Living in South Africa – A Guide for PhD Students |

Living in South Africa – A Guide for PhD Students

Written by Mark Bennett

Every year South Africa attracts thousands of talented international students, drawn by its diverse culture, affordability and unforgettable wildlife. Whether you want to experience an authentic safari or the bustle of a modern metropolis like Johannesburg, South Africa has plenty to offer adventurous postgraduates.

This page will give you an introduction to life as a PhD student in South Africa, from accommodation and living costs through to tourism and transport.

On this page

Student life

South Africa is a dynamic nation that is working hard to move on from its turbulent past and towards a bright future. PhD students will have lots to enjoy and experience across this multicultural country.

Culture and tourism

Table Mountain is the iconic backdrop to Cape Town, one of South Africa’s three political centres. This city has a growing reputation for art and design, bolstered by the presence of the Zeitz MOCAA Museum – housed in a grain silo that was once the tallest building in South Africa.

Johannesburg, located in the north of the country, is South Africa’s most populous city. Johannesburg is home to several historical sites of incredible national significance, including Constitution Hill, a former prison complex that pays tribute to the struggle for democracy in South Africa. The Apartheid Museum, also in Johannesburg, offers an essential window into apartheid-era oppression in South Africa.

Sport and leisure

South Africa is famously sports-mad, with particularly strong rugby and cricket teams. Although the national team has enjoyed less success in football, South Africa hosted the men’s World Cup in 2010 and football is perhaps the most popular sport nationwide.

If you want to enjoy the great outdoors, South Africa is definitely the place for you, providing an endless range of opportunities for physical activity. Surfing off the coast of Cape Town (just watch out for sharks!), hiking Table Mountain or exploring the stunning Drakensberg region – there’s something for everyone.

And, of course, South Africa is the perfect place to go on a ‘Big Five’ safari, witnessing elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards and buffalos in their natural habitat.

Food and drink

South African cuisine absorbs many influences from the country’s past, including Dutch, Indian and Malay flavours and dishes. South Africa is also world-famous for its vineyards, which can be found across the country and usually offer tours for thirsty visitors.


Most South African universities offer a range of student accommodation, both on- and off-campus. Often this housing is aimed specifically at postgraduates and research students. Sometimes you’ll be able to apply for catered meals to be included in your rent.

These are the main kinds of university accommodation you’ll come across at South African institutions:

  • Studio apartments
  • Shared rooms
  • Shared apartments
  • Single rooms with communal facilities

Rent is fairly affordable in South Africa (by Western European standards). To give you an idea of costs. Student accommodation will normally cost between R5,000 and R7,000 per month (USD $295-410).

Private accommodation (as opposed to university-owned accommodation) is usually more expensive in South Africa but may offer you a greater choice of location.

Living costs

As mentioned above, South Africa is a pretty affordable place to live. You should budget around R3,500 per month (USD $205), not including rent.

Prices in South Africa

This table should provide you with an idea of the daily expenses you’ll encounter as a PhD student in South Africa.

Student Cost of Living in South Africa - 2024
Restaurant Meal R150 (USD $8.11)
Cinema Ticket R100 (USD $5.40)
Monthly Travel Pass R745 (USD $40.27)
Monthly Utilities R1,860 (USD $100.53)
Based on crowdsourced data published by Numbeo.

Working during your PhD

Under the terms of your student visa, you’re allowed to work on a part-time basis for up to 20 hours a week during term time.


The local currency is the South African Rand (ZAR). Opening a bank account in South Africa is a good idea for PhD students, avoiding the fees associated with foreign transactions and making it easier to budget for day-to-day expenses.

To open a bank account, you’ll usually need to bring the following documents with you to your local bank branch:

  • A copy of your student visa
  • Your passport
  • Proof of residence in South Africa
  • A letter of acceptance from your South African university
  • Bank statements from your home country


South Africa is a big country – around five times the size of the United Kingdom. As such, travelling from city to city can involve considerable distances. 1,500km separates Cape Town and Johannesburg, making domestic flights the most convenient mode of transport.

Bus and train travel

Several bus and train companies operate in South Africa, serving routes between major cities and smaller towns alike. If you’re not in a hurry, overnight trains link cities such as Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban, often passing through beautiful landscapes.

Air travel

South Africa is home to a number of international airports, which also service flights within the country. A return flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town takes just over two hours and costs around R1,850 (USD $110).

Inner-city travel

Cape Town and Johannesburg both have metro systems and all major cities in South Africa have extensive bus networks. Taxis are a relatively inexpensive option.

Find a PhD in South Africa

Ready to start browsing some current PhD opportunities in South Africa? Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

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Last Updated: 08 November 2023