Buying a car in Botswana…clean one owner..it’s a deal..it’s a steal

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Roof rack installed, but we waited until arriving in Cape Town to buy the rooftop tent we really wanted.

Hands clammy; beads of perspiration dampening my shirt; heart randomly jolted by shallow stabs of adrenalin, I sit and wait my turn.

My number is called.  I step up to the window.  It all comes down to this moment.  Months of research, destinations rearranged, chances taken, future plans teetering on the edge of oblivion.  It all depends on one civil servant’s decision.  One civil servant controlling the fate of our lives in 2013.  Does this person know the god-like power they have over us?

I look into the civil servant’s  eyes.  No, she is not aware.  I say nothing.  I wait while her eyes scan the document.  I  left one line blank.  I had to.  I do not have a permit number.  The form requires a permit a number.  She flips it over.  She scans it again.  I look away. I look toward the wall mounted TV.  I try to act non-chalant.  I do not want to spook her.  She speaks.  “What is your phone number?”  Thankfully, Bobbi and I recently bought a phone.  Bobbi provides me with the new number.  I relay it to the civil servant.  She enters this into her computer…..Silence……Some minutes later she speaks again. “What block?”  “Pardon me.” I say.  “What block do you live?”  “Block 9,” I assertively answer.  She continues typing.  I wait; faking non-chalance.  She starts to speak again.  Here it is, I think to myself.  Here is where she opens pandora’s box of troubles.  Here is where she will ask me why I do not have a work permit number or a residence permit number or an exemption certificate number.  Here is where it will all fall apart.

“That will be 130 Pula.”  It can’t be, my brain screams.   And, I even have the correct change- that will help grease the wheels.  I give her 130 Pula.  I risk breathing easier.  She has taken my money.  This means she must be processing the document, right?  She hands me a newly printed ownership document. I stand in front of her window holding the document.  I look at her.  I am waiting for a receipt.  She finally looks at me suspiciously.  “You are done.” she says flatly.  “Thank you.”  I smile courteously and quickly turn away before she can change her mind.  Bobbi follows me out the door.  We are now the relieved owners of one 1998 Toyota Surf (aka 4 Runner.)

Why, you ask, was a simple car purchase the cause of such anxiety?   To answer this we must go back four months when I first started researching whether a foreigner traveling on a tourist visa can purchase a vehicle in South Africa.  Bobbi and I had planned on staying the first 3 months of our Africa trip in South Africa.  There we would purchase a car to carry us around the beautiful and exotic game parks in southern Africa. I found an online classified magazine called Gumtree.com.za that had a great selection of used cars.  As I looked for cars, Bobbi searched for apartments.

I, then discovered through various frustrated blog posts, that the process of registering a car in South Africa for expatriates is a herculean test of patience.  And this is for expatriates who have a work permit, or a residence permit.  For a foreigner traveling on a tourist visa, it is simply not possible. It seems South Africa does not want a bunch of fly-by-nighters running around wreaking havoc on their roads.  I guess they figure that requiring people to drive on the left-hand side of the road wreaks sufficient havoc in and of itself.

Suddenly, South Africa was no longer our first destination.  Back to square one.  Where to focus next?  I expanded my search to adjacent neighbors.  I briefly looked at Namibia, but the used- car selection was pretty slim.  Next up, Botswana.  Not knowing a thing about Botswana, I quickly learned that it is the model country for developing nations.  The government has its act together….as much as any government can.  Its government also allows the importation of used Japanese vehicles.  Turns out Botswana has a robust supply of used Japanese vehicles….mostly, Toyotas and Mitsubishi’s, some Hondas and Nissans.  This was promising because my goal was to purchase a Toyota Hilux 4×4 .

Next, I perused the Botswana government website for regulations regarding vehicle ownership. I did not find anything that specifically excluded tourist purchases. Unfortunately, I did not find anything that expressly included tourist visa purchasers, either.  I e-mailed a civil servant who works in the Road and Transport Department.  He promptly responded that it would not be a problem for us to buy a vehicle.  With this information, Bobbi started our house hunt in Gaborone, Botswana.  We also purchased airline tickets to Gaborone. We were committed.   I then found a blog by a couple who were on a two year teaching assignment in Gaborone.  They purchased a vehicle without issue, though they had work permits.

Upon arrival in Gaborone, I hit the used car lots.  There were many Toyotas.  But they were rather spendy for a fourteen year old vehicle- $8,000-$10,000 for a 1997-98 Toyota 4Runners and Landcruisers.  I asked the dealers about the ownership papers.  They assured me that all I would need is a passport.  And, they offered to do all of the titling and registration of the vehicle for a fee.  This seemed like a good idea, especially since this was how the blogging teaching couple had completed their paperwork. But, the price of the vehicles bothered me.

I looked in the local classifieds magazine called The Advertiser.  This is a free rag that all locals love and adore.  The vehicles being sold by private owners were significantly less expensive than the used car dealer prices.  But this would mean navigating the bureaucratic web on our own.  Dealing with bureaucrats in one’s own country can be frustrating enough.  Dealing with bureaucrats in an unfamiliar country….this seemed daunting.  And, if something did not go right with the registration process, then we would be stuck with a newly purchased vehicle that we could not drive. Whereas letting a dealer do the paperwork, if the paperwork didn’t go through, then we could just walk away.

About two weeks into the trip, I was hustled by a kid on the sidewalk.  He claimed to be part of a local dance troupe, and he was selling some art that he had supposedly made to help raise funds for the troupe.  Some of the paintings looked suspiciously like others that I had seen at the outdoor market.  Anyway, I saw one that had good energy called-The Shakey Bones Dance, and I ended up paying too much for it….still working on my negotiation skills.  The kid, however, did offer a golden morsel of information about buying cars in Botswana.  He informed me that once a car is licensed and registered in Botswana, the license plates never change.  When a person buys a car, all they have to do is go down to the “DMV” and change ownership papers.  The new owner is then listed on the same registration and license plates.  This makes great sense, and I wish the US government operated as such.  He said that it is a really easy, fast process….no problems, he said.

How fortuitous.  This information gave me the confidence to call about cars listed in the Advertiser.  It is how I found the car we ended up buying. We bought the Toyota from a UK expat who was moving with his Zimbabwian wife back to Zimbabwe.  He had purchased the Toyota from a used car dealer.  He had taken good care of the car.  The Toyota had new tires and new shocks, thereby saving us the expense of new tires.  (*Note:  the cars that come from Japan have softer rubber tires.  These tires fly apart when driven on the hot African roads.  It is necessary to put a new set of South African made tires on any used grey market import vehicle.) We even took the car to his mechanic, who just so happened to be selling a cartop tent (something that we also wanted to purchase.)  The mechanic is a Yugoslavian expat: Popovic Veselin “Micky” He owns Pop Motors in Gaborone. He is an overworked, great guy.  He and his wife stay much busier than they would prefer.

The Toyota showed only 96,000 kilometers (55,000 miles) on the odometer.  This seemed unrealistic, and I assumed the odometer had been rolled back.  But the Toyota did not leak or burn oil. The transmission and transfer case shifted smoothly. The chassis and body were tight and did not rattle.  It’s foot pedals were not overly worn, and its interior was free of tears.  The windows were tinted- a great thing to combat the African sun.  The exterior paint had been touched-up, but there was not any bondo.  (*Note:  I learned that Japan’s annual vehicle license fees increase exponentially as a vehicle ages.  This keeps old clunkers off the road.  Eventually, it makes more sense for a Japanese car owner to trade-in their vehicle for a new one instead of paying exorbitant license fees.  This accounts for the older vehicles with low mileage.  (I still think that the odometer was rolled back 100,000 kilometers on our Toyota, as 55,000 miles on a 15 year old vehicle is not realistic. This would mean that our Toyota really has 110,000 miles- still, low miles for a Toyota.))

We struck a deal for $6,500, a price I was much happier with as we eventually spent more than $12,000 tricking “Snoopy” out with a roof rack and rooftop tent plus all the goodies needed for bushwhacking like a GPS, extra fuel cans, and camping gear.  (Still a lot less than renting a car, eh.)  All we had to do now was go down to the Department of Road Transport and Safety Office with the ownership papers, and a certified copy of the seller’s passport.  We arrived at the office early, but there was already a line.  I stepped up and was asked to show my documents.  They asked me for my passport….correction, they asked me for a certified copy my passport.  Oh, slight oversight.  They sent me away.  This required a trip to the US embassy and fifty dollars.  My timing was bad, as I had to wait 1 1/2 because the embassy employee in charge of certifying passports was in a meeting.  Bobbi was not allowed into the Embassy because she did not have any business to conduct.  Bobbi had to wait outside- Bobbi felt a bit jilted, being an American citizen, but denied entry into her own country’s embassy.  We should have lied.

Anyway, after the two minutes it took to make a copy of my passport and officially stamp it, we returned to the DMV…..and that was when my hands got clammy.

In sum:

To purchase a vehicle you will need:

1)  Certified copy of the seller’s passport, if the owner is not a citizen. If the seller is Matswana (Botswana native), then I do not know what document they need to provide.

2)  Certified copy of buyer’s passport (This is obtained at your country’s embassy)

3)  The Vehicle’s “Bluebook” This is provided by the owner and is comprised of two sheets of paper:

a.  Motor Vehicle Registration Book

b.  Motor Vehicle License

3)  A residential address

4)  A phone number

5)  130 pula ($16)

You will then be issued your new “Bluebook.”  At the bottom of the Motor Vehicle License paper will be a small cutout that you affix to the inside of your windshield.  It states the expiration date of the “License.”

Once a year you will have to renew the License.  When we purchased the vehicle in March 2013, the License expired in May 2013.  I renewed the license at the beginning of April by simply going to an branch office of the Department of Road Transport and Safety in a mall in Gaborone.  It was very easy (hint: go before the 20th of the month when everyone else in the country gets paid and the lines are unbearable).  I showed my “Bluebook,” paid the License fee ($20-$25) and was issued a new “Motor Vehicle License” paper. Our vehicle License will now expire in May 2014.

We were not, however, out of the woods just yet.  We still needed to purchase auto insurance.  Proof of insurance is required at border crossings.  I wondered whether local insurance companies were going to want to insure a couple of yanks wandering throughout Southern Africa…….

Turns out obtaining insurance was not any more arduous than obtaining a policy back home.  In fact, the cost was less and the coverage extends to Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.  Our annual policy cost about $850.00. The only hitch was that the insurance company required us to purchase an “immobilizer.”  This is a combination car alarm and ignition cut-out device that requires a remote control to allow the key to start the car. It’s a bit of a pain in the neck, but it is standard equipment in these parts.  We are learning that opportunists abound.

*Vehicle Update: (November 26, 2013)  The Toyota now has 115,000 kilometers on the odometer. We have driven it all over South Africa, into Zimbabwe, and Swaziland.  We are currently in Namibia.  The vehicle has been maintenance free, except for oil changes and a new air filter ($60..ouch).  I put new sway bar bushings on it ($30), and we installed air bellows in the rear coil springs because the factory springs are too soft and cannot carry any weight. The Toyota gets +- 20 miles/gallon.  We put a roof rack on it with , a hi-lift jack (never used it- hope to never have to use it), shovel, and two 5 gallon jerry cans.  We also installed a hard shell rooftop tent (Impi).  We are very happy with it, and feel confident that it will get us from point A  to point B.  This is important in the vast, remote areas of Southern Africa.

Fish River Canyon

Fish River Canyon

Namib desert

Namib desert

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14 comments

  1. These emotions feel all too familiar – except for me it was traveling and residing in the UK, Ireland and USA. Here’s wishing you many safe and happy miles ahead.

    1. Thanks, Clare! I hear you’ll soon be traveling again, much to the consternation of a certain sister of mine… Yes, you can certainly relate to “figuring out the system” in numerous new countries. I always feel like a moron when it’s time to get a new SIM card for the cell phone… err, mobile… and recharge it. Last week when we entered SA, I bought the SIM card in one shop then had to go across the street to buy minutes!! Really?! But at least our issues are short-term stuff; we’re not trying to get the power turned on or apply for residence, like you’ve had to do!

  2. In Chile the lisence plate number also belongs to the car and not the owner – I’ve never quite understood the use of the US system!

    1. Elementary, my dear Ziggy, elementary: pure and simple torture.
      :o)

  3. Ah, the terror of dealing with foreign bureaucrats… There’s no place like home, no place like home, no place like… What? I have to take the written and practical driving tests? And you need double verification of my address? And I have to pay extra insurance because I didn’t think to bring proof of insurance with me from Chile? But I’m an American and I’m home!

    Ah, the terror of dealing with bureaucrats….

    1. Ooooh, haha! Yes, I bet that even in South Africa they won’t send you away because your proof of residence was printed from your online electric bill…I actually had to go home and dig up our mortgage papers because ALL of my utility bills are paid online and they refused to accept any of them.

  4. Great account of purchasing a car in Botswana. Certainly demonstrates that doing your homework pays off….and a little bit of luck!

    1. KC wrote this days after we registered the car, but we’re just now getting around to posting it. Even 2 months later, as we drove around Cape Town today, we were reminiscing and thankful that he’d done his homework. Even if South Africa were to make it easy for tourists to buy a car, the city is just so much bigger than Gaborone that it would have required a lot more work – and renting a car – to even find the used car dealers. In Gaborone he just pedaled his bike around the very compact city.

  5. The other thing I hate about the US is that if you move to a different state, you need to get a new driver’s license. National license please!!!

  6. Great information, and a great read. thanks

    1. So glad to know the info is interesting to someone else!

  7. Cheryl · · Reply

    Good day.
    I bought my car from Botswana but live in South Africa how do I change her to South Africa and does any one know the cost involved

    Kind regards.
    Cheryl

    1. Hi, Cheryl. See below…

  8. Hi, Cheryl.
    If I remember correctly, it is very difficult if you were living in South Africa at the time you bought your used car in Botswana. (I assume it was used.). South Africa does not like grey market vehicles because it is very protectionist for its auto industry. If you were living in Botswana at the time you bought your car and moved to South Africa with the car, it will be less of a hassle. The blogs I read about South Africans who had grey market vehicles, kept them licensed in Botswana and made a border run once a year to renew the Botswana registration. Run a google search for “expat register used car South Africa” and you will find some great information. Finally, and of utmost importance is the type of visa you have living in South Africa. A visitor visa cannot register a car. It must be a work visa or residency visa. Whether it has to be a “permanent” visa, I do not know…..Best of luck.
    KC

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