South Africa: An ex­change stu­dent’s guide to the ba­sics

A whole semester abroad might seem daunting at first. But if the University of Pretoria is your dream host university, I’ve got you covered. Keep reading to get some practical information on life at the UP before jumping on that plane!

Natalia withe her flatmates.
Making friends as a student in South Africa is easy. Here are some of my favourite people in Pretoria! Photo: private

Ngibingelele futhi mngani! (Hello again, friend!) In my previous blog entries, I provided you with a comprehensive guide to survival during load shedding. Today I’d like to give you an insight into some other essential aspects of life in South Africa. Let’s dive into the practicalities of doing an exchange semester at the University of Pretoria (UP)!

Health care and insurance

To study in South Africa, a student visa is needed. And in order to apply for that, you will need proof of medical insurance in SA. The required medical cover should be issued by a South African company. Luckily, it’s easy to apply online to join either Momentum Health or CompCare Medical Scheme. I registered with the Momentum option for 495 South African rand (around 25 euros) per month – paid up front upon registration. I received my membership proof via email on the same day I signed up.

It didn’t mean that I could go to any doctor’s in Pretoria though. Momentum covers visits at certain practices only. So, in order to avoid an unpleasant surprise, better check that list of “contracted providers” on your provider’s webpage first, friend. Or ask directly at the doctor’s. Or go to the UP student health clinic. Be prepared, however, that waiting times are pretty long there (up to a few days). So, if you suffer from an acute flu, your nearest GP practice might be a better option (as was the case for me). If you decide to visit one of the five clinic branches on campus, you can use a UP shuttle bus to get there.

Buses from the university.
The university's shuttle buses for convenient travel between campuses. Photo: private

Public transportation

The most popular form of public transportation in SA are privately owned minibuses, operating both on long and short distances. If people here mention ‘taxis’, these are what they mean. I used taxis a lot during my previous stay at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg. In Pretoria, I found it too complicated though. For my trips here, I rather used the public, very modern Gautrain connecting Pretoria with Johannesburg (and OR Tambo Airport). There are also public buses available in Pretoria. For travelling between campuses, I preferred to hop on one of the UP shuttle buses. The rides are free of charge for UP students – all you need to do is present your student ID.

Despite these options, it is often difficult to go around the city without a car. For safety reasons and lack of tracking options, it is not advisable to hail cabs on the street, especially after dark. So, you better download that Uber app, friend, if you haven’t done it yet. Other exchange students and I have used Uber regularly, not only within Pretoria but also on the way to the OR Tambo airport. However, for the first ride from the airport to my accommodation, I used a transportation company recommended to me by the university. I had a lovely drive to my res with a driver from the PS Tours company (for 600 rand which is about 30 euros).

Natalia´s student residence from outisde.
Home sweet home: The Tuksdorp student residences. Photo: private


There are plenty of options to find private accommodation in Pretoria while on an exchange semester. Many of my classmates rent apartments close to the university. Nevertheless, I preferred to stay in accommodation offered by the university. That’s how I ended up at Tuksdorp, my student residence. Tuksdorp offers single rooms with a shared kitchen and bathroom, as well as a common TV and game room, laundry and IT lab. On top of that, there is the luxury of a small pool in the res backyard – a great thing to have during hot summer days. Depending on the type of house, there are three to seven other students on the same floor.

The res is located around ten minutes away from the Hatfield campus and the closest Gautrain station. There is no canteen at the res, but one can book meals at the Monastery Hall on the main campus. Or pay a visit to one of many restaurants on and around campus (serving mostly fast food though). Tuksdorp move-in and -out dates are adjusted to the UP semester calendar: The first academic term at the UP starts in February, exams go on until the end of June. The second semester starts at the end of July and officially ends in December.

Making friends

Still wondering why I decided to stay at the student res? Well, my exchange semester at the UP is not my first university experience abroad, and so I knew that staying at a student res gives one a huge chance to meet wonderful friends. I wasn’t mistaken: I really appreciated my res-mates at Tuksdorp! With them, I could have the best and most meaningful conversations right in our shared home. But even if you go with a different accommodation option, rest assured: Load shedding, as frustrating as it may be, is a great way to start conversations with just about anyone: classmates, lecturers, random people on the street – everyone in SA seems to willingly take up the subject any day, any time. So, in case of doubt, use this ice-breaker and take it from there!

As my semester at the UP comes to an end, that’s it for this term from me. I hope you enjoyed this blog :) Sala kahle mngani wami (stay well, my friend)!

(Published: 10 July 2023)