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For many, hearing the name Liberia brings one of three things to mind: the American Colonization Society’s largely quixotic attempt to repatriate freed slaves back to Africa in the early 1800s, the country’s brutal civil wars in the 1990s, and the devastating ebola crisis in the 2010s.
Despite these negative associations, the West African nation of Liberia was once a relatively-thriving country. The Ducor Hotel in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, was one of the first five-star hotels in the entire continent.
The country’s airport had the longest runway in Africa for many years, and Liberia’s international airport, managed by PanAm, was one of the primary African hubs.
At times, Liberia has even been among the fastest growing economies in the world. With roughly 350 miles of beautiful coastline, it’s not hard to see why the Land of Liberty was so attractive for foreigners visiting the region.
Due to the civil wars and ebola, the country has been struggling to get back on its feet, but it has been making headway nonetheless. One area where this progress can be seen is in telecommunications.
In the last few years, data has become very cheap in Liberia, and SIM cards that once cost upwards of $50 can now be bought for a dollar.
Conveniently for international travellers, the US dollar is widely used in Liberia, and ATMs dispense both US dollars and Liberian dollars, colloquially referred to as “Liberty”.
Before getting a SIM card, you’ll first need to decide which cell provider you prefer, but it’s not a big decision. There are only two options in Liberia — Orange and LoneStar — but fast and relatively high-quality data access can be had in the country.
For most expats and travellers based largely in Monrovia, I recommend going with LoneStar and purchasing the $20 Kool4U package. At $20 USD for 30GB of data, this package provides the most bang for your buck.
Lonestar coverage is decent throughout Liberia and is especially strong, as one might expect, in the capital. Furthermore, it is easy to find places to top-up all around the country.
Most expats won’t have broadband Internet at home, so ensuring you have enough data for YouTube and Netflix streaming, or tethering a laptop for work, may be the most important consideration. For this reason, LoneStar is my recommended provider.
For those who often travel around Liberia and make frequent voice calls, however, I recommend Orange’s $29 Infinity Pack instead. Despite the name, the Infinity Pack only allows for 30GB of data usage. After that point, the user can still make unlimited calls to all networks but has no data access for the remainder of the month.
Unlike the $20 Kool4U package, the Orange Infinity package allows for unlimited voice calls to both Orange and LoneStar numbers, as well as to the USA and Canada.
LoneStar has a different Kool4U package with the same price and terms as the Infinity Pack, but because Orange’s network has the edge over LoneStar’s, those who heavily favor quality over quantity of service may prefer the former.
Also keep in mind that if you will be making calls quite frequently to other local numbers, doing so within the same network is generally free. As a resut, a dual-SIM phone can allow you to call anyone in Liberia free of charge.
A common practice among locals is to either have a dual-SIM Techno brand phone, or simply to have two cheap cell phones, one with a LoneStar SIM and another with an Orange SIM.
Both providers also have mobile money services, although it is unlikely you will need to use them if you are in Liberia as an expat or traveller. Locals and repatriates may find these tools more relevant to their needs.
The official and best way to purchase a SIM card is at an official Orange or LoneStar store.
To do this, you will need to bring a form of identification (i.e., your passport) to register the SIM in your name. Unofficially, you can purchase pre-registered SIM cards on the street, but this is not ideal and such cards risk deactivation.
In addition, you can simply obtain a SIM card upon arrival in Liberia. The country has only one international airport, the Roberts International Airport near the town of Harbel. Depending on traffic and weather conditions, it is about an hour out of Monrovia.
Immediately upon exiting the airport, you can find both LoneStar and Orange booths. Simply present your passport and you will receive a free SIM card. If you don’t purchasing your SIM at the airport, you will have to buy one for a dollar elsewhere.
Once you have your SIM card and are registered with the provider, you can then purchase some scratch cards from the booths. Enter the codes from the cards into your phone to activate the desired package.
The best cell package for Liberia is LoneStar’s Kool4U pack. For $20 you’ll get 30GB of data, unlimited calls to other Lonestar numbers, and 1000 minutes of calls to Orange phones.
If you update to the $29 Kool4U pack, you get unlimited calls to all Liberian carriers, as well as the U.S. and Canada. Calls to the U.S. and Canada used to be included as part of the $20 pack, but this was discontinued after the government levied a tax on international calls.
Rather than waste nine dollars per month to simply call home, you’ll be better off acquiring a Google Voice number. This will allow you to make and receive unlimited calls to the U.S. and Canada free of charge, among other handy features.
There are numerous smaller packages on offer from both providers. LoneStar’s $2 Kool4U pack includes 230 minutes of calls to any network in Liberia, the USA, or Canada, and 60 MB of data for three days, for instance, while Orange’s SmallThin pack offers 10 minutes of voice calling and 10 SMS to other Orange numbers for a few cents.
These smaller plans provide poor value and require frequent top-ups, so I generally don’t recommend them unless you have highly-specific needs, but details for Orange’s plans are available on its website.
The best way to top-up is by buying scratch cards from street vendors. You can readily find these vendors on the side of the road throughout the country — or at least throughout the parts where cell signal is available.
If you have trouble finding one, just ask any local. Liberians are generally very kind people and will help you out with this if you struggle, although you should not have much trouble locating a street vendor on your own.
Once you have the scratch cards, turn off your cellular data temporarily. This will prevent your phone from draining any of the data as you add credit to get up to the $20 required for the Kool4U pack, or any other package you prefer.
Enter the USSD code *243# to purchase a LoneStar Kool4U pack, or *888# to buy Orange’s Infinity Pack.
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Coverage and Data Speeds
While data speeds and costs in Liberia are impressive, the same cannot be said of coverage. Travel outside Monrovia often entails spotty signal, but you can still get decent service even in the smaller cities.
In Robertsport, which is a popular weekend getaway destination, I had HSPA+ coverage with LoneStar. Likewise, in Gbanga, my connection was strong.
When travelling between cities, however, my connection was limited or nonexistent. If you are planning to stay in a rural area for any significant duration, plan ahead and be aware your Internet connectivity may be significantly curtailed.