One of the best things about going on vacation in Africa is leaving all the hubbub of your daily work and life behind, and truly immersing yourself in a different environment. A safari, trek or beach holiday is all about tuning out. The vibrations you sense should come from the rumbling stomach of an elephant, not the phone in your back pocket. But being far from home can also be scary, for yourself and those you leave behind.
A working cell phone can be a "nice to have", even if you only use it once to say "we've arrived safely, everything is great!"
One of the first things you'll notice is that nearly everyone has a cell phone in Africa. The industry has revolutionized communications on the continent, and in some key areas, Africa is forging ahead with ingenious uses of cell phone technology. In Ghana, people can actually be buried in a cell phone coffin. Exciting as this all is, it does not necessarily mean that your fancy iPhone will be of any use to you while on safari. Your San Bushman tracker can call home to ask if his dinner is almost ready, but you are likely to be stuck with no signal at all.
Will My Cell Phone Work in Africa?
The best way to make sure you can be reached while on vacation in Africa is to check in with your cell phone provider. Most larger companies like AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon have special international plans.
Questions to ask about an International Phone Plan
Sign up for a plan in advance to make sure you don't end up paying an arm and a leg for a basic call or text. Specify the countries you are traveling to.
Ask for details on rates and find out if it will cost extra for your friends and family to call you too. Ask how much they charge for basic roaming fees. Find out if it is cheaper to text than to call, this is often the case (especially when using local sim cards - see below).
If you are volunteering in Africa, backpacking or spending more than a month in the same country/region it is worth looking into renting a local phone. A pre-paid phone card is also a good option. The best option is to buy a local sim card, but you will need an unlocked phone and a GSM compatible phone for this, so make sure you have one before you go. Ask any co-worker or hotel employee about the best sim card to get, it's a huge market in any African country, and there are excellent deals to be had. It's not unheard of for people to own several phones just to use different sim cards for different calls and networks.
Cell phone networks are more widespread and reliable than electricity, so a 3G connection works better than Wi-Fi in many African countries (especially when you are in remote safari camps). Most hotels in cities and towns have the internet and even Wi-Fi available for guest use but don't expect it to always work.
Sometimes you may be pleasantly surprised, the fastest connection I've ever had was in a fairly remote camp in the Ngorongoro Conservation area. The local Maasai were checking on the latest soccer scores from the UK while I was happily uploading some of my lion snapshots. But a speedy internet connection is not the norm, so if you are on a two-week safari, save yourself the frustration and upload your photos or update Facebook once you get back home.
It's also been my experience that the more expensive the hotel, the more they charge for Wi-Fi or use of an internet connection in their business center. Check out some of the budget hotels for better rates and often a better connection. Many hotels and camps will sell you a pre-paid Wi-Fi or internet voucher, so you can use your own computer or tablet to get online.
It is generally cheaper to use an internet cafe if you are in a town (they are everywhere).
Don't forget to get an internet based e-mail account before you go, so you can easily receive and send e-mail from an internet connection anywhere in Africa.
The Joy of Skype
Using Skype is a cheap and easy way to stay in touch with friends and family but you do need an internet or 3G connection. You can use Skype to call someone's cell phone or land line, which is very useful because you don't have to wait for your receiving party to get online. The reception is very clear and it's certainly cheaper than any international phone plan out there.
Can't Get Anything to Work?
If you're not able to connect to the internet using your own device and really need to send some e-mail, go to an internet cafe, which are common in most towns. Or ask the front desk of your hotel, they won't mind you using their connection for a quick e-mail.
Cell phones are very widely used throughout Africa and are much more reliable than landlines in general. Every safari camp no matter how remote will have a cell phone connection for emergencies, so don't panic if you cannot get your phone to work. You will always be able to borrow one at some point and find a way to get a message back home.
Before you go, don't forget to switch off roaming on your devices. Bring your chargers and the right adapters with you so you can recharge your cell phone and/or tablets. Don't bring your phone with you on any activities or safari drives. It's unlikely to work and it is very disturbing to others.