Lake Malawi sunset
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Buying a SIM Card or eSIM in Malawi

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Primarily a rural, agriculture-based nation, tourism in Malawi has been on the increase in recent years. Most of it is based around Lake Malawi, the third-largest and second-deepest body of water in Africa.

The lake itself is truly a wonderful attraction, offering a welcome respite from the typical dryness of this part of the continent. It does come with a price tag, though: a tiny, nasty worm that likes to burrow through skin to lay its eggs inside you.

TMI? Fine, let’s stick with TMA material instead. Buying a SIM card in Malawi is a pretty straightforward process, and an inexpensive one as well.

There are also a limited number of travel eSIM options available: they’re more expensive but won’t break the bank, especially if you’re only visiting for a few days and/or don’t need large amounts of data.

However you decide to get connected, here’s what you need to know.

Companies

  • Both Airtel and TMN are fine for most travelers who want a physical SIM
  • An eSIM from aloSIM or Airalo is the best option if you only need data

There isn’t much choice when it comes to cell services in Malawi. Airtel, omnipresent in this part of the continent, splits the market fairly evenly with TMN.

You’ll (theoretically) find 4G/LTE in major cities like Lilongwe, Mzuzu, and Blantyre, but all bets are off once you head out into the countryside. Regardless of where you are, don’t expect consistent service or great speeds.

I ended up going with Airtel, but there’s little difference between the two for most travelers.

Travel eSIM for Malawi

Malawi only sees a fraction of the international visitors that some of its neighbors receive, so it’s perhaps no surprise that travel eSIM companies don’t cover it particularly well.

Of the ones I’ve used and would recommend to others, only Airalo and aloSIM offer service in the country. Prices are largely identical, and not very exciting compared to what you’ll get with a local SIM card.

On the upside, you’ll be connected as soon as you get to the country, and given that you’re rarely guaranteed high connection speeds, a little data tends to go a long way. A cheaper, smaller pack may be fine.

Like most travel eSIMs, it’s data-only: you don’t get a local number. I use apps for everything from communication to transport these days, so the lack of a local number very rarely matters to me, but you might have different needs.

If you’re new to eSIMs, they offer big benefits to travelers in terms of how quickly, easily, and (often) cheaply you can get connected when you arrive in a new country. Most recent phones support them, and you can read all about them here.

How to Buy a Prepaid SIM Card in Malawi

Small roadside store in Malawi with Airtel branding on the front and roof. A few trees are growing in the dirt in front of and beside the building.

After crossing the border from Zambia into Malawi, we had some time to kill while waiting for our driver to pay the road taxes and duties. With a number of local shops painted in Airtel colors nearby, I figured I might as well grab a SIM card while I waited.

Our guide told us that was a gamble at the border: technically SIM cards must be registered, so without using an official office, we may not end up with a working one. I figured I’d roll the dice, and the gamble worked, as I walked away with a functioning card. YMMV.

Similar to other East African countries, obtaining a new SIM card is a three-step process:

  1. purchase and register/activate new SIM card
  2. purchase credit (in form of fixed-value scratch cards) and load your account with it
  3. redeem the account credit for your desired plan/data bundle

Since I got the SIM card at one of the local shops, I had to pay for it in cash (500 kwacha, $0.70) and they assured me it was already activated.

Unfortunately it didn’t come in the size I needed, so I had to cut it down myself before I could use it. Once I turned on the phone, I received a text message with connection settings. I didn’t have to do anything with them, though, as my phone was already working.

While at the shop, I also purchased 2500 kwacha worth of scratch cards to add to my account later, and had to pay cash for those as well.

A couple of days later we stopped by the official Airtel Malawi office in Mzuzu, and I observed other foreigners having to fill out a registration form and show their passport.

There was a credit card machine there, but it wasn’t working, so I had to purchase top-up credit with cash there as well.

Prepaid SIM and eSIM Costs

Airtel

As mentioned, the initial SIM card purchase cost 500 kwacha ($0.30). After loading the account with scratch card balance (see Topping Up, below), I could access the menu of available Airtel plans by dialling *301#, option 1 (PaNet Volume) or 2 (PaNet Social) for Facebook/Whatsapp/Twitter plans.

There’s a wide range of daily, weekly, and monthly plans on offer. You can get an idea of what’s available from the Airtel Malawi website, but don’t always expect it to be up to date: it didn’t match the current offers when I checked (#ThisIsAfrica.)

To give an idea of prices, though, a few sample options include:

Plan Type

Data Amount

Price (MWK)

Daily

100MB

200

Daily

1GB

600

Weekly

3GB

1500

Weekly

10GB

4000

Monthly

4GB

6000

Monthly

32GB

12000

aloSIM and Airalo

As I say, compared to physical SIMs, travel eSIMs in Malawi aren’t great value. They’re fine if you won’t use much data (or will be somewhere that has such slow speeds that you don’t have a choice about it), but otherwise stick with Airtel or TMN.

Validity Period

  • 7 days

  • 30 days

  • 30 days

Data Amount

  • 1 GB

  • 3 GB

  • 5 GB

Price (USD)

  • $9.50

  • $11

  • $16.50

Validity Period

  • 7 days

  • 15 days

  • 30 days

  • 30 days

Data Amount

  • 1 GB

  • 2 GB

  • 3 GB

  • 5 GB

Price (USD)

  • $9

  • $17

  • $24

  • $37.50

Topping Up

The remaining balance for data/social bundles can be checked by dialing*301# and option 7. Account credit balance is accessed using *137#.

When it’s time to top up, you can purchase scratch cards for the amount you need from seemingly anyone and everyone. Even the official office sells scratch cards rather than loading the balance directly.

*136*voucher code# loads the account and displays a confirmation message (no text confirmations). Once the account balance is loaded, select your desired plan using *301#, option 1.

When adding to your airtime balance, it’s a good idea to shut off your cellular data to avoid per-use charges draining your balance as you wrestle with the phone menu to select the plan you want.

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Beach on Lake Malawi, with hills visible in the background.

Coverage and Data Speeds

Airtel Malaiwi advertised “3.75G”, but there was very little service to be found on our route. From the Chipata/Mchinji border crossing we headed northeast on the M18 towards Kasungu, then further east to Nkhotakota on the shores of Lake Malawi.

From there we headed north through Kande Beach, Mzuzu, and Chititmba towards the Tanzanian border. The only places with good signal were Mzuzu, the beach at Kande Beach (near the water, not at the campsite), and near the border. Even then, speeds often weren’t anything to get excited about.

Everywhere else it was either EDGE, with various degrees of usability, or the dreaded No Service.

Airtel 3G speeds in Malawi
Airtel 3G speeds in Malawi

Check out our guides to SIM cards and eSIMs in 75+ other countries here.

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One Comment

  1. Avatar M. Randall Mueller says:

    Thanks for the blog here on Malawi. I have a new Friend that has a ministry and trade school in Chitipa, Malawi. We communicate over whatsapp, and texting about how his internet works and modems, etc was a pain.. I’m trying to find out best way to help him..

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