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?

Luganda Language-Learning Resources

Luganda is one of the most widely-spoken languages in Uganda. There are a good number of online resources available to help a self-study language learner, or to support someone studying through a class or immersion in Uganda. Here are a few of the free online resources which I think are the most high-quality resources, to help you learn Luganda efficiently and effectively.

  • Buganda.com has some great language pages about Luganda, including a basic grammar page and quite an extensive phrasebook.
  • The University of Wisconsin Madison has a basic set of four worksheets for self-instructed Luganda learners, covering greetings and a handful of basic grammar concepts.
  • Peace Corps Uganda has published a 16-page “survival Luganda” booklet, which can be a great tool for just starting out.
  • Peace Corps Uganda also has a more complete, 158-page Luganda Self-Instructing Learner’s Manual, which is meant to take about three months to complete, and brings a learner up to an intermediate proficiency.
  • “Yiga Oluganda” is a quite extensive series of three ebooks, co-written by foreigner who learned Luganda and a Luganda native speaker, including a grammar guide, a phrasebook, and a dictionary.

If you know of any more great Luganda-learning resources, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll add them to this list!

Photo credit goes to Sara Snider for the featured image from this post.

Uganda: A Traveller’s “Must-Know” Introduction

This spring, I’ll be spending approximately a month each in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. While I used to live in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are new to me! I’m very excited about the trip, and will be channelling my excitement into some introductory blog-posts about each country. So, this post is a quick introduction to the “must-know” factoids about Uganda.

Note: This post is not a travel guide to Uganda, and doesn’t include logistical advice on travel — instead, this is a run-down of some common knowledge and household names you should really know if you’re going to spend any time in Uganda… don’t want to be the ignorant tourist!

Must-Know Basic Facts about Uganda

When travelling to Uganda, there are a few basic facts which would be quite embarrassing to be caught in ignorance of, so let’s go over those first!

  • capital and largest city: Kampala
  • president: Yoweri Museveni (who came to power in 1986, and is Uganda’s longest-ruling president)
  • currency: Ugandan shilling (UGX)
  • official languages: Swahili and English (although the most-spoken language is actually Luganda)
Here is Uganda’s flag, so you recognize it during your travels.

Uganda: An Introduction via Maps

Maps are a great way to visualize the basic information you’re expected to know about a country before you visit — major cities, borders, land features, general sense of “where exactly am I?” So, let’s check out some maps.

Uganda in East Africa

Here is Uganda in East Africa. Notice that it’s on the equator, but most of the country is to the north. While it’s landlocked from the sea, it does have quite a lot of water access from lakes.

source: Ian Macky

A Basic Map: Uganda’s Major Cities, Geographic Features, and Land Borders

Next, check out this map of Uganda with some major cities and geographic landmarks shown. Here are a few you should take specific note of:

  • Kampala = Uganda’s capital and largest city
  • Entebbe = city with Uganda’s international airport
  • Jinja and Masaka = two Ugandan cities well-known with visitors
  • Lake Victoria = Uganda’s largest lake

In addition, take note of the land borders. Uganda borders South Sudan, The DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya. Also, notice that one branch of the Nile begins in Uganda.

source: World Factbook

A Tourists’s Map: Uganda’s Roads and National Parks

Here’s a bit of a more detailed map for visitors, showing national parks and major roads (remember: major doesn’t mean paved).

Size Comparison Map: How Big is Uganda?

For any Americans reading, a size comparison can be a really helpful tool in understanding how big a country is. Here is Uganda overlaid with the eastern United States.

source: World Factbook

Famous Ugandans

Some Ugandans are household names internationally, some are not. Regardless, here are some incredibly accomplished and well-known Ugandans, who are definitely household names in Uganda.

  • Yoweri Museveni (b. 1944): Uganda’s current president (and longest-standing leader), took the presidency in 1986
  • Milton Obote (b. 1925): Uganda’s first prime minister (1962-1966) and president (1966-1971), re-claimed the presidency after Idi Amin (1980-1985)
  • Idi Amin (b. 1925, d. 2003): Ruled Uganda from 1971 to 1979, known as the “Butcher of Uganda,” was a brutal ruler and his reign saw much bloodshed
  • Rebecca Kadaga (b. 1956): lawyer and politician, Uganda’s first female Speaker of the Parliament (2011-2021), currently serves as the Deputy Prime Minister
  • Okot p’Bitek (b. 1931, d. 1982): Ugandan author and poet, famous for his parallel works “Song of Lawino” and “Song of Ocol,” known for his writing in the Acholi language
  • Monica Arac de Nyeko (b. 1979): Ugandan author, her short story “Jambula Tree” made her the first Ugandan winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing
  • Moses Isegawa (b. 1963): Ugandan author, best-known for his book, Abyssinian Chronicles
  • Loukman Ali (b. 1990): Uganda filmmaker and graphic artist, his film “The Girl in the Yellow Jumper” is the first Ugandan film on Netflix
  • Eddy Kenzo (b. 1989): Ugandan musician, winner of various international awards, well-known for his viral videos with Masaka Kids Afrikana