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Buying a SIM Card in South Africa

In Get Connected by Dave Dean29 Comments

From the wildlife-filled savannah of Kruger National Park to Durban’s beaches and Cape Town’s towering Table Mountain, South Africa has a seemingly-endless list of attractions for visitors.

It’s a big country, though, and while Wi-fi is readily available in the cities, it’s not always free or particularly fast. Fortunately, staying connected with a local SIM card is easy and inexpensive, and data speeds can be surprisingly quick.

Here’s what you need to know.

Companies


  • We recommend Vodacom or MTN for most travellers
  • If you’re also visiting Swaziland, go for MTN

There are four physical cell providers in South Africa, plus a small number of companies that resell service on those networks. Vodacom and MTN have the best coverage, especially outside the cities, with Cell C and Telkom trailing behind.

LTE data is available with all providers if your phone supports the right frequencies.

I decided to pick up a Vodacom SIM, since the company boasted of having the fastest network in the country. My travelling companion bought one from MTN for comparison.

How


Both MTN and Vodacom have kiosks in some or all of South Africa’s international airports. Vodacom makes life particularly easy for overseas visitors with its B4IGO service, letting you buy the SIM and call/text/data package ahead of time via Paypal or international credit card, and pick it up on arrival. Note, though, that you’ll pay quite a lot more for the convenience.

For cheaper rates, buy your SIM at any of the other official stores — you’ll find several in the major cities. I bought my Vodacom SIM in Cape Town’s central business district, while my companion bought her MTN version at the sprawling Gateway mall just outside Durban.

In neither case did the staff seem particularly excited about their jobs, but it only took a few minutes to buy and activate the SIM and package. You’ll need your passport, and potentially proof of where you’re staying in the form of a booking confirmation. I wasn’t asked for it, but my companion was.

Note that many of the places displaying MTN or Vodacom logos don’t sell SIMs, or can’t register them to you. You’ll have no problem topping up there, but for the initial purchase, look for official stores and certain supermarkets.

 

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Costs


As long as you don’t buy at the airport, staying connected is inexpensive in South Africa. I paid all of one rand (~7c) for the SIM, and 149 ZAR (~$11) for 1GB of data, valid for a month. I added an extra 20 ZAR for calls and texts, and was good to go.

With MTN, my companion paid 3.50 ZAR for the SIM, and 260 ZAR (~$20) for 2GB of data, plus a bonus 1GB, valid for a month.

If you’re a heavy data user, the data bonuses make MTN a cheaper option than Vodacom. For light to moderate use, there’s little difference.

MTN is the only South African provider that roams in Swaziland. Your existing data, call and text packages don’t work there, however, and you’ll pay a relatively expensive 1 rand per megabyte for data.

Topping Up


You’ll see MTN and Vodacom logos in pretty much every convenience store window, plus supermarkets, gas stations and elsewhere. Reload vouchers come in a range of different values — just pick and mix to make up the amount you need.

 

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Coverage and Data Speeds


Coverage was generally good with both Vodacom and MTN, even halfway up Table Mountain and other out-of-the-way locations. I did notice a few occasions, though, when my phone reported full signal, but web pages would time out or take forever to load. Waiting a couple of minutes, or walking further down the street, always fixed the problem.

With both providers, 3G speeds were towards the high end of the range, as shown below. LTE speeds with Vodacom hovered around 30Mbps.

Roaming with MTN in Swaziland was as simple as adding extra credit (it can be done in both South Africa and Swaziland), then activating data roaming after arriving in the country. Coverage was good, both in Mbabane and Manzini, and in the countryside and national parks.

Vodacom 3G speed test Cape Town

Vodacom 3G speed test Cape Town

Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.

About the Author

Dave Dean

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Founder and editor of Too Many Adapters, Dave has been a wanderer for nearly 20 years and a geek for even longer. When he's not playing with the latest tech toy or working out how to keep his phone charged for just a few more minutes, he can probably be found sitting in a broken down bus in some obscure corner of the planet.

Comments

  1. Great information. I wish I had known how much cheaper it was to skip the airport. I probably still would have done the airport though as we got in late at night and I needed a phone early the next morning. I’m pretty new at traveling with a smart phone so your guides are great. Next time I go to Cape Town I will do it your way.

    1. Author

      Yeah, it’s hard to beat the airport kiosks in terms of convenience, especially if you need a working phone straight away!

  2. We are going to South Africa but also Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. Can I use the same Vodacom pre paid sim card in all those countries?

    1. Author

      You likely can, but since you’ll be paying roaming charges in each other country, you probably won’t want to. It’ll be much cheaper to pick up local SIMs in each new country.

  3. Really useful article, thanks so much! Do you happen to know if this method of buying a SIM with a letter of accomodation and a passport works for South African nationals? I’m coming home to Curbs, for a quick and busy visit next week, and I would really like to have a working phone.

    1. Author

      Hi — I don’t know for sure whether it applies to South African nationals, but I suspect it should, if you don’t actually live in the country. I guess you might need to prove that (with ID or some sort of paperwork from the country you live in), but as I say, this is just speculation. Perhaps try to contact Vodacom or MTN to clarify the situation?

  4. So helpful! Maybe you can advise me? I’m about to work in South Africa for a year. It’s also time for me to buy a new phone.
    Should I get an unlocked phone here (the US) and buy a SIM card when I arrive? Am I better off purchasing a new phone and plan there?
    I’m not a techie person, so I don’t have a clue where to begin. I’ve been scouring your site for the past half hour. Thanks for the great info!

    1. Author

      Hi Kymberly,

      The LTE (ie, highest-speed data) frequencies used in South Africa are different to the US, so you won’t always get LTE data speeds in South Africa with a US phone, and vice versa. Some companies (like Apple) sell an international version of their devices that does have LTE support for eg. both the US and South Africa, but you’d need to make sure you bought that specific model. The same applies for other vendors, if they sell such a version at all. It’s all a bit complicated, and availability varies by company and country, unfortunately.

      All of that said, if you don’t care about having the highest possible data speeds, things get easier. Pretty much any unlocked GSM phone with a SIM card slot will give you reasonable 3G speeds in both countries, so you just need to compare the price and availability of whichever model is most appealing. You’ll usually find a greater range of phones in the US vs South Africa, and of course it’ll be easier to get everything set up in advance rather than waiting until you arrive, but in terms of price in one country vs the other, I don’t know (and it likely depends on the phone model).

      Finally, regarding getting a plan — personally, I’d probably stick with a Pay As You Go package of some sort while in South Africa. It’ll be the quickest and easiest thing to get set up, doesn’t require a contract or commitment, and the price is likely to be only slightly higher.

  5. As you say 149 ZAR (~$11) for 1GB of data is not expensive. Are local calls included o you have to call “via app”?

    1. Author

      That’s just for data — as I mentioned, I just added a few extra rand for calls and texts. You could use an app instead if you wanted to.

  6. Dave, sorry, I read it very quickly. Thank you very much for all your infos

  7. Verizon actually has a decent international roaming option for $40 (as of 6/2017) Talk: 100 min, Text: 100 sent msg / unlimited incoming, Data: 100 MB, then $.25/min, $.25/msg, $25/100MB for overages.

    1. Author

      That data pricing is very expensive — on that plan, the gigabyte of data that cost me around $11 would have cost $265 ($40 for the roaming plan, $225 in overage charges). It looks a little better if you’re taking full advantage of those 100 minutes of calls as well, but even then, assuming you’re calling the USA, doing the same with the local SIM would only cost an extra $34 (so, $45 in total).

  8. Very useful article. I am traveling from india and have an option to take a prepaid Verizon sim card from here itself. The company has tied up with network provider there. I want to evaluate this option vs taking a new sim card in South Africa itself. It will be really helpful if you could tell me how is the coverage of the same in South Africa. I will be visiting Kruger National Park,, Garden Route and Capetown during my 15 days stay there.

    1. Author

      Without knowing which local provider Verizon is partnering with, I can’t comment on the coverage you should expect. If you find that out, you can then look up the network coverage map for that company, and see whether it includes the areas you plan to visit.

  9. The information you provided is very useful as I am traveling to Johannesbrug & Cape Town. I know all phones carry different types of SIM cards, Nano, Micro ect ect. Im assuming that these stores (airport or in major cities) all carry these different types of SIM’s? I am asking because I read somewhere else that it can take up to a few days to get the SIM that you need.

    1. Author

      Yes, you’ll find all the SIM types available. Many SIMs now come as all-in-one cards, with cut-outs for the different sizes. If not, stores will have separate sizes available, or worst case, can cut a larger one down to size for you.

  10. Hi! I’m travelling at the end of August for 8-10 weeks to Jo’burg on work. Are there longer duration packages that I can pick up? And are there shops to pick-up sim cards outside the airport?

    1. Author

      In Johannesburg, as in the rest of the country, there are plenty of shops to buy SIM cards outside the city. Companies may have longer duration packages, but if not, you just top up when each 30 days is up, and renew the package you already have. Details on how to do that are in the post.

  11. Hi Dave. Just to clarify/answer a few of the questions asked by other readers. As far as coverage goes in South Africa goes, if only to make a call, it is excellent, bar a few mountainous places. Roughly 95% of the South African landmass is covered by cell networks, and pretty much 99.9% of the population has access to a cell signal. Now the internet speeds in various places can differ, but 3G/LTE can be expected in all civilised areas, small towns/villages included.

    There are actually 5 networks in SA now. MTN, Vodacom, Cell C, Telkom(8ta) and Virgin Mobile. And they all pretty much have the same coverage as networks like Telkom&Virgin actually piggyback on the MTN network. So when it comes to choosing a network, it is best to see who offers the best value for money as coverage/speed is a moot point.

    Yes, getting a phone and/or sim card at the airport is very convenient, but you will pay for such a convenience. Like you say, if travellers can wait, there are much cheaper options out in the streets and malls.

    1. Author

      Thanks Sean! As I understand, there are still only four physical cell networks in South Africa — Virgin doesn’t have its own infrastructure. I’ve tweaked the wording slightly to make it clearer I’m talking about the physical network providers.

  12. Thanks for all the info. Very informative and easy reading. I’m not really I T literate. How do you activate the sim and package?
    Can contacts be transferred to new sim?

    1. Author

      The SIM and package should be activated by the staff member who sells it to you — it was for me. If you’re not sure if it has been, just double-check with them.

      It’s very rare for contacts to be stored on the SIM these days. They’re almost always kept on the phone, and synced to the cloud, especially if you’re using a smartphone. As a result, they aren’t affected by changing SIMs.

  13. When you say it’s more expensive at the airport, is that for buying a phone or for the actual SIM? Shouldn’t the SIM be the same everywhere? We live in Tanzania so could roam initially on our own Voda SIMs if needed, but it would be convenient to pick up a SIM on arrival.

    1. Author

      Only the tourist call / text / data packages are available at the airport, which are noticeably worse value than the standard packages available elsewhere.

  14. Hi Dave, very useful info here! I’m planning to move to SA next summer and live there semi-permanently, but also will be traveling home to the US and elsewhere around the world as often as my bank account and work schedule permits. Currently I have the T-mobile international plan which I love for its free data and texting in 140+ countries. I’d like to keep that plan so I don’t have to keep changing numbers every time I travel, but I would also realistically need a separate sim/app/something for phone calls in SA so I’m not paying 20c per minute. As far as international calls goes, everyone in my family also has an iPhone or iPad so I can FaceTime them, or use Facebook messenger’s wifi calling, I just need something local for work/friends to use. Does this seem feasible? What do you recommend? Thanks!!

    1. Author

      Given the relatively low cost of a South African SIM and data, there’s no real harm in switching to a local SIM while you’re there, so your plan sounds as good as any. It’s probably a good thing, in fact — the fine print of the T-Mobile Simple Choice/One contract says you can’t use it for too long outside the US, otherwise they’ll cancel it. Using a local SIM while in SA should get around that problem.

  15. Just a quick note on my experience with Telecom – was forced to get a new phone and SIM card in Durban (at Gateway as well). There were about ten people in line with four people working at the counter. It took us close to hour and a half to get to the counter and then they told us that they cannot sell me a SIM card without a letter from my accommodation (hostelworld confirmation email would not do it for them). I was with South African friend who had a spare SIM card so I was able to top hers off and use it instead. I went with 10GB for 399 rand. I drove from Durban to Sani Pass, North Drakensburg, Swaziland and back to Joburg. Network jumped between Telecom and MTN and there were quite a lot of areas without any coverage in remote places. Curiously, the coverage also seemed to cease right at the border crossing as if there was a wall for the signal. It was fine overall thou and allowed me to use my phone as hotspot without any extra charges.

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