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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 most of the country, with 4G in Tirana and other large 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 is apparently rapidly expanding it elsewhere.
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.
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 spoke broken English and had some signage that helped to seal the deal.
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Vodafone offers monthly (well almost monthly, they are good for 28 days) prepaid plans in several different increments. They’re known as “Club” plans, and you’ll even get literature that says “Welcome to the Club”.
I reviewed the options and decided to go with the Giga Depot plan, with 400 mins of talk time, 400 SMS messages, and 6GB of LTE data.
The cost was 1100 LEKE (roughly $10.25 USD, or €8.25). Considering Vodafone is the most expensive carrier in the country, I was sold! 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 Project Fi (Google’s awesome service) but when I reviewed the prices at Vodafone, it was a no-brainer. I could get six times the amount of data at the same cost as Fi (plus a local Albanian number, and likely better LTE coverage) for the same price. 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 did need 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.
I asked the staff for help with translation, and 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.
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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.