Cell phone communication while you travel South Africa

It is holiday time, the happy season and one the best times of the year to visit South Africa. If you are planning to come out here from overseas you might need some advice on how to stay connected during your holiday in the sun.

The most cost effective way will be to buy yourself a local prepaid SIM card as soon as you arrive. Should you prefer to use your home country SIM card on roaming you may go home to an unpleasant surprise in the form of a very hefty cell phone bill.

The three major cell phone operators in South Africa are Vodacom, MTN and Cell C. Vodacom and MTN are the biggest and therefore have the best coverage.

Buying a SIM card

Prepaid SIM cards can be purchased at most retail shops, or directly from a cell phone operator’s shop, which you will find in almost every shopping mall.

All cell phone numbers in South Africa have to be registered on a national register (RICA) in order to be activated. For this reason foreigners will be asked for a passport and proof of address in South Africa when purchasing a SIM card.

Travellers have reported using their camping invoice or hotel booking as proof of address. If you are flying into South Africa it is best to buy your SIM card at the airport as these shops are equipped for and understand the tourist market.

Buying airtime

It is a good idea to immediately distribute your South African cell phone number to your family and friends abroad. Rather let them call you if you want to chat as you won’t pay for incoming calls; the caller does.

You can recharge the airtime on your SIM card at any time. When you buy your SIM card the service provider will include simple recharge instructions in your package.   Airtime can be bought at most fuel stations, ATM’s and retail stores.

Depending on your needs you are advised to purchase a data package as well, of at least 2GB, which will cost approx ZAR250.  This is valid for 60 days and will allow you to use Whatsapp, internet, email and Skype.

You can also consider using WiFi for data. Two major players in South Africa are Always On and G-Connect.  With either of them you should be able to pick up WiFi in major shopping malls. Both have multiple international roaming agreements which mean your ISP or cell provider may have roaming agreements with these companies, enabling you to roam on WiFi without heavy charges.

Note that WiFi is not available everywhere in South Africa.  Major cities have WiFi (however, not in all places) and it is less common in rural areas. Keep your eyes open for free WiFi at restaurants, hotels, shops and major shopping malls.

To minimise inadvertent and possibly expensive data usage, ensure that your phone updates are only activated via WiFi and not mobile data. Do this via the Settings tab on your phone. In addition you may consider setting data usage alerts for your phone, also via the Settings tab.

If you plan on visiting neighbouring countries see our blog article on cell phone communication in Namibia, Zambia and Malawi.


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