Registering a Car in South Africa: An Expat’s Epic Journey (Part 1)

Part 1 of a 3-part series. Read part 2.

I moved to South Africa in August 2010. In December 2013, I finally bought a car.

Me and car small

Cute, right? I love tiny cars. This photo was taken by my former boxing buddy Henrike, who sold me the car when she relocated to Abidjan. Thanks, Henrike.

Buying the car — as in paying Henrike and taking possession of the keys — was the easy part. Registering the car in my name was the hard part. I’ve heard many expat stories over the years about how difficult it is to register a car in South Africa. I prepared for the worst. And yet this experience nearly broke me.

Fortunately, this experience makes a great story. I took notes throughout the process so I could recount it accurately in my blog. It’s a bit long so bear with me:

Randburg Licensing Department. Wednesday, December 11.

After a couple of u-turns, I finally locate the Randburg Licensing Department near the corner of Bram Fisher Drive and Main Road. I couldn’t find any concrete information about which of the many Joburg licensing offices I am supposed to go to, but everyone says Randburg is the best place. So, here I am.

The huge parking lot is packed. I had hoped the office would be quiet in mid-December, as many Joburgers have already fled town for the holidays. In fact, the opposite is true — everyone and their mother is at the vehicle licensing office, trying to get their issues resolved before the end of the year.

I find a parking spot next to a pile of dirt, wander around a bit, and eventually find the entrance to the licensing office. I walk inside and approach the “Help Desk”. Despite the crowd I reach the window quickly, probably because “the system is down” and no one can actually do anything.

[Note: I shot all these licensing office photos on the sly. As horrible as the photos look, I assure you that the real places are worse.]

Randburg1 small

That “System Down” sign is ominous. I decide to ignore it. 

Me (smiling): Hello, how are you?

Licensing man (looking bored): Fine, how are you?

Me: I’m fine. I need to register a car.

I pass the man my papers — the completed forms that I downloaded online, my car’s road-worthiness certificate, certified copies of my passport (the main page and the visa page) and my housing lease, the car’s registration certificate, passport photos, etc. — as well as my actual passport. Licensing man flips through my passport, stopping at my old life-partner visa page.

Licensing man: Your spouse needs to be here.

Me: No, that’s my old visa. I have a work visa now…My partner died. (I add that last part in hopes of gaining sympathy. No dice.)

Licensing man (flipping to my new visa page): Where is your traffic register number?

Me: I don’t have one yet. I need to get one.

[In case you’re wondering, a traffic register number is a special document that foreigners need to register a car in South Africa. The traffic register number takes the place of a South African ID book, allowing foreigners to be identified in the system. If you are a foreigner, no one at the licensing department will give you the time of day until you have a traffic register number.]

Licensing man: We take traffic register number applications on Wednesdays from 7:30 to 10:00 a.m.

Today is Wednesday. I look at my watch. 11:00 a.m.

Me: How was I supposed to know to come on Wednesday from 7:30 to 10:00 a.m.? [I don’t know why I ask questions like this.]

Licensing man (shrugging): You should have come before.

Me: Is there anywhere I can go to apply before next Wednesday?

Licensing man: You can go to Langlaagte. 

Me: Can I register my car there too?

Licensing man: Yes.

Me: Okay, thanks.

I leave.

Langlaagte Licensing Department. Thursday, December 12.

I arrive at the Langlaagte Licensing Department at 7:30 the next morning. Langlaagte is on Main Reef Road, near Crown Mines. Turning into the entrance, I pass through a gauntlet of hawkers. “Passport photo?” they shout, gesturing and tapping my window. “Police clearance?” I drive on.

The parking lot of the Langlaagte Licensing Department feels like a refugee camp. It’s baking hot and there is no shade. People mill about looking desperate.

The licensing building itself is surrounded by a tall metal fence. A security guard stands at the entrance — a squeaky revolving grate resembling a monster’s jaws. A crowd is clustered outside the entrance. No one is going in.

Langlaagte

Langlaagte. Place of nightmares.

I stand on the edge of the crowd. The man standing next to me snorts disdainfully.

Me: What’s happening?

Disdainful man: The power is out. I was here all day yesterday, waiting.

Me: How long has the power been out?

Disdainful man: Since Tuesday.

I stand a bit longer.

“What are you all waiting for?” I hear a man say behind me. “The power is out and they can’t find the fault. Nothing will happen here today.” I turn around and look at the man. He speaks authoritatively, as if he knows things.

Me: I need to apply for a traffic register number. Where should I go?

Authoritative man: Go to Roodepoort. Tell them the power is out at Langlaagte. They will help you there.

Me: Okay, thanks.

I don’t need much encouragement to get the hell out of Langlaagte.

I go home. Roodepoort is quite far from Melville and I’m getting sick of driving around, even in my cute new car. I decide to call the Roodepoort Licensing Office before missioning all the way there.

I find a website listing the phone numbers of all the Joburg licensing departments. I dial Roodepoort and get a perpetual busy signal. I dial Langaagte and Randburg, too, just for kicks. No answer.

Roodepoort Licensing Department. Friday, December 13.

The next morning, I drive 30 minutes to the far western suburb of Roodepoort. Roodepoort, like Randburg and Langlaagte, is a depressing part of town. The licensing office building itself, however, is rather cute and historic-looking. I feel hopeful as I walk in. There is no line. I stride to an open window and smile.

Me: I need to apply for a traffic register number.

Licensing man (shaking head): No, you can’t. Applications are closed.

Me: Closed? What do you mean?

Licensing man: We are not accepting any more traffic register number applications until February.

Me: Why?

Licensing man: Because we have too many.

Me. Oh. Hmm. Where should I go then?

Licensing man: You can go to Langlaagte.

Me: The power is out at Langlaagte. It’s been out since Tuesday.

Licensing man: Then go to Randburg.

And thus, I have come full-circle.

Roodepoort

Three days. Three horrible, far-flung vehicle licensing offices. Zero traffic register numbers. Zero cars registered.

To be continued.

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46 Comments

  • Reply David Kirkness January 14, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    might be worthwhile paying one of these queue-for-you agencies ?

  • Reply Gail Wilson January 14, 2014 at 4:13 pm

    I tend to agree with David, seems like you will be going from pillar to post over and over again. The guys from the queue-for-you agencies know exactly where to go and what to do. Best of luck hope you get sorted soon.

  • Reply wannabepoet January 14, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    This is blady awful! I thankfully have never had such an experience, and I’ve registered many a vehicle before. I am however a South African citizen, which does help. Oi, I’m really sorry. Hopefully you can come right BEFORE your COR expires 🙁

    • Reply 2summers January 14, 2014 at 4:22 pm

      Haha, thanks for the concern everyone. Not to worry though, I did finally succeed in getting the car registered. It just took some time and it’s too long a story to recount in one post. Stay tuned!

      Regarding the queuing services…I did consider that route but I don’t think it would work for the traffic register number application. I had to get fingerprinted at the licensing office so obviously I needed to be there in person for that. Anyway, more to come.

  • Reply Sine January 14, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    LOL Heather, I felt like I was there with you every step of the way. Such a SA story, and one that I lived through myself. I feel bad, because I did update my blog post (http://www.joburgexpat.com/2011/04/tips-on-buying-car-in-south-africa.html) on buying a car about the new Wednesdays only rule for Traffic Register Numbers, but I didn’t know it was only from 7:30 to 10:00. Just updated that too and put it in bold, I hope it’ll help future expats as that is still one of my most-viewed blog posts. Loved that you included pictures – I remember that dreary Randburg counter well!!! (I was there probably five times total, until finding out that it was really my husband that they wanted…)

    • Reply 2summers January 14, 2014 at 5:15 pm

      Sine, I’m embarrassed to admit this but I did not read your post about buying a car until after my ordeal — in fact I read it earlier today while working on my post. Or maybe I had read it before, way back when, but didn’t reread it before taking my car to get registered. I have no idea why. (Maybe deep down I actually WANTED to have a miserable experience so I could write about it. I know you of all people can appreciate this.) But when I read it this morning, I was at least glad to see that I probably would have made the same mistake anyway, since you didn’t know about the 7:30 a.m. part. Haha.

      Incidentally, you will see when you read part two that even showing up at Randburg at 7:30 a.m. on a Wednesday did not solve my problem. More on that later.

      • Reply Sine January 14, 2014 at 6:34 pm

        Now I cannot wait! But that is very predictable, actually – you do all they tell you to do, but the problem is, they don’t ever tell you everything at once. Just dole it out in little portions every time you come back. It’s as if they made money by making you come back.

  • Reply chuckv88 January 14, 2014 at 5:06 pm

    I pity you from the bottom of my heart because I once had to get a recovered car ‘unstolen’ and even as a Saffer I had to suffer all the indignities you describe.

    • Reply 2summers January 14, 2014 at 5:18 pm

      Chuck, I know someone else who had to go through that process — shame. My landlord also recently had a problem in which his car (a 16-year-old Opel) lost its engine number and he was then unable to transfer ownership over to the person he sold it to. He just got back from Langlaagte now and it’s finally resolved, but he also went through some very interesting adventures. Ugh. Cars are such a pain.

    • Reply Sine January 14, 2014 at 6:35 pm

      “Unstolen” – you made my day with just that term.

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough January 14, 2014 at 6:30 pm

    OMG! Bless your heart, Heather. Sara is only beginning to look at getting her license here. Can’t imagine actually trying to buy and register a car. We did it in Haiti, but the agency Sara worked for took care of the process. Looking forward to part 2.

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

  • Reply UnderAnAfricanSun January 14, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    I can really sympathize, we are trying to get our traffic register numbers and have made one unsuccessful trip so far to the Marlboro office. We were missing the photos and ended up driving around Alex looking for the guy in the street that does the photos. Despite a couple people trying to get ahold of him, he appeared to be on vacation that day. It was quite the adventure and I am sure I have more to look forward to ! Glad you got it worked out.

    • Reply 2summers January 14, 2014 at 9:37 pm

      Ha! That does sound like quite an adventure. You should have gone to Langlaagte — no problem finding a passport photo photographer there! There are dozens 🙂

  • Reply UnderAnAfricanSun January 14, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    I can really sympathize, we are trying to get our traffic register numbers and have made one unsuccessful trip so far to the Marlboro office. We were missing the photos and ended up driving around Alex looking for the guy in the street that does the photos. Despite a couple people trying to get ahold of him, he appeared to be on vacation that day. It was quite the adventure and I am sure I have more to look forward to ! Glad you got it worked out.

    • Reply 2summers January 14, 2014 at 9:37 pm

      Ha! That does sound like quite an adventure. You should have gone to Langlaagte — no problem finding a passport photo photographer there! There are dozens 🙂

  • Reply fiona January 14, 2014 at 8:33 pm

    I’m South African, born and bred and I had a similar experience, except that my car has been cloned!! To anybody who doesn’t know what coning is, it is when somebody else is driving around fraudulently with your number plate and all the fines come to you. After numerous shoulder shrugs and hitting my head against a brick wall for 2 years, JMPD suggested that I open a case at SAPS. Walked in with enthusiasm, to open the case. First question after explaing everything by the Warrent Officer, what should we call this case?? Next question, from same officer, its all traffic fines- we need to file the report at the closest police station, so what do we do??? Following question, why are all these fines in your name???? And so it continued…. Eventually a Metro officer put my car on a ‘hit’ list, so hopefully the other driver would be pulled over at a roadblock. Guess what, I’ve been pulled over 6 times in the last month and my car is still cloned! Only in South Africa!

    • Reply 2summers January 14, 2014 at 8:55 pm

      OMG Fiona. I don’t even know what to say to that. I think you win the prize for the “best” horrible story. Unbelievable and creepy — a cloned car?!

  • Reply fiona January 14, 2014 at 8:33 pm

    I’m South African, born and bred and I had a similar experience, except that my car has been cloned!! To anybody who doesn’t know what coning is, it is when somebody else is driving around fraudulently with your number plate and all the fines come to you. After numerous shoulder shrugs and hitting my head against a brick wall for 2 years, JMPD suggested that I open a case at SAPS. Walked in with enthusiasm, to open the case. First question after explaing everything by the Warrent Officer, what should we call this case?? Next question, from same officer, its all traffic fines- we need to file the report at the closest police station, so what do we do??? Following question, why are all these fines in your name???? And so it continued…. Eventually a Metro officer put my car on a ‘hit’ list, so hopefully the other driver would be pulled over at a roadblock. Guess what, I’ve been pulled over 6 times in the last month and my car is still cloned! Only in South Africa!

    • Reply 2summers January 14, 2014 at 8:55 pm

      OMG Fiona. I don’t even know what to say to that. I think you win the prize for the “best” horrible story. Unbelievable and creepy — a cloned car?!

  • Reply h.grohs@rocketmail.com January 14, 2014 at 9:28 pm

    I have been also in Randburg trying to pay a fine but in vain …. and stoped trying to do so (hope you did not get all the bills) Good to know my sweet little car gets so much attention – Love from Abidjan.

    • Reply 2summers January 14, 2014 at 9:33 pm

      Henrike! I was actually thinking the exact same thing — I hope you don’t receive any fines for ME, during the time I drove the car in your name. Hopefully I didn’t get any, although I doubt they would find you in Abidjan anyway. Haha.

  • Reply h.grohs@rocketmail.com January 14, 2014 at 9:28 pm

    I have been also in Randburg trying to pay a fine but in vain …. and stoped trying to do so (hope you did not get all the bills) Good to know my sweet little car gets so much attention – Love from Abidjan.

    • Reply 2summers January 14, 2014 at 9:33 pm

      Henrike! I was actually thinking the exact same thing — I hope you don’t receive any fines for ME, during the time I drove the car in your name. Hopefully I didn’t get any, although I doubt they would find you in Abidjan anyway. Haha.

  • Reply gussilber January 14, 2014 at 11:41 pm

    Great and very amusing horror-story Heather, looking forward to the sequel! Randburg is actually the best of the licensing departments by far. Roodepoort is my old home town – I grew up just a few blocks away from the licensing department! I kinda liked it. It was close enough to Joburg (in those days it was a separate city altogether) to be a part of its pulsebeat, but far enough away to be a dozey little dorp in the country. South African officialdom can drive you crazy, and yet there are moments of warmth and human connection that can make you smile. We had a home robbery last year, and the bureaucracy attached to the aftermath is completely draining. I was sitting in a Police Captain’s office in the south of the city, filling in countless forms to get my hijacked car back, when another police officer walked in, brandishing a very official-looking form. He put it down on the table and asked me to fill it in. “What’s this?” I asked. “It’s for sponsorship of my son’s football team,” he replied. How could I refuse? I signed and handed over the grand sum of R20. And then I got my car back.

    • Reply 2summers January 15, 2014 at 10:25 am

      Great story, Gus. Every cloud has a silver lining, as they say. Even though this experience was miserable, I am still grateful for it. It gave me good blogging material.

  • Reply gussilber January 14, 2014 at 11:41 pm

    Great and very amusing horror-story Heather, looking forward to the sequel! Randburg is actually the best of the licensing departments by far. Roodepoort is my old home town – I grew up just a few blocks away from the licensing department! I kinda liked it. It was close enough to Joburg (in those days it was a separate city altogether) to be a part of its pulsebeat, but far enough away to be a dozey little dorp in the country. South African officialdom can drive you crazy, and yet there are moments of warmth and human connection that can make you smile. We had a home robbery last year, and the bureaucracy attached to the aftermath is completely draining. I was sitting in a Police Captain’s office in the south of the city, filling in countless forms to get my hijacked car back, when another police officer walked in, brandishing a very official-looking form. He put it down on the table and asked me to fill it in. “What’s this?” I asked. “It’s for sponsorship of my son’s football team,” he replied. How could I refuse? I signed and handed over the grand sum of R20. And then I got my car back.

    • Reply 2summers January 15, 2014 at 10:25 am

      Great story, Gus. Every cloud has a silver lining, as they say. Even though this experience was miserable, I am still grateful for it. It gave me good blogging material.

  • Reply wannabepoet January 15, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    After reading all of the above comments, I really can’t wait for part 2! 🙂

  • Reply wannabepoet January 15, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    After reading all of the above comments, I really can’t wait for part 2! 🙂

  • Reply bwcarey January 15, 2014 at 4:19 pm

    sounds like an average day in a government office, what would nelson mandela make of it i wonder, at least you still have the car, best of luck.

    • Reply 2summers January 15, 2014 at 4:31 pm

      Yes, you’re right. Deep down I know I am lucky to be complaining about something like this. Life could be much worse!

      • Reply bwcarey January 15, 2014 at 4:34 pm

        you persevere, i wish i had your patience, but your story is uplifting, thanks

  • Reply bwcarey January 15, 2014 at 4:19 pm

    sounds like an average day in a government office, what would nelson mandela make of it i wonder, at least you still have the car, best of luck.

    • Reply 2summers January 15, 2014 at 4:31 pm

      Yes, you’re right. Deep down I know I am lucky to be complaining about something like this. Life could be much worse!

      • Reply bwcarey January 15, 2014 at 4:34 pm

        you persevere, i wish i had your patience, but your story is uplifting, thanks

  • Reply Rebekah January 15, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    Oh my!!! I’m really laughing out loud. This was exactly my experience too!! Outdated info on the website. No one answers the phone. No TRN, no power, you came to the wrong office. Go to this office. Come back tomorrow, Come back tomorrow between 11-1. There’s no power again. Go back to the office you started at. I think I cried a few times over it. If it wasn’t so frustrating it would be pure comedy. I think it took about 2 months and like 5 or 6 trips to multiple licensing offices, registering authorities, police stations and god knows what else.

    Do you have to register it in Joburg? It did take awhile, I was able get the TRN at the Registering Authority in Akasia PTA (The boonies outside Pretoria North). Once you get that, the process is a bit more straight forward. I found that some of the hawkers outside do actually know what they’re talking about. I remember one guy gave me some really good info that saved me half a day in the queue. Of course, he demanded that I buy him lunch in exchange for that info. At that point, I would have bought him just about anything to get the H outa there. When you finish the process please go and have a drink!! Congrats on having wheels now. I’m sure that will make life easier.

    Someone needs to write a how -to-guide for expats for this process!

    • Reply 2summers January 15, 2014 at 4:33 pm

      Haha Rebekah, at least I’m not alone. I did finally succeed, actually — I will tell you about it in the next post. And I’ll provide some tips at the end 🙂

  • Reply Rebekah January 15, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    Oh my!!! I’m really laughing out loud. This was exactly my experience too!! Outdated info on the website. No one answers the phone. No TRN, no power, you came to the wrong office. Go to this office. Come back tomorrow, Come back tomorrow between 11-1. There’s no power again. Go back to the office you started at. I think I cried a few times over it. If it wasn’t so frustrating it would be pure comedy. I think it took about 2 months and like 5 or 6 trips to multiple licensing offices, registering authorities, police stations and god knows what else.

    Do you have to register it in Joburg? It did take awhile, I was able get the TRN at the Registering Authority in Akasia PTA (The boonies outside Pretoria North). Once you get that, the process is a bit more straight forward. I found that some of the hawkers outside do actually know what they’re talking about. I remember one guy gave me some really good info that saved me half a day in the queue. Of course, he demanded that I buy him lunch in exchange for that info. At that point, I would have bought him just about anything to get the H outa there. When you finish the process please go and have a drink!! Congrats on having wheels now. I’m sure that will make life easier.

    Someone needs to write a how -to-guide for expats for this process!

    • Reply 2summers January 15, 2014 at 4:33 pm

      Haha Rebekah, at least I’m not alone. I did finally succeed, actually — I will tell you about it in the next post. And I’ll provide some tips at the end 🙂

  • Reply SteffiSteffi January 15, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    OMG, that sounds so much like SA. I miss it. 🙂
    Even if it was awful sometimes, I dearly miss it.

    • Reply 2summers January 16, 2014 at 7:23 am

      Yep. The good definitely still outweighs the bad.

  • Reply SteffiSteffi January 15, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    OMG, that sounds so much like SA. I miss it. 🙂
    Even if it was awful sometimes, I dearly miss it.

    • Reply 2summers January 16, 2014 at 7:23 am

      Yep. The good definitely still outweighs the bad.

  • Reply amelie88 January 18, 2014 at 8:50 pm

    I feel like outside of the USA (not including the DMV mind you!), bureaucracy is the same everywhere. I had a similar experience with French bureaucracy to renew my French National ID card a few years ago after my handbag was stolen in Madrid. It took over a year to get a new ID card… and too long story to recount here. I’m glad you were able to finally get your car registered!

  • Reply amelie88 January 18, 2014 at 8:50 pm

    I feel like outside of the USA (not including the DMV mind you!), bureaucracy is the same everywhere. I had a similar experience with French bureaucracy to renew my French National ID card a few years ago after my handbag was stolen in Madrid. It took over a year to get a new ID card… and too long story to recount here. I’m glad you were able to finally get your car registered!

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