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Tonga is one of the most underrated tourist destinations in the world. One of only two places on the planet where you can get in the water and swim with humpback whales, it’s home to some of the best beaches I’ve ever seen, all of them with nobody on them, it’s full of friendly welcoming locals with a fascinating culture, and it’s safe, inexpensive, and seriously beautiful. I’ve been recommending it to everyone I meet.
So what doesn’t Tonga have? Affordable, usable Wi-Fi. No matter where you choose to stay on the 36 inhabited islands, the one thing I guarantee is a struggle to stay connected.
Two of my guesthouses promised free Internet for guests but didn’t offer it at all when I turned up; one of them had free, usable Internet only in their restaurant, two didn’t advertise having it, and one charged $25 per 500 MB of data. Just after I paid for it, the Wi-ii went down.
This is why you should buy a SIM card for Tonga. While data wouldn’t win any awards for speed, I had signal everywhere, and could even tether my laptop to my phone to get some work done and watch a few Youtube videos at times.
Here’s what you need to know about getting connected in Tonga.
If you’re only going to be visiting Tongatapu, ‘Eua, Lifuka or Foa in Ha’apai, and Neiafu in Tonga, Digicel will work well for you. It has faster speeds than U-Call but less coverage, so as long as you’re on these main islands, you’ll be able to stay connected.
The joys of Tonga, however, are away from the main islands. They’re found on a tiny islands barely 100 metres long, with only four bungalows to stay in. They’re getting away from the crowds to experience life with few Western influences. They’re immersing yourself in local villages to learn about how Tongans live today.
U-Call, then, is the best option if you’re going to be island-hopping away from the larger places. It has coverage across pretty much every island in Tonga, and while I was there, I had a data connection at all times.
The speeds were slower than you’d get with Digicell, but the coverage was excellent and the speeds were generally usable. In ‘Eua, I was even able to tether my phone to my laptop and watch Youtube videos without a problem!
Buying a SIM card in Tonga is extremely easy.
If you fly into Tongatapu’s International Airport (and you most likely will), both cellphone companies have booths directly in sight as you exit the airport. The staff speak excellent English, and will be able to help you choose the right plan for you.
The other international airport in Tonga is in Vava’u, but the situation is much the same. You’ll find U-Call and Digicel booths beside the airport, where you can pick up a SIM card within a few minutes.
You’ll need to have a form of ID with you, which shouldn’t be a problem if you’re grabbing a card upon arrival, but if not, remember to take your passport when you buy one.
Outside of the airports, there are plenty of providers that offer SIM cards for sale — just look for the Digicel or U-Call branding while you’re walking around.
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SIM cards were priced at 5 TOP ($2.25 USD) for both U-Call and Digicel. I paid 50 TOP (~$22 USD) for 3 GB of data, and 10 TOP ($4.50 USD) for enough credit to make a few domestic phone calls. It’s definitely worth getting some call credit with your SIM — many guesthouses are fully offline, so you’ll need to call them to make a reservation etc.
In a country where I came up against Wi-fi priced at $25 per 500MB of data (or simply not available at all), the data rates with U-Call definitely saved me money and helped me stay connected.
You can buy SIM card top-ups pretty much everywhere in Tonga, as long as you’re in a village that has a couple of stores. Just look for the U-Call or Digicel branding, or ask around at any general store.
To top up on U-Call, you’ll be given a voucher number to enter when you call 0800 912. With Digicel, you’ll need to enter the voucher number after dialing *121*[voucher code]#.
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Coverage and Data Speeds
U-Call coverage was excellent, but data speeds were mediocre. I had a 2G/EDGE connection as a minimum everywhere I went — even on the much smaller islands — and it was usable most of the time. I was even able to stream videos from Youtube in parts of Tongatapu, ‘Eua, and Vava’u while tethering my laptop to my phone.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to accurately measure speeds for 98% of my time in Tonga, as my speed test app continually gave me a “latency test error” message whenever I opened it up. According to Ookla, this “typically occurs when the server has gone temporarily down.” That seems unlikely, since I received the error multiple times a day throughout my two weeks in the country.
I would compare my results of using U-Call with Digicel, but the coverage map on their website currently links to a map of Jamaica, which is, um, interesting.