Your Mobile Phone in South Africa

I’m working my way up to one of my Expat Tips, so if you’d like to skip my ramblings, just scroll on down where you’ll find it. But here is the backstory:

After hitting the 1 million pageview mark for Joburg Expat, I had a brief feeling of elation, almost immediately followed by guilt. Why guilt? Because I feel like not living in South Africa anymore has moved my blog away from the stories my readers so loved and needed to read. Almost gone are the tales of standing in long lines trying to wrangle a concession out of a smiling but unmoving government clerk; no more stories about traffic stops where cops ask you what you’ve brought them today. Not even any complaints about the hardship of load-shedding!

It’s only natural, you’ll say, since I don’t live there anymore. Still, I’d like for my blog to continue to be helpful to newly arrived expats, at least every once in a while. Luckily, I still have a good amount of material stashed away, collected during our crazy busy life in the Joburg sunshine, and so I’ve decided I should dig up these pieces at least periodically so that I can continue to share some advice.

Getting phone service set up in South Africa, mobile or otherwise, took forever. But who cares when you can sit by a beautiful pool?

Hence this post about mobile phones in South Africa, a rather banal topic. But, as I remember all too well, a very important one to the newly-arrived expat. I remember how it drove me crazy not having any phone the first 3-4 weeks of living in our gated community, not even being able to answer calls from the gate to let contractors in. The very contractors, I might add, that would help me be connected to the world, like the people from Telkom. A mobile phone, I quickly realized, was my ticket to everything that I needed those first few days, and yet I didn’t have one.
Getting phone service set up in South Africa, mobile or otherwise,
took forever. But who cares when you can sit by a beautiful pool?
I didn’t have one, because I’m a perfectionist. South African mobile phone plans, some of you might already have learned, are not easy to navigate. Especially when you come from the U.S. where most plans are simple as can be. You pay one monthly sum (a princely sum, to be sure) and you get unlimited airtime and texting, plus a chunk of data, like 7 Gig or 10 Gig or even 15 Gig.

In South Africa, by contrast, there are a bazillion plans. Imagine the menu at a cheap Mexican restaurant for a moment: Pages and pages of burritos and enchiladas and tacos and quesadillas, each with 20 different innards and 10 different sides, and of course all the combinations have to be listed in all the iterations. How to choose? That is exactly how I felt when first browsing Vodacom’s catalog of phone plans. And then of course there are also Cell C, MTN, Virgin Mobile – and probably more. It seemed an impossible task to analyze them all and figure out what would be best for my personal usage. How many text messages (SMS) would I want to send per month? How many calls would I make? If I didn’t allocate enough minutes and went over, would the higher charges blow the cost out of the water? Conversely, if I got too many and didn’t use them, would I overpay?

I agonized over it, all the while without connection to the outside world, because I also didn’t have a car. But I wanted to get it perfect. I didn’t want to overpay, and yet I also wanted to use my precious iPhone (you’ll get a chuckle out of the fact that it was an iPhone 3, so laughably out of date now), which had the slight drawback that its SIM-card was locked as per AT&T. I agonized for long weeks over how I could possibly make my iPhone work in South Africa. I made many trips to an obscure Apple reseller, I saw my phone travel to Cape Town and back and, finally, to Vietnam into the care of an obscure hacker, and eventually¬†managed to make my iPhone work in South Africa, but boy did it take a ton of time an energy!

In hindsight, that tapas approach to cell phone plans I so agonized over is actually not bad at all. Compared to here in the U.S. (remember the princely sum I mentioned?), cell phone service in South Africa is cheap, precisely because you are able to custom-tailor it. But instead of obsessing over it as I did, the best approach is to just go ahead and select a plan, starting fairly low, and then increase your minutes/SMS budget later when you have an idea how much you need. There is no penalty for changing your plan upwards at a later date. You just can’t go down – at least that’s how it was for me with Vodacom a few years back. Or, choose pay-as-you-go and do without a plan altogether – you’ll save yourself the hassle of all the paperwork when signing up.

In short, my Expat Tip: Pick a carrier (I picked Vodacom – at the time, the coverage seemed the best in our area), get a cheap phone to start, and get a low-level plan which you can upgrade later. Read my article TV, Internet, and Phone Service in South Africa for more detail.

Back then I also would have recommended getting Blackberrys for the kids. They came with such cheap group texting plans that everyone had them and your child would stand out like a sore thumb if they didn’t. However, things may have changed. A lot of SA friends’ kids have since switched to iPhones. Jailbreaking may no longer be an issue, as you can buy unlocked phones anywhere, especially since most carriers in the U.S. no longer offer cheap phones as part of the contract. Most people buy their phones on Amazon or eBay, and you can take them anywhere in the world and put a local SIM card in them there.

I have also since then gotten some great advice from a fellow American expat in South Africa and wanted to share it with you. It involves going not with a local plan at all, but using T-Mobile’s* Simple Choice Plan, which gives you unlimited texts and data in 120 countries around the world, South Africa included. Read here what she has to say about that alternative:

After hours of research, I decided to switch to T-Mobile from Sprint about a few months before we moved to Joburg. I wanted to keep my number for holidays in the US and for banking with Bank of America.

With T-Mobile, you can buy your phone out right or I believe you can finance it over 24 months at 0%. I chose to buy my phone out right so that after 30 days of having my service with T-Mobile, I could ask them to unlock my phone. Just a phone call and it was done.

My T-mobile service is month-to-month, so I’m not tied in a contract. I went with the iPhone because I was vested in the technology. I was actually looking at a Samsung S4-mini that has a dual SIM card slot. You can buy one online from Amazon that’s already unlocked and just go to T-Mobile to get a SIM card so you can have your US number. When you get to South Africa, just go to the cell phone store and get a South African SIM card. Then both numbers, U.S. and SA, will ring. You can toggle to the U.S. T-Mobile and use the unlimited data and SMS it gives you for South Africa, and only use your SA SIM card for voice, so that you only have to pay for airtime when making calls in South Africa. Since there is no such thing as unlimited data in South Africa, at least not in any way affordable.

In hindsight, I should have gone with the dual SIM technology. But I guess I was blinded by my Apple devices and so stuck with the iPhone.

I hope you find this helpful. If you have any other information to share regarding affordable cell phone plans in South Africa, pleas share!

* This blog post is not sponsored or paid for by T-Mobile. It simply serves as a tip for expats. There might very well be other carriers and plans with similar options, but I wanted to share the one that is proven since it’s worked for someone before.