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Zimbabwe. The land of mighty Victoria Falls, Matopos rock formations older than pretty much anything else on the planet, local currency that spiked into trillions ten years ago, and the new (old?) order after Robert Mugabe’s 37 years in power came to screeching halt last November.
Things have calmed down a bit since the US dollar was introduced into official circulation and, as in many developing countries, cellular network speed and coverage, especially after a recent upgrade to LTE, are quickly surpassing expensive and slow Wi-fi connections.
Econet and Telecel are the two dominant players in the Zimbabwe cellular market, and a very-unscientific survey of a number of locals in Victoria Falls resulted in a strong case for the former (as in, every single person recommended Econet, with many mentioning better coverage as the reason).
This was further confirmed by the constant presence of a queue of locals at the Econet office, while I didn’t see a single person inside the Telecel store in three days. Note that both offices were only open for half the day on Saturdays, and closed on Sundays.
So, Econet it was!
Both Econet and Telecel’s offices were located on Park Way, the main tourist drag in Victoria Falls. There were also prominent offices for both in Bulawayo and Lusaka. You have to go into one of the official offices in order to buy and register the SIM card, and don’t forget your passport!
With multiple queues at the Econet office, I was told to line up in the “Replacements” line. While in line, I also filled out the top part of the registration form. It asked for local and permanent addresses, and I just put the name of the rest camp I was staying at. That seemed to suffice, although the staff seemed to be noticeably more demanding of the locals in line ahead of me.
The queue moved slowly — it took about half an hour to get through the three people in front of me (hint: don’t go early in the morning, as the line stretched down the block, and would have taken hours). Once I reached the representative, she was friendly and helpful, explaining the different options and costs (more on those below), then taking my registration form and making a copy of my passport.
I was able to pay with my credit card for both SIM card and airtime credit, then she quickly explained the way around the service menu on my phone, and I was off. The SIM card itself had cutouts for all three sizes, and I had no problems installing the microSIM version in my phone.
The Telecel office seemed to have a similar procedure, also requiring a passport and filling in a registration form.
Both Econet and Telecel charge 50c (USD) for a new prepaid SIM card, which is then topped up with cash/credit card/Ecocash to activate any of the service plans.
Strangely, the Econet office didn’t have any fliers or any information on plan costs anywhere. I had to wait in line for the representative to find out what my options were, although they’re apparently listed on the company website as well.
Here’s a quick summary of Econet’s data options, as of October 2017.
Daily plans (expiring 24 hours from activation)
- $1 – 250MB cellular data + 250MB Econet WiFi
- $2 – 1GB cellular data + 1GB Econet WiFi
- $3 – 2GB cellular data + 2GB Econet WiFi
- $3 – 120MB cellular data + 120MB Econet WiFi
- $5 – 300MB cellular data + 300MB Econet WiFi
- $10 – 650MB cellular data + 650MB Econet WiFi
- $10 – 400MB cellular data + 400MB Econet WiFi
- $20 – 800MB cellular data + 800MB Econet WiFi
- $35 – 1.5GB cellular data + 1.5GB Econet WiFi
- $50 – 2.5GB cellular data + 2.5GB Econet WiFi
None of the weekly or monthly plans are good value if you plan on using a lot of data – daily plans are really where it’s at. I didn’t realize that initially, and paid $10 for the measly 650MB weekly plan that I blew through in a couple of days. I switched to daily 1GB and 2GB bundles after that.
To check current rates, dial *143# and choose option 1 for Data Bundles.
Since you’re unlikely to have an Ecocash account, the activation of any prepaid bundle is a two step process:
- Load the amount needed to your account as airtime
- Use airtime credit to purchase the bundle you desire
Note that step 1 is initially done at the office (you can top upt anywhere after that), and step 2 is done by you on your phone by dialing *143# and replying with option 1 (Data Bundles) to select from the menu of bundles listed above.
To check your balance, dial *143# and choose option 3 (Account Balance). I found it didn’t update often enough to effectively keep track of my usage, however, and just ended up using the data meter built into iOS instead.
Telecel options were structured in a different manner, including call time and texts, but with fewer useful plans if you’ll be using more than a small amount of data:
- $2 – 30 Telecel-to-Telecel + 10 out of network calls, 60MB Whatsapp, 150MB data, 30 texts, valid for 48 hours
- $5 – 60 Telecel-to-Telecel + 15 out of network calls, unlimited Whatsapp, 350MB data, 125 texts, valid for 30 days
- $10 – 150 Telecel-to-Telecel + 25 out of network calls, unlimited Whatsapp, 1GB data, 300 texts, valid for 30 days
Once I quickly blew through my weekly data allowance with Econet, I topped up my balance at their office in Bulawayo. It was as simple as providing them with my phone number, telling them how much airtime credit (that’s the key) I wanted, and paying with my credit card (or cash if you wish). I received a confirmation text message right away.
If there are no offices in sight, another option is to buy an Econect voucher from any number of street vendors, and add that to your account instead.
When adding to your airtime balance, it’s a good idea to shut off your cellular data to avoid per-use charges draining your balance while you wrestle the phone menu to select the plan you want. You can also ask the representative to disable the per-use data usage when you purchase your SIM card.
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Coverage and Data Speeds
Overall, I found Econect 3G coverage to be very extensive with major population centers covered by LTE (sometimes at very impressive speeds).
I traveled the country as part of an overlanding tour that started in Victoria Falls, headed south to Bulawayo and nearby Matopos, then east to Masvingo (where I clocked a very impressive 49 Mbps down/31 up!), and then up north through Harare to Lusaka in Zambia. Curiously, I rarely encountered areas with 2G/EDGE coverage – it was either 3G or no service at all.
However, rather annoyingly, what my iPhone displayed and what was actually available weren’t always the same. In many rural areas, with 3G showing on my phone, nothing would actually load (even if I had full service). It was the same story in a few of the areas with EDGE coverage – not even Whatsapp or email would work.
Furthermore, if the signal strength was only one bar, nothing loaded — and to make things worse, for some reason, the phone wouldn’t automatically drop back to a “lesser” network. On the outskirts of cities, for instance, LTE signal would go down to one bar and the Internet would stop working until I manually forced the phone to switch to 3G. I’d then have 3-4 bars of strong 3G service, and my connection would kick back into life.
Tip: with iOS 11, you can manually choose the network speed by going to Settings – Cellular – Cellular Data Options – Voice & Data.