenery and splendid greenery.
If it’s windy (summer months) or cold and wet (winter) go to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront where craft markets, boat rides and restaurants will keep the kids entertained. The Two Oceans Aquarium is also found here and provides a fascinating and educational experience for children.
Attraction suggestionsBoulders Beach – Simonstown
Share the boulder strewn beach with a giant colony of curious Jackass penguins.
Ratanga Junction - Milnerton
Cape Town's only theme park has some exciting rides headlined by the Cobra, and some water themed shoots that provide a welcome dousing in summer.
Butterfly World - Klapmuts
This enormous tropical greenhouse is home to thousands of exotic featured butterflies flying freely in the humid interior. Tread carefully: There is also a spider room, a collection of anacondas and a reptile room.
Scratch Patch – Kalk Bay
Let the kids loose to search for precious stones, minerals and gems – they get to keep what they find.
World of Birds and Monkey Park – Hout Bay
Africa's biggest (and loudest) collection of bird and primates proves a reliable delight for young children. A well-equipped play area and good tearoom rounds out the experience.
Seal Island – Hout Bay
Head out to Duiker Island for astounding views and close-up experience of a large seal colony; also popular with Great White sharks which patrol the waters
Education and schoolsCape Town has a range of public schools (government run), private schools (independent) and international schools. Education standards vary considerably at government schools, while private schools offer consistently high levels of education - with a price to match.
There is an American International School in Constantia, a German school in the city bowl, and four International Schools scattered in the suburbs. The International School of Cape Town in Wynberg follows the English curriculum. The best domestic private schools include Bishops (Diocesan College) in Rondebosch, Redham House near the US Embassy in Tokai, and the Waldorf School in Constantia. The best known private girls schools are Herschel and St Cyprians.
The school year runs from mid January to early December, across three or four equal terms, with short holidays over Easter, June, September and December. Applications must be made well in advance of arrival at the school concerned and you may need to apply to Home Affairs for a study permit.
Pre-school and childcarePre-school facilities are run privately and can be found in most suburbs catering to toddlers and young children. Classes run from around 8am to 12.30pm, with late hours available for an additional fee.
Some of the best resources, apart from word-of-mouth, for sourcing the right pre-school are:
- Cape Town’s Child: free-monthly magazine with useful listings
- Kiddicare: www.kiddicare.co.za
- Kidzworld: www.kidzworld.co.za
Montessori (branches in Hour Bay, Cape Town, Sea Point) www.mariamontessori.biz
Moms & Tots (branches in Bergvliet, Claremont, Cape Town) www.momsandtots.co.za
Long-term expats should consider that certain pre-schools are feeders for some of the city’s best schools and it may help the admission process to have attended the right facilities.
Private schoolCape Town has excellent private schools, ranging from pedigreed unsex institutions to alternative education models. Fees can be quite high, but in return students enjoy high-quality teaching, excellent facilities from cutting-edge science labs to top notch sports fields, cultural activities, and support services that maximise pupils’ chances of excelling.
AnglicanMost private schools are nominally Anglican, with daily chapel periods and gentle encouragement towards Christian values. The best of these are:
- Bishops Dicesan College, Rondebosch: www.bishops.org.za
- St Cyprian’s School, Oranjezicht: www.stcyprians.co.za
- Reddam House, Tokai and Sea Point: www.reddamhouse.org.za
- Abbotts College, Claremont: www.abbotts.co.za
InternationalThere are some excellent international schools in Cape Town, increasingly popular with locals due to the high standard of education and internationally recognised curricula.
JewishThere are 10 United Kerzlia schools in Cape Town (www.herzlia.com) from pre-primary to senior level. Standards of education are high, with plenty of emphasis on religious instruction, Hebrew, and life skills training. Sport is typically not a priority.
CatholicThere are many Catholic and convent schools, the best of which are St Mary’s and St Agnes in the inner city, Springfield Convent in Wynberg, St Johns in Parklands, and St Joseph’s.
IslamicIslamia College in Rondebsoch is an independent school that integrates academic education with Islamic instruction and study of the Koran. The school is known for a strong work ethic and some of the best academic performers in the province.
WaldorfThere are nine Waldorf schools (www.waldorf.org.za) in the province from pre-primary to senior. The Waldorf system aims to nurture each leaner as a unique human being and to graduate balanced, integrated pupils from its schools.
School dates (2011) in Cape TownNormally public and private schools have different term times, with private school operating on a three-term system and public school four terms. Additionally coastal and inland public schools have slightly different vacation timetables.
Term 1 17 Jan - 1 Apr
Term 2 11 Apr - 24 Jun
Term 3 18 Jul - 30 Sept
Term 4 10 Oct - 9 Dec
International schoolsInternational schools are a popular choice for expat parents looking to ensure continuity in their children’s education. Standards are generally high with teaching staff often made of expatriates experienced in delivering the core curriculum of their home system.
A further advantage for expat children is the opportunity to form connections with children from diverse countries and backgrounds who nevertheless share the complex experience of being an expat child. Fees naturally vary, yet are generally on a par with domestic private schools in Cape Town.
- International School of Cape Town, Wynberg: www.isct.co.za. Ages: 4 to 19, curriculum: British
- Co-Ed Deutsche Schule Kapstadt, Gardens: www.dsk.co.za. Ages: 5 to 18, curriculum: German
- French School, Gardens: www.ecolefrancaiseducap.org . Ages: 4 to 18, curriculum: French
- American International School of Cape Town, Constantia:www.aisct.org. Ages: 4 to 19, curriculum: International
- International School of Hout Bay: www.houtbay.iesedu.com. Ages: 3 to 18, curriculum: British
- Chester House: www.chesterhouse.co.za. Ages: 4 to 18, curriculum: Cambridge International Examinations
UniversitiesApart from being significant employers of expats, Cape Town’s four universities offer internationally accredited degree and courses.
University of Cape TownThe country’s oldest university was founded in 1829 on the picturesque slopes of Table Mountain. Today it has both the highest number of A-rated scientists in Africa and the most foreign students.
University of the Western CapeFounded in 1959 as a separate college for non-white students, UWC has evolved into an internationally respected university with over 12 000 students in 68 departments, institutes and research centres.
Stellenbosch UniversityLocated in the heart of the Winelands in historic Stellenbosch, this predominantly Afrikaans language instruction university is highly regarded for its research institutions.
Cape Peninsula University of TechnologyThe former Cape and Peninsula technikons have now been amalgamated into the largest university in the Western Cape, with over 25 000 students on two main campuses. Their IT centre is the largest on the continent.
University of South AfricaOfficially the largest correspondence university in the world, Pretoria-based University of South Africa (UNISA) offers distance education to over 300,000 students in South Africa and abroad. Many of their degrees are recognised in the US, a rarity among South African universities.
Time: The local time in Cape Town is GMT + 2 hours. No daylight savings adjustments are made.
Electricity: Cape Town’s electrical current is 230 volts, 50Hz. Round, three-pin plugs are used, however European and US adaptors are easily available in supermarkets, luggage shops and hardware stores.
Money: The Rand (ZAR), divided into 100 cents, is the South African currency. It is easy to change money at banks, bureau de change and any of the big hotels. There are abundant ATMs around the city and major international credit cards are commonly accepted, although not in petrol stations. American Express is increasingly hard to use. Be careful when drawing money from ATMs as scams and snatch and grab crimes are common.
Language: South Africa has 11 official languages, the majority being Afrikaans, English, Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho. English is spoken by most Capetonians, although statistically Afrikaans is the most common language.
Health: Expats flying into Cape Town from infected areas must have a yellow fever vaccination certificate. Cape Town has good quality tap water and it is safe to drink, possessed of a zesty tang of which expats grown quite fond.
Tipping: Waitering is the very lifeblood of the many Cape Town communities. A 10% tip is standard for good service. One should also tip a few rands for petrol attendants and newspaper vendors. Golf caddies should be tipped accordingly. Informal 'car guards' work the parking lots and open bays of the city and will presume to look after your parked car. You are expected to tip a few rands on your return.
Safety: Cape Town might be the safest of South Africa’s big cities but remains a dangerous place compared to most popular international destinations. Opportunistic crime is the biggest threat so expats should take appropriate precautions by locking doors when driving and walking along on isolated beaches or remote areas. Expats should contract private security and armed response for their homes as the police service is unreliable though improving.
The biggest security providers are ADT and Chubb. Larger apartment blocks will have their own front-desk security, but smaller units will only have security if provided by the body corporate.
Emergency Numbers: 10111 (Police); 10177 (Ambulance)
Communications: The international dialling code for South Africa is +27, followed by 21 for Cape Town. The outgoing code is 00. GSM mobile phone networks providing 900 and 1800 frequencies are available in Cape Town and throughout the country. Mobile phone uptake is massive here and service providers offer very cheap 'pay-as-you-go' SIM cards, and good value contracts. Under the new RICA law all SIM cards must be registered with the authorities. Internet service is widespread though relatively expensive and slow.
Climate: Cape Town is located close to the tip of the African continent on the Cape Peninsula, and has a largely Mediterranean climate, but with warm, dry summers and chilly, wet winters. Cape Town's weather is strongly affected by winds and pressure systems from the Atlantic Ocean.
Summer weather is frequently characterised by strong south-easterly winds known as the Cape Doctor. Winters, on the other hand, get plenty of cold fronts, storms with lashing rain and powerful north-westerly winds. The mountains of the Winelands are dusted with snow in mid-winter.