If you want to make new friends, book a camping site, or call a cab, it’s rather handy to be able to make a phone call or send a text.
When I first arrived in South Africa I thought I didn’t need phone service during my travels, but I had my iPhone along to use when I had wifi and as a camera. I had no intentions of getting phone service to use in the country, until I learned how simple it could be.
Local SIM Card
If you want to be able to make calls and text within South Africa, a local SIM card is the way to go — regardless of the type of cell phone you have. A local SIM card only cost me R20 (about $1.50) and can be bought at most shops. The man behind the counter cut the SIM card to fit my iPhone with a pair of scissors (I didn’t know SIM cards could be cut to fit a phone, but apparently that is a thing), inserted it and went through a few simple steps to set it up for me. I started off by buying R30 ($2) worth of airtime and later bought R30 more, which lasted me the rest of the trip. During my 90 day stay in South Africa I spent R60 ($4) and made as many calls and texts as I wanted. In addition, each time I reloaded the airtime I got 100MB of free data which I reserved for emergencies when I really needed to look something up and didn’t have access to wifi.
If you chose to get a local SIM card while traveling, be sure to save you original SIM card in a safe place so you can swap them back when you return home. This process can be done on your own by opening up the slot on the side of your phone (if you have an iPhone use a pin to pop it open).
The local SIM card is a great solution for calls within South Africa. If you visit neighboring countries, or want to call home, the following options come in handy.
Using your phone to connect to the Internet while on wifi is an option in some places, however expect wifi to be unpredictable in South Africa. While it is common for places to advertise that they have wifi it is not always free and is usually limited. Most coffee shops or restaurants that have wifi will limit your time or the amount of data you can use. Because of the limited data making a video or audio call may be out of the question, but messaging using an app or iMessaging is usually a safe bet for communicating internationally and keeping data use low.
Skype and Facetime
Skype, Facetime and other calling apps are a great asset for international calls, however finding wifi strong enough to make a call can be challenge. Even more challenging is finding good wifi in a place quite enough to hear the other person through the inconsistent connection — especially when you also have time zone challenges to take into consideration. However, if you do get the connection aspect in order, Skype is a great — and also cheap — tool to keep available. For Apple users FaceTime serves the same purpose as Skype but is free.
The texting application WhatsApp is the most widely used way of texting in South Africa, so downloading the app before your travels is a great idea. Using the app makes it easy to stay in touch with locals and other travelers you meet along the way. Of course, data or Internet is necessary to use the app so depending on your plan it could be more or less useful to you.
Tip: If you are traveling for between 1 to 3 months, most cell phone providers will put your service on hold and charge you less per month while you are away.