Zambia is mostly known for hosting one side of the majestic Victoria Falls, along with its awe (or terror)-inspiring Devil’s Pool. It has also turned itself into a champion of democracy, and is one of the safest countries in Africa.
It’s not just the stable government that attracts visitors, though. People from neighboring countries come to shop in the new Western-style shopping plazas in Lusaka, while more tourists are arriving to take advantage of the relatively-untapped safari options.
While they’re there, of course, everyone wants to stay connected. Luckily, there are plenty of options for doing so.
You’ve got four choices when it comes to cellular connectivity in Zambia: Airtel, MTN, Vodafone, and Zamtel.
Airtel and MTN have the greatest coverage, while Vodafone operates solely on 4G/LTE frequencies. Zamtel is the smallest, and being owned by the government, the most bureaucratic.
Since I was traveling as part of an overlanding tour, I couldn’t pick and choose the carrier, but instead had to settle for what was available at the shopping mall we stopped at in Lusaka. It was MTN, boasting “Zambia’s widest and fastest 4G internet.”
For those flying into the country, I was told there was also an MTN store at Lusaka’s international airport.
How to Buy a Prepaid SIM Card in Zambia
At the official MTN store I was asked for my passport, and while one of the staff members copied down all my info onto a registration form, another one walked me through the available options.
The whole process took about ten minutes and I was able to use my credit card to pay for both SIM card and airtime credits. It’s worth noting that the 4G SIM card didn’t come in microSIM size, but they did have a SIM cutter that did the trick.
Prepaid SIM Costs
The 4G SIM card itself was 5 kwacha (about $0.35) and I purchased 103 kwacha worth of credit vouchers to cover the cost of data bundle I wanted to use.
I had to manually add the vouchers to my account once the SIM card got activated (more on that soon).
There were quite a few different options for data plans listed on a full-page matrix. Some notable ones were:
- 200MB for 5 kwacha ($0.35)
- 350MB for 7 kwacha ($0.45)
- 700MB for 10 kwacha ($0.70)
- 500MB for 25 kwacha ($1.65)
- 2.5GB for 50 kwacha ($3.30)
- 6GB for 100 kwacha ($6.50)
- 10GB for 150 kwacha ($9.80)
- 5GB for 100 kwacha ($6.50)
- 12GB to 200 kwacha ($13)
- 25GB for 400 kwacha ($26)
The minor (later turned major) annoyance was that the SIM card wasn’t activated right away. The store rep advised to wait a couple of hours. She also stated that turning phone service on while the activation was happening could interfere with the process.
Whether it was that or just a slow process on the weekend, my SIM card didn’t actually get activated until noon the next day (I purchased it just before 5pm). Once activated, you’ll receive a text message stating so. Until then, you can’t top up your balance or make any calls, but that wasn’t made very clear by MTN.
When I tried entering my credit voucher code a few hours later, it didn’t work, and I received a message stating that my SIM card was locked and asking me to call their call center. When I tried doing so, however, the call disconnected automatically.
Long story short? Just wait until you get the activation confirmation message.
Scratch cards with pin numbers are the standard way of topping up, and you can purchase them practically anywhere displaying the logo of your cell network carrier.
Whether it’s an initial load or a top-up later, dial *113*voucher code# and you should get a text message confirming the load. Balance check is *114#.
Once you have credit on your account, dial *335# for the menu of various bundle options, and follow the prompts. You should receive a text message confirming your purchase.
Helpfully, MTN will also send you text messages when you use 70%, 80%, and 90% of your data allowance.
Coverage and Data Speeds
Since my SIM card took almost a day to activate, I couldn’t use it before leaving Lusaka. From there we drove along the southern border to Petauke, and then onto South Luangwa National Park via Chipata. There wasn’t much coverage along the road in these rural areas.
LTE in Chipata clocked in at 9Mbps down and 20 up during the day, while surprisingly there was decent 3G coverage at the Croc River Lodge in the park. At 8Mbps down/1.5 up, it was much faster than the camp Wi-Fi.
Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.