The cheapest way to communicate while travelling in Africa

When you travel, you most probably want to get away from the office and all its politics, but you may want to stay in touch with friends and family back home. Also, there might be the odd occasion when the office really has to get your yea or nay on an issue. By Karin Theron

If your cell phone is on full roaming one might get back to a horrific account, therefore we are all looking for the cheapest way to communicate while we travel in Africa.  A friend of mine got a nasty account of close to R20 000 after a three week trip through Namibia and Botswana.

Buy a local sim card

On a recent trip through Namibia, Zambia and Malawi I found that the cheapest (and a very convenient way I must say) to stay in touch is to buy a local sim card with prepaid airtime every time that you arrive in a new country. Once you start roaming outside the area of the local network, you pay ghastly rates.

Also read: Smartphone vs GPS for navigation

Cell phones do better than Coca Cola

Somebody once commented on the anomaly of Africa; in places where people are starving you will get Coca Cola. That was in the nineties. Nowadays it is amazing to see Coke signs being replaced by those of cell phone network providers. Malawi, for instance, is a very poor country that relies heavily on US Aid, but in spite of that everybody has a cell phone and you get network coverage everywhere.

Nowadays the shops in the villages of Africa are painted bright yellow, red, green or blue (depending on the networks of the specific country) and every second shop sells sim cards and airtime. It almost looks as if though the cell phone companies sponsored repainting the whole of Zambia and Malawi! Even street vendors sell airtime. The fact of the matter is that you will be connected everywhere you go.

Even the informal markets and street vendors sell airtime.
Even the informal markets and street vendors sell airtime.

Network providers in Namibia, Zambia and Malawi

In Namibia the main cell phone networks are MTC and TN Mobile (it used to be Leo). I used MTC and found their service and coverage very good. In Zambia I used MTN but you also have a choice of Zamtel and Airtel. If you buy a MTN sim card you have to register it with your passport if you are a foreigner whereas you don’t need to register for Zamtel or Airtel.  We asked around and the local people were of the opinion that MTN offers the best coverage in Zambia.  In Malawi you can choose between TNM and Airtel. I used the latter and was very happy with the coverage and service.

Also read: 15 Things you want to know before you travel Malawi

Use Whatsapp

In my opinion Whatsapp is an amazing communication tool. You can communicate for a fraction of the cost of a sms or phone call if you use Whatsapp. When you insert a new sim card your Whatsapp chat messages stay intact and Whatsapp recognises your profile on your phone.

On my recent trip I did not only communicate via Whatsapp with contacts in South Africa but also with my daughter who was in Phuket at the time.

During our five week trip I swopped sim cards six times going through Namibia, Zambia, Malawi and back to South Africa and my prepaid airtime cost me a full R160. Because I used the local sim cards the costs were a fraction of what roaming charges would have been if I were to use my own service provider in South Africa.

Also read: What you need to get through the border

Facebook eats your data

I did not only use my airtime for Whatsapp but also to sms. When I connected to Facebook roughly every third day, I just uploaded a photo and comment on the Tracks4Africa page without browsing.  I spent as little time as possibleon Facebook because it uses much more data than Whatsapp.

Did you know that all Tracks4Africa Africa GPS Map owners get one free update to the latest version, and 50% off any subsequent updates purchased? Go exploring with the most up-to-date map at your fingertips. Visit our online shop for our latest guide books, paper maps and GPS navigation.

12 thoughts on “The cheapest way to communicate while travelling in Africa”

  1. This is one of the Africa’s best blog to read travel info. Very impressed!

  2. Sarah, I stayed in Malawi for 3 months and used Airtel extensively, the main office in Lilongwe was super efficient and helpful (although you do have to wait in a queue).

    In the more remote areas you may find that TNM gives you better coverage, although I found that it is voice calls that work better, not necessarily data. I had both sim cards (2 devices) and if Airtel was not working, I used TNM as back up. In Lilongwe itself Airtel reception was far better than TNM. I enquired about using the same (Airtel) sim and number in Zambia and Tanzania as advertised on their website, and although assured that Airtel would work on the same number, I did not come right. I bought an Airtel simcard in Tanzania (that gave me instructions in Swahili! but once someone helped me to get it going, it worked fine), and an MTN card in Zambia. I was told afterwards that Airtel would have given me better cover in Zambia (I was in Kafue – but again it was voice calls not data).

    1. We had the same experience as Lizette. Could not get our Malawi Airtel sim to work in Tanzania and had to buy a new one. We found that MTN gave good coverage in Zambia.

  3. I’d like to buy a MiFi when I get to Malawi, but at the moment I don’t know which of the providers will work best in the fairly remote areas I’m visiting. Doe anyone know whether Airtel MiFis are unlocked if I need to swap sims?

  4. Yes, you found it right that many southern African countries if they are poor are now upgraded themselves with mobiles & communication technologies. Any foreigner can utilize these mobile technologies effectively to minimize his expenses while travelling there.

  5. Completely agree. Also have cheap phones with me with different providers.

    On smartphones local sim works with Whatsapp. It will notify you use a different nr. And asks do you want to change your nr. Reply with no! Let the nr unchanged.

    One step further is to buy a Mifi, a Mobile Wifi, costs around 60 Euro. It needs a data sim, connects through wifi with upto 8 phones or tablets. Then you only need one sim for a whole family…

    When in Europe take Vectone or Lebara. Very low rates to phone to Africa, to landline nearly for free..

  6. Frank, I have a Samsung Galaxy SIII mini smartphone and used Whatsapp and prepaid sim cards on it without any problem. On previous trips I used my old Nokia (not a smartphone) just as well.

  7. Good plan! I do the same everytime in Africa. I use a dual sim handy, which is convenient.
    What is unclear to me is the possibility to use whatsapp with a prepaid sim. Does that depend on the type of phone you use? (I got now a very simple old Nokia dual sim. The question is if using a smartphone would allow me to use whatsapp with those local prepaid sim cards.)

    1. I’m in SA and I communicate with my brother everyday thru Facebook messenger bt he says the watsup is best.he dgave me the mtn nos in Zambia but I can’t connect.can you tell me how to go about.can I recharge for him when I’m in sa

      1. Whatsapp definitely is the cheapest way to communicate. Did you include the country code in your brother’s number? You should then be able to contact him via Whatsapp. As far as I know you cannot recharge for him in Zambia. He has to buy airtime locally.

Let us know about your experience