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Mobile phones

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By Turtle - Posted on 11 September 2008

Relatively few Tanzanians have landline phones (due to high costs), but the use of mobile (cellular) phones in Tanzania has exploded over the past few years. Advertisements and billboards for cell phone operators Celtel, Vodacom, and others cover the country, and it seems like you can buy prepaid airtime cards at virtually every shop and roadside stand.

Phone compatibility issues
If you want to use your mobile phone in Tanzania, you need to be aware of a few compatibility issues:

  • There are two main mobile phone technologies in use across the world: GSM and CDMA. CDMA is more common in North America (some exceptions are AT&T Mobile and T-Mobile in the USA, and Rogers in Canada which use GSM), and GSM is used in many other countries. Tanzania uses GSM, so you need a GSM phone.
  • Even within GSM, there are compatibility issues as different regions use different frequency bands. In North America, the main GSM frequencies are 850/1900 MHz, while in Europe it's 900/1800 MHz. Tanzania uses the 900/1800 MHz bands (same as Europe). If you're coming from North America, make sure you have a "tri-band" or "quad band" or "world band" GSM phone that supports 900 and/or 1800 MHz.
  • One of the main features of GSM is that you should be able to use the same phone with different phone numbers and service providers by swapping a tiny SIM (Subscriber Information Module) card located in the phone. However, some mobile service providers program their phones to only work with their own SIMs... these are called "locked" phones. You need an "unlocked" phone if you want to get a Tanzanian phone number (more on this below). Most phones can be unlocked by loading new firmware (try googling "phone unlocking" and your city to find out where), but this may void warranties.

Roaming vs. getting a local SIM
If you have a GSM phone that works on 900/1800 MHz, you have two options for using it in Tanzania:

  • Roaming means that you continue to use your phone number from your home country, and you're billed through your home network provider. This is the easiest but usually the most expensive option (depending on your service provider and plan, roaming charges can be astronomical, e.g. $4.99/minute for AT&T Wireless!). You can check the list of roaming partners for the Tanzanian mobile phone operators at the GSM World website. Even if your service provider has a roaming agreement, you need to make sure that roaming is allowed and enabled for your plan.
  • Your other option is to buy a Tanzanian SIM card on arrival in the country (you need an "unlocked" phone for this to work). This gives you a Tanzanian phone number you can use for the duration of your stay. The Tanzanian SIM cards are very inexpensive (about 2000 Tsh), and you can buy prepaid airtime cards in denominations of 500, 1000, 5000, 10000, 20000, 50000 Tsh almost anywhere. The airtime rates will probably be much less than your roaming charges.

Mobile phone operators in Tanzania

We've summarized the main mobile service providers in Tanzania in the table below. The airtime rate plans can be quite complex... the values below are typical for peak periods, and may be much less for calls within the same network, during off-peak hours, or with special plans (see company websites for more details). To see lists of roaming partners, as well as coverage maps, visit the GSM World website or your home provider website.

Company  Frequencies  Airtime rates
(per second) 
Zain (formerly Celtel) GSM 900/1800/400  5 Tsh local
7.7 Tsh to UK
12.83 Tsh to USA
largest coverage area
Vodacom GSM 900/1800  6 Tsh local
7 Tsh to UK
6.67 Tsh to USA
Tigo GSM 900/1800  5 Tsh local
5.17 Tsh to UK
5.17 Tsh to USA
ZANTEL GSM 900/1800  3.83 Tsh local
5.9 Tsh to UK
6 Tsh to USA
mainly Zanzibar
expanding in mainland

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