It might seem like a contradiction in terms to see the words ‘internet’ and ‘Africa’ in the same sentence, much like ‘government’ and ‘intelligence’. While the concept of government intelligence is highly debatable the world over, you can get online with a mobile internet device in South Africa in more places and at higher speeds than you would think possible.
- South Africa is considered to have the 4th most advanced mobile telecommunications networks worldwide, according to Wikipedia.
- 3G / LTE is available in most urban areas and can deliver download speeds of up to 100mbps with an appropriate device.
- About 96% of the 1.2million Sq Km South African landmass is covered by at least 2G which can allow you to check email.
- Almost 100% of the 45+ million strong South African population, including tourists, has access to at least a 2G cellular network signal. In fact, all other African countries offer some form of mobile internet coverage, both cellular and Wi-Fi. The African continent as a whole is much more connected than most people would think.
In 1996, South African mobile network Vodacom was the first in the world to introduce pre-paid on an Intelligent Network platform. This allows customers accounts to be debited while they speak. South Africa is pioneering a lot of mobile technology used in many other parts of the world, but particularly Africa. Such technologies have been invented and developed more out of necessity than any other reason.
The exponential growth in solar, cellular and satellite technology has made it much easier and more cost effective to cover large portions of the South African population with reasonably high speed mobile internet access where running cables just isn’t feasible. Prices are dropping and speeds increasing as technology advances. Huge mountains and vast distances tend to get in the way of signal, but it (the internet) is there none the less, almost everywhere.
Mobile data in South Africa allows you to get online and to tweet a picture of wild lions in a game park, such as The Kruger National Park while still in the actual park itself, or to facebook a photo of you and your friends sipping a beer at the highest pub in Africa. Even though the pub is in Lesotho, you will still be able to pick up signal from a South African mobile network.
Mobile internet in South Africa
In order to enjoy local cellular data rates on any South African network you will need either a smart phone, cellular modem or USB dongle that uses a separate sim card and which is not locked to your home network. All these devices are also readily available for hire or purchase in South Africa. If you do want to rent a device, all calls and data being billed to your credit card, the airport is usally the only place you can do this.
The average price of a pre-paid sim card at the airport is about R200.00, but this might come with extra call / data credit. If you can wait a little longer, sim cards without airtime credit will be about R2.00 or less almost anywhere else; supermarkets, clothing stores, department stores etc.
How to buy a South African sim card
If you just need to buy a cheapie (dumb phone) for phone calls / texts only, clothing stores like PEP / Edgars / Truworths etc have such things for about R200, including a sim card, but no airtime. After you load airtime, which you can buy pretty much everywhere, local calls to hotels, restaurants etc will set you back about R0-79 / minute, billed per second, from the first second. Calls to Europe / Canada / USA will set you back about R1 – R2 / min. Unlike with North American networks, all incoming calls on South African cell phones in South Africa are free. I’m still waiting for someone to tell my why Canadian/USA networks charge you, per minute, to receive a call.
Where micro or nano sim cards are not available, a strong pair of scissors and a steady hand usually does the trick. Try not to touch the copper contacts with your bare fingers, use your T-shirt or something. Use a permanent marker to mark the one cut corner. Buy 2 or 3 cards, without credit, in case you mess one up, they are cheap enough. Been there, done that. Lots of stores might actually have a proper card cutter and will help you with this and the general set up of your device. Bear in mind that foreign tourists will also need to show their passport in order to register their new pre-paid SIM card in South Africa. This is a fairly quick and painless process. All South Africans already know the drill.
Prepaid sim card South Africa
There are 5 networks in South Africa with near equal coverage maps. At the time of publishing this article, Vodacom for example offers 3G in The Kruger Park, whereas MTN only offers 2G. This of course could have changed by the time you read this article. Check the coverage maps of the various networks and make your choice based on where you plan to spend your time in South Africa.
South African mobile networks are also extremely competitive with frequent price wars. I use MTN when in South Africa, but mainly because I just like the colour yellow and I have been using them since 1996 and couldn’t be bothered to change as I have no significant complaints. The others are: Vodacom (red), Telkom (blue), Cell-C (black) and Virgin Mobile (red). Shop (Google) around, but at the end of the day, pricing and coverage can be very similar, so like me, I just chose based on colour. I did back in 1996 when there was only Vodacom and MTN, much less of a dilemma when faced with such a life changing choice.
WiFi in South Africa
Is there Wi-Fi? What’s the password? Some very common questions asked by tourists the world over.
Most restaurants, cafés and hotels around the world offer it for free or for a nominal charge to attract customers. South Africa is no exception. Where Wi-Fi is not free, Always On is a wireless internet provider that offers high speed hotspots at hotels, shopping malls, restaurants and cafés through out the country for a very reasonable price.
If there is no Wi-Fi at a particular restaurant or bar and you are in a group, try talking to each other 😉
So when considering South Africa as your next holiday destination, bear in mind that you can get connected, almost everywhere and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg.
As a digital nomad, having an internet connection is very important for me when I’m traveling. I’m glad to see Africa is connected already. You’re right, people have misconceptions about the continent, and that includes me haha
One of the purposes of this blog is to try and clear up as many of the misconceptions there are about Africa as possible. In many places in South Africa you could be forgiven for wondering which continent you’re on. 🙂
when in SA we have phones from Canada that are locked to the home networks. Are we able to buy at wifi device that a family can use at the airports?
Yes you can. But I would avoid buying something at the airport itself, just because the prices are significantly inflated, and the choices are limited. If you get on the R21 freeway south to Boksburg from Johannesburg airport and drive for about 10 minutes, there is a huge shopping centre called East Rand Mall, right at the first set of traffic lights, aka ‘robots’ in South Africa. There you will find anything and everything, at all prices, from a Nokia dumb phone for about ZAR 150, to the latest smart phones and wi-fi tablets. To the best of my knowledge, phones purchased in South Africa are no longer locked to local networks. Even though your Canadian devices are locked to your home network, you should be able to roam, but I think we all know that roaming charges are large, particularly data. South African cell networks use different waveband frequencies than those in North America, but modern (dual/tri-band) devices from either countries should be capable of working the world over.
One of the biggest malls in Africa is Canal Walk, not far from Cape Town Airport.