A Traveller’s Guide to Ugandan MTN SIM Cards

As a traveller to Uganda, you don’t need an international plan or a roaming plan. If you want a phone and internet connection during your visit to Uganda, just get a local SIM card! It’s cheap, convenient, and a great way to understand how things work in the country you’re visiting, Uganda!

There are five mobile phone operators in Uganda, the biggest of which are MTN (the yellow and blue one) and Airtel (the red and white one). As a traveller, I generally tend to opt for the most convenient option, which means the biggest option (when considering which SIM card to buy). This post is going to talk about MTN SIM cards, not because I’ve purposefully selected them as the superior carrier, but simply because they’re the biggest (and therefore the most common). If you want to opt for an Airtel (or other) SIM card in Uganda, it’s going to be mostly the same, although the exact prices and USSD codes (see last section) will be a bit different.

Buying a MTN SIM Card in Uganda

An MTN SIM card costs 2,000 UGX (Ugandan shillings) at the MTN store (meaning a designated MTN sales outlet, not a random shop with an MTN sign above it), although I’ve heard they cost a bit more at the airport. You’ll need your passport (with visa page) to register, as they’ll make your SIM card valid for the term of your visa (meaning that it will expire once you leave the country). You can register one SIM card per person, and can’t get a SIM card without registration. Assuming the system is up and working, and the line isn’t too long, getting a SIM card is a relatively quick process.

Pre-Paying Credit for Ugandan MTN SIM Cards

Phone credit in Uganda is prepaid, meaning you pay in advance for as much as you’ll use. As a traveller, this is great news — you don’t have to subscribe to anything, don’t have to worry about monthly plans, and can pay for exactly how much you want (and nothing extra). Here’s how it works:

When you buy your SIM card, as them to also load credit (also known as “airtime”). How much credit depends on how much you’ll be planning on using your phone. As prices will likely change, I won’t list prices here, but instead recommend the following strategy: decide how much you want to buy initially in terms of calling, texting, and data usage. Then, just ask how much “an hour of calls and four GB of data” would cost, or “200 SMS and one GB of data,” for example. The MTN staff will be able to tell you how many Ugandan shillings that costs, and help you load the credit.

A quick note, however: staff can be quick to assume that foreigners need huge amounts of data, and want the most expensive plans. If you’re a budget traveller, or simply don’t want full-full mobile usage, be clear that you don’t want unlimited, and don’t accept it if you’re told the smallest packages are bigger than you want. There are no minimum purchases, and there’s really no need to buy a bigger package than you need. You don’t even need a package at all — for example, you can make a call without buying a “call” package. If you’re going to be making many calls, the “call” package will get you discounts. But, if you only want to make a single, quick call, you don’t need to buy a “100 minute” package or anything. Just make the call.

If you need to buy more credit, you can buy it from any little stand or shop with an MTN or “airtime” sign you see. They’ll either sell you a card or send it directly to your phone (you’ll have to give them your phone number). If they send it directly, you’ll get a notification when the transaction goes through.

Using USSD Codes on Ugandan MTN SIM Cards

Now, here’s the magic part that can be a bit disorienting for travellers. Ugandan SIM cards use USSD codes, which are very common across Africa and almost unheard of in Europe and North America. USSD codes are different codes, which you type directly into your phone (as though you are making a call) that serve different functions. They don’t use data, just cell service (so as long as you have service, you can use them, even if there’s no data network). The USSD codes available in Uganda as extensive, but here’s a rundown of the MTN USSD codes which are most useful as a traveller in Uganda.

For each USSD code, you type it in exactly as written (with the asterisks and pounds), and then hit “call.” It will probably say “USSD loading” before the actual thing you want pops up.

  • *150# is for purchasing bundles using Airtime. So, you would load the airtime (either at the MTN store or at a smaller shop), and then type *150# to see your bundle options. The menu should be in English, and is quite intuitive.
  • *131# is to see your balance (how much airtime and how much of a bundle you have left).
  • *135*8# is to see your own phone number. Sure, if you’re staying in the country for a long time, you’ll learn it, but most travellers don’t. If you need to tell someone your number, just type this in, hit “call,” and then show them the screen.

Before Leaving the MTN Store in Uganda

Okay, so now you’ve got your SIM card, and you’re loaded up with credit. You’re about to leave the store — but before you go, here’s a final checklist of things to be sure of before you walk away from the desk.

  • Make sure the SIM card works for whatever purposes you want it for. If you want it for the internet, load something. If you want to make a call and/or send a text within Uganda, test it. If you want to call/text internationally, test that specifically. Everything is easy to solve when you’re still standing at the service desk.
  • Make sure you have however much credit/airtime you want/need. If you want a package, make sure you know how to do that or already have it done (with the assistance of the MTN staff).
  • Make sure you know the USSD codes for the basic things you’ll need during your visit to Uganda. I recommend at least the above codes for loading airtime, checking balance, and seeing your own number, but if there’s something else you want to do, ask!

And that’s it! You’re now the new owner of a Ugandan MTN SIM card. But remember, put the phone down and just be sometimes, okay?

Tips for Riding Bodaboda (Motorcycle Taxis) in East Africa

It’s the easiest, cheapest way to get around most cities in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, but it can be nerve-wracking if you’ve never ridden on a motorcycle before. Here’s a quick guide on how to use the bodaboda (people will often just say “boda”) system in East Africa, so that you can zip around town in style.

Figure out the price before you go get a boda.

If you’re staying in a hotel, ask the desk what a boda should cost for where you’re going. If they recommend a taxi, be polite but insistent, and ask what transport they use (it’ll likely be a boda). Ask how much they pay for the boda trip you want. If you’re not in a hotel, find someone on the street and ask them how much they’d pay for a boda to your destination. In some cities (especially small cities), the boda prices are effectively fixed within town, unless you’re going on an extra-long journey. In Bagamoyo, Tanzania, every boda ride (regardless of destination) was 1,000 shillings (about 50 US cents).

Confirm your price with the driver, and be clear whether it’s per-person or per-bike.

Confirm the price you researched earlier with the driver before you get on the bike. If you’re confident in what you were told, then be confident as you say it. One common confusion I’ve seen is drivers wanting to charge per passenger, while passengers thought they had agreed on the price per bike (which can double or triple the price, if you’ve got 2-3 passengers). So, be clear about that before you depart.

Get on (and consider riding sidesaddle — it’s not so difficult).

If you’re comfortable straddling a stranger, it’s no problem (this is a motorcycle taxi, after all). However, if that strikes you as a bit up close and personal, consider riding sidesaddle. It’s really not as hard as it seems, and it can help if you’re carrying a large bag (as putting the bag in your lap can be more comfortable (I find) for a long trip than having it on your back). Plus, I think it’s always a better view to be facing sideways. Give yourself a few moments to get situated sidesaddle, and don’t be embarrassed if you need to adjust during the ride. You’ll get used to it!

Ask the driver to go slowly (here’s how to do that in Swahili).

Be honest with yourself and the driver — if you’re new to bodas, and are a little bit nervous, it’s totally okay to share that, and ask for a slow ride. “Polepole, tafadhali,” means “slowly, please.” I usually like to follow it with a “naogopa” (I’m scared) to make it clear that I’m just new to this (and not that I think he’s a bad driver). 99% of drivers will be super respectful of that request, and it can turn a stressful ride into a relaxing ride, so don’t hesitate to ask!

Enjoy the ride!

Once you’ve started using bodas, you’ll wonder how you ever survived without them.