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Buying a SIM Card in South Africa

In Get Connected by Dave Dean8 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 cell service providers in South Africa, plus a small number of resellers. 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.

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