Earlier this year, my husband and I moved back to the United States after four years of living in Africa. We live in a connected world, and it can be great to disconnect from it all and leave cell phones and other technology at home while traveling.
But, even in Africa, it’s helpful to have a cell phone to use while traveling. We used ours to book campsites, arrange tours, and plan our trip while we were on the road. Here are my top tips for using a cell phone while traveling in Africa.
Get an Unlocked Cell Phone While Traveling in Africa
These days there are a variety of options for using phones overseas. If you’re just visiting one country in Africa, you may just want to buy a cheap phone when you get there. In South Africa, you can buy a cell phone for $30-50 at the airport.
However, if you’re visiting multiple countries you’ll want to have an unlocked phone. An unlocked phone is one that isn’t tied to a particular cell phone carrier. You can buy an unlocked iPhone. The price is steep, but worth it if you do a lot of international travel.
I also know people have had good luck calling their cell phone carriers and asking them to unlock their phones. This typically only works if you have upgraded to a new phone and have a good reason — such as a trip to Africa — to unlock your old one. You’ll also need to have a phone that uses SIM cards, like AT&T and Sprint’s phones.
We use an unlocked iPhone for travel in Africa and it works well. We enjoy having the option of using data to check emails, and we also use the camera when we don’t want to pull out our DSLR camera.
Buy a Local SIM
In most of Africa, you can pick up a SIM card for less than a dollar. You can also purchase airtime in denominations less than $1 (although it won’t last long). We typically bought the equivalent of $5 at a time, topping up as needed.
With the SIM card you will get information on how to top-up your airtime, check your balance, etc. In Southern, Central, and Eastern Africa, the information is usually offered in a few languages, including English. Each country usually has a few cell phone providers, so you should ask around to see which was best.
Make Sure You Can Use Data
One of the reasons we chose to use our iPhones while traveling in Africa was for the ability to use data to check emails. We traveled with a satellite phone to remote areas. But at over $1 a minute, using the satellite phone for local calls would have added up.
So we appreciated being able to use our iPhone to send quick emails to our families. Cell phone service in many parts of Africa is impressive: we had 3G in most areas. Once you put the SIM card in your phone, you will be able to use it immediately to make calls and send SMS messages.
If your data doesn’t seem to be working, try calling customer service. You may need to have someone adjust your phone settings or register your SIM card to use the data. If they can’t help you over the phone, you can just stop in one of the carrier’s stores and they will set it up for you.
Consider a Satellite Phone for Emergencies
While cell phone coverage in much of Africa is great, it’s not perfect. If you’re traveling as part of a tour, your tour operator will likely have a satellite phone for emergencies, so you won’t need to carry your own. However, if you are overlanding or backpacking, you may want to have at least one satellite phone in your group for emergencies.
The phones aren’t cheap, and neither is the airtime; her is the satellite phone I recommend. But you will be thankful for the insurance if there is an emergency.
Think About Allowing International Calls on Your Phone
If you’re going on a short trip, you can ask your cell phone carrier to allow international usage on your current phone. This is a good option if you’re planning to use your phone for emergencies only. If you go this route, be sure to double check the fees — they can be hefty.
Staying In Touch While Travelling
One of the biggest perils of travelling, aside of safety and health issues, is staying away from family and friends while still trying to keep in touch with them.
There are some others who miss their regular office set-up – fortunately, technology has provided a solution for everything. Today, you have the best strategies and services made available to you that help you stay connected.
International calling is no longer an expensive affair – using your own cell phone with an international roaming plan is the most convenient option.
If you have a cell phone that can work over the cellular data network type at your destination namely, a GSM phone as 75 % of the world operates on GSM, you will likely be able to use your phone wherever you go.
The best bet for international travellers is to have a tri-band or quad- band GSM phone for compatibility. However, choose carefully as only select phone models do so – the biggest advantage of using your personal cell phone is that you carry your contacts and other information with you when you travel. Also, you can be reached at any point of time.
Another option is to buy calling cards as and when you travel – this is better suited to people who want a local phone number at their destination. Refitting a phone with an in-country SIM card provides a local number, allowing for calls, texts, and possibly data service at the local network rate.
They are the most popular with international travellers as they are pre-paid and help them keep a check on their travel expense on calls, apart from other things.
An advantage is that you can get in touch with anyone you want to but not let others bother you with incessant calls when you need your privacy.
The best cost-effective service is the VOIP for making free calls – using Internet-based phone services like Google Voice or Skype can be the cheapest way to make international calls. It can even be free if you use a free Wi-Fi hotspot.
If you are travelling in big cities, you will have ready access to Internet cafes where such a service is available. However, both Wi-Fi hotspot and net cafe usage depends on your being physically at a specific location.
You can also use VoIP on your laptop using prepaid international mobile broadband, but it’s more expensive and will eat up your data minutes.
Whatever option you go for, it has to take your personal requirements, your travel needs and your budget into account. With modern technology at your beck and call, you can now keep talking without getting worried about going bankrupt!