Albania isn’t the first country that comes to mind when thinking of popular European destinations. So why go there?
If you’re interested in exploring countries in eastern and southern Europe, it’s very central, being just north of Greece and east of Italy. Americans can stay for up to a year without a visa (many others get 90 days on arrival), and the US dollar stretches a long way.
I’ve been in Tirana, the capital and largest city in the country, for a few weeks and I’ve been impressed so far! It’s clean and safe, the people are fantastic, there’s good infrastructure, and it’s quite an affordable destination.
Prior to arriving, I did plenty of reading about the major mobile carriers in Albania.
- Vodafone is the largest, oldest, and generally most-expensive player in the market. It has 3G coverage throughout much of the country, with 4G in Tirana and most other cities.
- Telekom Albania (commonly called T-Mobile Albania), is the second-largest carrier in the country. It tends to be little cheaper than Vodafone, with similar coverage.
- ALBtelecom is the smaller, scrappy carrier that commonly has incredible specials to try and gain market share. It has 4G in Tirana and many other cities.
Yes, all three offer pre-paid plans!
Some of the articles I read online were a little dated, so I did what I always do: ask locals what they use and why.
My cab driver (there’s no Uber here) used ALB because of the price. He had no complaints about the service, but he never leaves the big city. My Airbnb host used Vodafone because it’s the oldest, and had always been reliable for him in and out of Tirana.
Lastly, a guy I met in a coworking space recommended Vodafone over Telekom because he’s had better experiences using his phone as a hotspot with Vodafone whenever his wired internet flakes out.
Armed with this info the decision was clear. Unless I was hit with sticker shock, I was going with Vodafone.
How to Buy a Prepaid SIM Card in Albania
Finding a Vodafone shop (or either of the competitor’s shops) isn’t hard. They are everywhere, including just outside of baggage claim at the airport.
Since I did my final research outside of the airport, however, I ended up buying my SIM card in town. A quick look on Google Maps showed almost two dozen shops in the city center, but there are loads more not on the map.
I walked into the store nearest to my Airbnb. Both people working there spoke broken English and had some signage that helped to seal the deal.
Prepaid SIM Costs
Vodafone offers daily, weekly, and monthly prepaid plans in several different increments.
If you’re in the country for three weeks or less, Vodafone offers a useful tourist SIM with 15GB of data (plus 5GB of extra data for video streaming), 500 domestic minutes, 100 domestic or international texts, and 10 international calling minutes to certain countries, that costs 1500 Lekë (roughly $14.)
The Vodafone Z plan offers a solid mix for those staying longer in the country, with 400 mins of domestic talk time, 400 SMS messages, and 5.5GB of LTE data, plus 10GB of extra social media data, valid for a month and also costing 1500 Lekë.
You can also buy various YouMix packs, which give a bundle of “units” valid for a month. Each unit is worth one minute of domestic calling, one text message, or 1MB of data, so they’re very flexible. If you’ll mostly be using data, however, you’ll get better value with a different pack.
Plan prices and offerings change regularly in response to competition, but that said, there were still plans from the previous month being shown in store, and the differences were negligible.
I’m also a happy customer of Google Fi (the company’s awesome cell service), but when I reviewed the prices at Vodafone, it was a no-brainer.
I could get four times as much data at the same cost as Fi, plus a local Albanian number, and likely better LTE coverage. Decision made.
The setup and checkout process at the Vodafone store was painless. The SIM card was free, and I even got to pick my phone number. They handed me a stack of new, sealed SIM card packs, each with a sticker with the corresponding number attached, to choose between.
I needed my passport, as a US driver’s license or Global Entry ID card wouldn’t suffice. I also had to sign a piece of paper from the carrier, written in Albanian.
After asking the staff for help with translation, I learned it basically said I wouldn’t use the service in an illegal manner or attempt to resell it. I also had to pay cash, as credit cards weren’t accepted at the store I went to.
Kiosks are available in each store for topping up, and you can also use them to add incremental voice/text/data if you run out before your package expires.
Coverage and Data Speeds
So far, I’ve not left Tirana (there’s a surprising number of things to do here) but I’ve wandered and jogged all over town. Whether I’m deep in downtown, or in the middle of the biggest park (which is large and very nice,) I’ve always had blazingly-fast LTE coverage.
The only exception to date has been when I’ve been in lower levels of shopping malls or business buildings, which I’d expect. I’m excited about exploring the rest of the country, and given I went with the company with arguably the best coverage, I’m confident I’ll fare well.
Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.