Vodacom on iPhone in South Africa
I’ve been in South Africa for two weeks, and am here for one more. There are so many fascinating things about this place, but for a geek the obvious place to start is comparing the technology here with back home.
First: everything’s mobile here. ADSL is a fairly new thing (MWEB have just announced their first uncapped package) and fibre is in the process of being laid (come on BT, they’re catching up), so using a 3G data modem to connect to the Internet is pretty popular. This makes it a great place for somebody arriving with an unlocked iPhone; we popped down to a Vodacom (South African Vodafone) store and bought a prepaid SIM card for R3 (27p) and 1GB of data for R289 (about £26).
Looking at costs for their mobile data, they charge anywhere from R2 (18p) down to 19c (1.7p) per megabyte, depending on your bundle size. Their top option is a massive 20GB for R3899 (£350), so you can get a sense of how heavily people must rely on it. With my gigabyte of data, I was paying 28c/MB (or 2.5p/MB). Compare that to O2, who wanted to charge me £6 per megabyte, and I’m left wondering why anybody would ever pay roaming data charges again. I enjoyed the “awww, see you soon” SMS that O2 sent me:
Please be aware it’s expensive using data on your iPhone abroad. […]
Oh nope. Using the data isn’t the expensive part, is it O2?
If I’d left my O2 SIM in my phone, with exactly the same usage, I would’ve been left with a bill for £6,144. Not the £26 I actually paid. 236× the cost. I want to stop writing the same thing over and over again, but just can’t get my head around it.
The curse of the APN
I’ve always hated dealing with phone network settings, mostly because it’s
never worked. After some searching, I found that you need to change the
Cellular Data APN on the iPhone to
internet. After a quick call–and 24 hour
wait–to the people who deal with Vodacom data on 082155 (asking them to
enable the iPhone APN and tethering), you can change the Cellular Data APN
iphone.vodacom.za (and as a bonus, you’ll then be able to tether).
I didn’t mean this to turn into a rant about the extortion racket that is my mobile phone provider, but that seems to be the way it turned out. I’d like to thank Vodacom for being so great, and wish O2 a slow, painful death. Hopefully, I’ll post more about being here some time soon.
By rishi on 17 April 2010 at 16:45:
What kinds of documents did you need to get your vodacom sim chip? Also, I assume you can buy credit so that you can use the phone for calls and SMS as well? Or is it all one big bundle? Any idea what the rates are?
I’m headed to South Africa this summer for the World Cup and want to use my iPhone to blog.
cheers - rishi
By Alex Muller on 19 April 2010 at 09:22:
Hi Rishi - this is something I forgot to mention, sorry. I went into the store today and asked them what’s needed for people on holiday: they said you should take a passport with you and you’ll be fine. You can absolutely buy normal airtime, as well as SMS bundles. I’m not sure what the phone rates are and can’t find them on the Vodacom site, but local text messages cost about R50 for 200, depending on how many you buy.
By Michael on 20 April 2010 at 04:17:
one more week? hahaha… I think Iceland has something to say about that…
Seriously though, I pay £1/MB in the UK (or 50p for a day unlimited) and about £3/MB roaming… My big question is, why does roaming cost more at all? I understand it with phone calls and stuff (though seeing as the call hits the internet pretty soon I’m dubious), but with data?!?!? This is the real weirdness here…
By Adam K on 20 April 2010 at 17:46:
Very useful info for someone heading to SA for the World Cup. Can I ask, did you buy the SIM from a Vodacom in the airport, as I’ve heard they charge more than the regular town centre stores?
Also, have you been able to tell how commonplace free wi-fi areas are?
By Alex Muller on 22 April 2010 at 14:26:
Hey Adam; I didn’t buy it in the airport so I don’t know how much they charge, but there are Vodacom shops all over the place here (four within a few hundred metres right now) - I wouldn’t worry about getting one so soon. I come every couple of years to visit family, and the amount free, public Wi-Fi has been decreasing massively. I reckon people are realising how expensive bandwidth can be, so they’re locking down access points. I wanted to download a few things for the plane home, so I’ve found @zit Internet Cafe in Cavendish. Highly recommended if you’re around here!
By Joanthan Fleet on 23 July 2010 at 12:08:
Hi - I realise that voice and data on my iPhone (Orange) when in SA is going to cost more than the flights / hotels etc etc ! So I need to do something - If I get my iPhone unlocked - and then get a Vodcom SIM - will all my connections (email/skype/apps etc) still work - or will I need to set them all up again ? I assume as these are ‘internet’ connections - once the interent connectivity is there they should all work ?
By Alex Muller on 24 July 2010 at 08:18:
Hi Jonathan - if you unlock your phone and get a Vodacom SIM card, you’ll need to make sure you buy some prepaid data from them (half a gigabyte, or a gigabyte or something like that) and then email, Skype and your apps will all work fine. The apps just rely on any old data connection, as long as there is one present. Hope this helps!
By dave wilson on 05 September 2010 at 12:00:
Hi, i’m going on safari for three weeks in October and want my iphone to work with all it’s apps, especially the sat nav, google earth and maps. What sort of data volume am I likely to need for three weeks?
By Val Rogers on 14 September 2010 at 08:28:
I’m headed to SA in January on a choir tour. Just bought an iPhone 4 for the video, but still have my old 3G. I’m thinking of unlocking the 3G and getting a Vodacom SIM & data like you suggest. Like Dave W. above, I’d love to have sat nav, google earth, and maps working as we’ll be doing homestays in townships and I understand most streets aren’t marked.
Really appreciate your informative blog.
By Alex Muller on 14 September 2010 at 19:35:
Hi Dave: it really depends on how much you’ll be using it day-to-day, but for three weeks you should be able to get away with a gigabyte or two. Google Earth will probably eat up quite a bit of bandwidth, I’d imagine.
And hi Val, you’re very welcome: I’d definitely unlock the 3G - especially if you’re with O2, it’s free!
By Chereen on 06 November 2010 at 21:58:
Hi, sorry I saw this so late - but as you’re only coming out in Jan, this might be of use.
Definitely bring the 3G. Mobile data is far more affordable out here - maybe because ADSL remains comparatively quite expensive ( the ‘uncapped’ adsl is subject to quite stiff fair use rules ). It’s also far more convenient to use mobile connections than to try find public wi-fi.
Please don’t worry about finding a place to buy a sim card, or airtime bundles. They sell them everywhere ( not just Vodacom stores ). Supermarkets, department stores and corner shops stock them. If you skip the airport, you’ll have no trouble finding a place to pick one up.
Just a note on townships though: data coverage (3G) can vary outside urban centres - you can still use data, but connection speed might make using online maps difficult. Try to use self-contained gps mapping where possible.
By Albert on 21 December 2010 at 07:22:
Can I ask 2 questions
Do they also sell Micro-Sim for iPhone 4? Or you need to cut them smalled?
B&B and Hotel does not usually offer Wi-Fi access?
By Chereen on 01 January 2011 at 13:08:
Not sure about micro-sims for prepaid ( haven’t looked to be honest ).
Hotels and B&Bs will often offer Wi-fi but it is rarely free. These systems are also frequently unsuitable for iphone use ( the browser based log-in systems sometimes cause problems ). If you are looking for free wi-fi at a B&B, small guesthouse-style establishments are more likely to offer it.
Organizing prepaid mobile is by far the most convenient way to access the internet while travelling here. Coverage is good in urban areas and far less troublesome than relying on wi-fi hotspots. It’s often much cheaper too.
By Dav on 09 February 2011 at 23:03:
Hi i have been in THE sa in agust in Durban but were i went to get sim card they ask for proof of residence like gas or electricity Bill ? pasport was not good enough and i try 2 store vodacom and Sell ?
By Alex Muller on 10 February 2011 at 09:18:
Hey Dav: I’m not sure if the rules have changed since last year, but visitors should be able to get a SIM card by providing the address that they’re staying at - maybe paper with the hotel letterhead on it? I’m going back in a month or so, so I’ll find out!
By Debbie on 05 March 2011 at 07:06:
A few of us are headed to Durban for a convention in June and maybe you can help answer my questions about internet connections. We are addicted to the internet so I am trying to make sure I don’t have to mortgage my house before we head over there. I am one of the few Americans left without an iPhone mainly because i use my iPod Touch so much I wouldn’t have battery life left for phone calls. I have an unlocked Sierra Wireless Mercury USB modem that uses a sim card for data connection. It says it supports HSDPA, UMTS, EDGE, GPRS and GSM Networks Worldwide. Do you think I could get a sim card at one of the stores and use my usb modem? It sounds like it would be a lot cheaper than the hotel rates or renting one at the airport. I would also want to get just a cheap sim card for my cellphone… voice and text only.
By Alex Muller on 06 March 2011 at 20:26:
Hi Debbie: no promises, but you should be able to use that modem with a Vodacom SIM card (which you can buy for a couple of Rand) and a data bundle of whatever size. It’ll definitely be cheaper than the hotel! I know Vodacom sell their own USB modem, but I seem to remember it being about £100 GBP. And you should find it easy to get your hands on another card for voice and text only.
By Debbie on 07 March 2011 at 18:00:
Thanks for you reply Alex! It definitely sounds like it is worth trying. If the modem works the next trick will be to plug it into my cradlepoint travel router and hopefully have us all set up on wireless! We will be staying on the beach off Old Fort near the ICC. Would you by chance know if there is some place close to that where we could pick up a sim cards? I know I will need one for my phone and a separate one for my modem.
By Alex Muller on 11 March 2011 at 14:50:
I’m afraid I don’t know anywhere round there specifically, but Vodacom have a map on their website that might help you in finding a shop. Hope that helps!
By Debbie on 19 March 2011 at 18:35:
Thanks Alex! It looks like there is a shop right down the road.
By Shake on 25 July 2011 at 02:59:
I will be going to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Sept 2011. Currently I have an iPhone 4 and I live in the USA. Naturally I have ATT as my carrier :( I would like to be able to use it in Tanzania. Here is my understanding on what I need to do. Would you be able to confirm these steps for me? Thanks in advance -
Get my current iPhone unlocked (I could jailbreak it and then unlock)
Get a SIM card once I arrive in Tanzania.
Cut my SIM to make it microSIM
Replace my original SIM with this new cut microSIM.
Once I am back in US, replace the SIM.
Is this correct?
Again, thanks a lot for your blog
By Alex Muller on 27 July 2011 at 21:03:
Hey Shake - that sounds good to me… but no guarantees of course! You may even be able to get a microSIM from the carrier in Tanzania. Enjoy your trip!
By Debbie on 30 July 2011 at 05:03:
We are back from Durban and thought I would give you the wrap up. Getting a data card from Vodacom worked in my data stick. We got in late Saturday night and went to the mall on Sunday since the local shops weren’t open. We used 2.3gb in 5 days although there were 5 of us and I had put the data stick in my router so we all had wireless. The only problem we hit was when we had it reloaded at a small Vodacom shop (near the ICC) vs one at the mall. They didn’t have the setup to add the data automatically so they used the recharge cards and added minutes. The plan was to call a # which would change the minutes to a data bundle. Unfortunately that system was down. I called quite a few times. When I got back to the hotel I went online to check the account which I had set up to keep tabs on our limits. I saw that the gigs were there so didn’t try to activate it anymore thinking it had gone through. Big mistake. We used 2.3gb (R380) in less than 24 hours. When I called they let me know I was the dummy and was using minutes…. not data since it was never converted. So it was another R120 for a cab to the mall and R380 for another 2.3gb. Yep, we spent a small fortune on internet but we were all able to stay connected with home and work! Thanks for you help :-)