Devils Pool, Zambia

Buying a SIM Card or eSIM in Zambia

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Zambia is mostly known for hosting one side of the majestic Victoria Falls, along with its awe (or terror)-inspiring Devil’s Pool. It has also turned itself into a champion of democracy, and is one of the safest countries in Africa.

It’s not just the stable government that attracts visitors, though. People from neighboring countries come to shop in the new Western-style shopping plazas in Lusaka, while more tourists are arriving to take advantage of the relatively-untapped safari options.

While they’re there, of course, everyone wants to stay connected. Luckily, there are plenty of options for doing so. Physical SIM cards are the best option in terms of price and data allowance, with travel eSIMs also available if you need service immediately.

Companies

  • I recommend Airtel or MTN for most travelers who want a physical SIM
  • An eSIM from Nomad is a convenient but pricier option if you only need data

You’ve got four choices when it comes to cellular connectivity in Zambia: Airtel, MTN, Vodafone, and Zamtel.

Airtel and MTN have the greatest coverage, while Vodafone operates solely on 4G/LTE frequencies. Zamtel is the smallest, and being owned by the government, the most bureaucratic in terms of getting set up.

Since I was traveling as part of an overlanding tour, I couldn’t pick and choose the carrier, but instead had to settle for what was available at the shopping mall we stopped at in Lusaka. It was MTN, boasting “Zambia’s widest and fastest 4G internet.”

For those flying into the country, I was told there was also an MTN store at Lusaka’s international airport.

Outside view of an MTN store in Lusaka, with staff members visible through the windows behind a counter at the rear.
MTN store in Lusaka

How to Buy a Prepaid SIM Card in Zambia

At the official MTN store I was asked for my passport, and while one of the staff members copied down all my info onto a registration form, another one walked me through the available options.

The whole process took about ten minutes and I was able to use my credit card to pay for both SIM card and airtime credits. Nice and simple.

Prepaid SIM and eSIM Costs

MTN

The 4G SIM card itself was 5 kwacha (about $0.20) and I purchased 100 kwacha (~4) worth of credit vouchers to cover the cost of data bundle I wanted to use. I had to manually add the vouchers to my account once the SIM card got activated (more on that soon).

There were quite a few different options for data plans listed on a full-page matrix. They change regularly (and have done since I bought mine), but some of the more interesting ones as I write this are:

Plan Type

Data Amount

Price (ZMW)

Weekly

1.5 GB

25

Weekly

5 GB

75

Monthly

5.5 GB

100

Monthly

8.5 GB

150

Monthly

51 GB

500

All of the plans include a certain number of domestic text and calling minutes as well: the number increases with the price of the pack. There’s also a separate data allowance for Netflix, if you’re somewhere the connection is fast enough to use it.

The minor (later turned major) annoyance was that the SIM card wasn’t activated right away. The store rep advised to wait a couple of hours. She also stated that turning phone service on while the activation was happening could interfere with the process.

Whether it was that or just a slow process on the weekend, my SIM card didn’t actually get activated until noon the next day (I purchased it just before 5pm). Once activated, you’ll receive a text message stating so. Until then, you can’t top up your balance or make any calls, but that wasn’t made very clear by MTN.

When I tried entering my credit voucher code a few hours later, it didn’t work, and I received a message stating that my SIM card was locked and asking me to call their call center. When I tried doing so, however, the call disconnected automatically.

Long story short? Just wait until you get the activation confirmation message.

Nomad

Unless your phone doesn’t accept physical SIM cards or you want to be connected immediately and don’t mind paying extra for it, it’s generally not worth buying a travel eSIM for Zambia.

That said, if you’re only in the country for a day or two and don’t want to waste time tracking down a phone store, or you know it’ll be ages until you can get to one and need a connection before that, grabbing a small data pack to tide you over can still make sense.

Nomad has the widest range of options, while aloSIM and Airalo are cheaper. They’re all pretty expensive compared to what you get with a local MTN SIM card, though: you can find the current pricing below, which was last updated on 20 May 2024.

Validity Period

  • 7 days

Data Amount

  • 1 GB

Price (USD)

  • $9.50

Validity Period

  • 7 days

Data Amount

  • 1 GB

Price (USD)

  • $9.50

Validity Period

  • 7 days

  • 30 days

  • 30 days

  • 30 days

Data Amount

  • 1 GB

  • 3 GB

  • 5 GB

  • 10 GB

Price (USD)

  • $11

  • $20

  • $28

  • $45

Topping Up

MTN

Scratch cards with pin numbers are the standard way of topping up, and you can purchase them practically anywhere displaying the logo of your cell network carrier.

Whether it’s an initial load or a top-up later, dial *113*voucher code# and you should get a text message confirming the load. Balance check is *114#.

Once you have credit on your account, dial *335# for the menu of various bundle options, and follow the prompts. You should receive a text message confirming your purchase.

Helpfully, MTN will also send you text messages when you use 70%, 80%, and 90% of your data allowance.

Nomad

Topping up with Nomad (or any of the other travel eSIM companies) is done by logging into the website or app. You just select your Zambia eSIM, hit the top-up button, and buy the same package again.

The top-up packs have exactly the same pricing and duration as the original eSIMs: there’s little difference between topping up your current eSIM and buying a new one, other than not having to activate it.

Entrance sign for Croc Valley Camp in Zambia, with a sculpture of a giraffe alongside and a small building behind.

Coverage and Data Speeds

Since my SIM card took almost a day to activate, I couldn’t use it before leaving Lusaka. From there we drove along the southern border to Petauke, and then onto South Luangwa National Park via Chipata. There wasn’t much coverage along the road in these rural areas.

LTE in Chipata clocked in at 9Mbps down and 20Mbps up during the day, while surprisingly there was decent 3G coverage at the Croc River Lodge in the park. At 8Mbps down/1.5Mbps up, it was much faster than the camp Wi-Fi.

If you did decide to go with an eSIM from Nomad, the one upside of the higher prices is that it can use both the MTN and Airtel networks. This means a greater chance of having service when you want it, especially in rural areas.

Zambia speed tests, showing three different sets of speeds (in Mbps): 8.54 and 1.58, 9.16 and 20.86, and 0.96 and 0.06
MTN LTE speeds in Zambia

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