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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.
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 it’s 3G at best everywhere else. Regardless of where you are, though, don’t expect consistent or reliable service.
I ended up going with Airtel, but there’s little difference between the two for most travelers.
How to Buy a Prepaid SIM Card in Malawi
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 or 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:
- purchase and register/activate new SIM card
- purchase credit (in form of fixed-value scratch cards) and load your account with it
- 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 Costs
As mentioned, the initial SIM card purchase cost 500 kwacha ($0.70). After loading the account with scratch card balance (see Topping Up), the menu of available Airtel plans was accessed using *301#, option 1 (PaNet Volume) or option 2 (PaNet Social) for Facebook/Whatsapp/Twitter plans.
Curiously, the pricing was different from what’s listed on Airtel Malawi website (#ThisIsAfrica.) Sample options included:
Daily Plans (valid until 11:59:59pm of the next day, not 24 hours)
- 175MB data – 500 kwacha ($0.70)
- 1GB data – 1800 kwacha ($2.50)
- 300MB data – 1000 kwacha ($1.40)
- 1GB data – 2500 kwacha ($3.50)
- Ranging from 1.2GB to 40GB – 3500 kwacha to 40,000 kwacha ($4.80-$54)
WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook-specific bundles were also available.
The remaining balance for data/social bundles can be checked using *301# 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 around. Even the official office sells scratch cards rather than loading the balance directly.
*136*voucher code# will load the account and display a confirmation message (no text confirmations). Once the account balance is loaded, select your desired plan using *301#, option 1 (PaNet Volume) or option 2 (PaNet Social) for Facebook/Whatsapp/Twitter social bundles.
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.
Coverage and Data Speeds
Airtel Malaiwi advertised “3.75G”, but there was very little 3G 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 3G 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.
Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.