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Many people associate travel in Africa with danger and difficulty, but that couldn’t be further from the truth in Rwanda.
It’s the ninth-safest country in the world, the first to ban plastic bags, and the capital city of Kigali is the cleanest in all of Africa.
On top of that, it’s an inexpensive destination for those on a budget (as long as you avoid the mountain gorillas, where you’ll pay an incredible $1,500 to spend an hour with them). If you’re traveling on the cheap, you’ll be happy with the prices in the country.
I paid $35 for a double room in a well-rated guesthouse; $5-10 for most of my meals; and a whopping $1 for a 30-minute moto-taxi ride across the city. I averaged $45 a night for my stay in the country.
Picking up a SIM card was easy, but time-consuming. You’ll need to remember to bring your ID with you.
Here’s how to buy a SIM card in Rwanda.
There are three main network providers in the country: MTN, Tigo, and Airtel.
MTN has the largest market share (50%) in the country and the best coverage (95%), although it’s worth noting that’s a combination of both 3G and 2G.
Inside the major cities of Kigali and Gisenyi, 3G was everywhere, but it was common for my signal to drop down to 2G when I was outside of the towns. I rarely lost coverage entirely, though, and usually had usable-enough data to check my emails.
Both Tigo and Airtel have lower coverage yet price their data at the same rates as MTN, so there’s really no reason for you to go with them as a traveller.
According to online reports, there is supposed to be an MTN store at Kigali Airport, but I didn’t notice one at arrivals, so bought my SIM card once I was in the city. Fortunately, this was easy to do, as there are literally hundreds of stalls and stores across the city that sell them. Just look for the MTN branding while you’re out and about.
It’s mandatory for all network providers in Rwanda to collect your personal information, so make sure you bring your passport with you, as well as the address of your hotel. I’ll be honest: it’s a tedious process, and seems to follow little logic.
At the store I visited, the staff member painstakingly entered every detail of my passport into his computer, then gave me a blank form for me to handwrite every detail of my passport onto, and then sent me to a print shop to get a photocopy of my passport. I don’t know why they needed three different versions of my information, and needless to say, it took a very long time to get it all done.
Give yourself at least half an hour to get your SIM card, and don’t start the process if you’re in a rush. It took 25 minutes for me to get mine.
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SIM cards and data are pretty cheap in Rwanda. I paid 11,500 RWF ($13.68) in total. Here’s how that broke down:
I paid 1,500 RWF ($1.36) for the SIM card, and to have it cut it down to nano size.
I paid 5,000 RWF ($5.95) for 1 GB of data per day for seven days.
I also added an extra 5,000 RWF of credit, as I knew I’d need to make a few calls while travelling in the Democratic Republic of the Congo later in my trip. Those calls were priced at 1,000 RWF per minute.
Topping up is super easy. You’ll see network provider stalls scattered across all major cities and towns, as well as small villages, where you can buy credit for your phone.
MTN customer service suggests you can also top-up online via the following link, although I didn’t need to use it.
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Coverage and Data Speeds
With MTN, I had full coverage in Kigali and Gisenyi, but outside of the major cities, my 3G connection would drop down to an EDGE connection. It was, however, rare for me to be without service anywhere in the country.
Speeds weren’t amazing, but were usable enough — 3 Mbps download in Kigali, for instance, and 1.5 Mbps in Gisenyi.
During my trip in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I was happy to discover I had data service from a Rwandan MTN cell tower for my climb up and down Mount Nyiragongo beside the border.
International calls and texts worked perfectly while I was outside of Rwanda, and didn’t require me to do anything in advance to get them set up. MTN doesn’t offer data roaming in the DRC, however.