Buying a Prepaid SIM Card in Malawi Guide

Logos of Telecom Providers in Malawi: Airtel & TNM

Malawi is a landlocked country in southeast Africa. The country does, however, have Lake Malawi, Lake Malombe, and Lake Chilwa.

Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, has the Lilongwe Wildfire Center and the parliament. Lake Malawi is a nature reserve. Liwonde has the Liwonde National Park. Blantyre has the Museum of Malawi and various parks. Malawi is an exciting destination.

What is not exciting is dealing with an expensive roaming bill you get from roaming with your provider in Malawi. Roaming can be expensive in many cases, which is why many travelers prefer to buy local SIM cards, including Malawian ones.

In this article, I will go over everything you need to know about buying a SIM card in Malawi. Let's go.

Telecom Providers in Malawi

Malawi has 5 telecom providers: Airtel Malawi, TNM, G-Mobile, Lacell, and G-Expresso. Only Airtel and TNM offer 2G, 3G, and 4G/LTE services, while G-Mobile, Lacell, and G-Expresso only have 2G services (for calling and SMS only), which is why they will not be discussed in this article.

What SIM card should you buy when visiting Malawi? If you want to buy a SIM card in Malawi, I would recommend going with Airtel. Their coverage is a bit better than the one of TNM while also offering lower prices.

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Coverage with both Airtel Malawi and TNM is decent but unreliable. Both operators have implemented strategies to improve their services, so things are becoming better by the day.

Like many countries in (South)East Africa, and in Africa in general, you have to show your passport when buying a Malawian SIM card.

Although data prices are low or average if compared to other places around the world, Malawian data prices are average to high for African standards, especially for the local population. Depending on the package they choose, the locals can spend up to 50% of their monthly salary on mobile services alone, which is unsustainable. As a result, the telecommunication penetration rate is still less than 30%.

Those who do use mobile phones and data often have a SIM card from both Airtel Malawi and TNM because the operators charge high off-net fees, which are the fees you pay for calling or texting a TNM number while being an Airtel Malawi customer or vice versa.

With that being said, let’s see what Airtel Malawi and TNM have to offer to us.

Tip: Looking for cheap flights? Book with AirWander and add stopovers! Not in a hurry yet? Set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog and get notified when ticket prices for your preferred route(s) drop!

Airtel Malawi

Airtel Logo

Airtel Malawi, just Airtel, is the largest operator in Malawi with a market share of more than 50%. Their coverage is decent but unreliable and spotty in many places.

You can buy an Airtel SIM card in Airtel stores and on the streets for 500 MWK ($0.70). However, as you need to register yourself when purchasing a Malawian SIM card, you would be better off buying your SIM card at Airtel stores. Top-up vouchers are sold from 50 MWK to 5000 MWK. Dial *304# to check your data balance.

Airtel has many data packs, which they refer to as PaNet Volume Bundles. They are grouped into daily, weekly, and monthly bundles.

The following Airtel PaNet Volume Daily bundles are available:

  • 100 MWK: 15 MB. Activation: dial *301*100#
  • 150 MWK: 30 MB. Activation: dial *301*101#
  • 500 MWK: 175 MB. Activation: dial *301*128#

These Airtel PaNet Volume Weekly bundles can be bought:

  • 300 MWK: 50 MB. Activation: dial *301*110#
  • 600 MWK: 150 MB. Activation: dial *301*130#
  • 1000 MWK: 300 MB. Activation: dial *301*131#
  • 1800 MWK: 1 GB. Activation: dial *301*111#

Finally, you can get one of these Airtel PaNet Volume Monthly bundles:

  • 3500 MWK: 1.2 GB. Activation: dial *301*120#
  • 5000 MWK: 2 GB. Activation: dial *301*121#
  • 7000 MWK: 3.5 GB. Activation: dial *301*132#
  • 10 500 MWK: 6 GB. Activation: dial *301*123#
  • 15 500 MWK: 10 GB. Activation: dial *301*124#
  • 19 000 MWK: 15 GB. Activation: dial *301*125#
  • 40 000 MWK: 40 GB. Activation: dial *301*126#

Only interested in staying connected with your friends and family through messaging apps? You can get an Airtel PaNet Social Combo Bundles, which give you data for WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook:

  • 150 MWK: 50 MB for 1 day
  • 350 MWK: 350 MB for 7 days
  • 1200 MWK: 1 GB for 30 days

Just need data for individual messaging apps? Then these Airtel PaNet Social Bundles may be interesting.

Here are the 4 Airtel PaNet WhatsApp Social Bundles:

  • 1200 MWK: 20 MB for 1 day
  • 1200 MWK: 90 MB for 7 days
  • 1200 MWK: 400 MB for 30 days
  • 1200 MWK: 800 MB for 30 days

You can get these Airtel PaNet Facebook Social Bundles:

  • 110 MWK: 30 MB for 1 day
  • 230 MWK: 90 MB for 7 days
  • 1200 MWK: 800 MB for 30 days

Twitter users can get these Airtel PaNet Twitter Social Bundles:

  • 100 MWK: 30 MB for 1 day
  • 1250 MWK: 90 MB for 7 days
  • 1250 MWK: 800 MB for 30 days

Night owls can take advantage of PaNet Night Chilaz, although it is unclear from when to when you can use these bundles:

  • 120 MWK: 75 MB for 1 night
  • 250 MWK: 200 MB for 7 nights
  • 1100 MWK: 1 GB for 30 nights

TNM

TNM Logo

TNM, standing for Telekom Networks Malawi, was the first operator to offer 3G services in Malawi. Their coverage is as extensive and unreliable as Airtel, but they are more expensive than Airtel.

You can buy a TNM SIM card for 500 MWK in TNM stores and on the streets. Like with Airtel, I would recommend buying your SIM card at a TNM store because of the registration requirement. The TNM starter pack comes with 5 MB, 5 minutes, and 5 SMS.

TNM top-up vouchers are sold in many stores across the country. To top up your phone, you have to dial *111*VoucherCode#. For example, if your voucher code is 123456, you would dial *111*123456#. To check your TNM balance, dial #123#.

TNM has several Smart Surf bundles, which are their data packs. They have daily, weekly (and one for 15 days), and monthly bundles.

The following TNM daily bundles are available:

  • 100 MWK: 15 MB. Activation: dial *200*7#
  • 150 MWK: 30 MB. Activation: dial *200*9#
  • 1000 MWK: 1 GB. Activation: dial *200*5#

You can also get one of these TNM weekly bundles:

  • 680 MWK: 100 MB (for 15 days). Activation: dial *200*10#
  • 1200 MWK: 140 MB. Activation: dial *200*44#
  • 2500 MWK: 1 GB. Activation: dial *200*55#

Staying (almost) a month in Malawi or just want a lot of data? Then these monthly TNM plans will be interesting:

  • 3000 MWK: 600 MB. Activation: dial *200*444# 
  • 4800 MWK: 1 GB. Activation: dial *200*12#
  • 7000 MWK: 2 GB. Activation: dial *200*13#
  • 10 500 MWK: 4 GB. Activation: dial *200*14#
  • 23 000 MWK: 10 GB. Activation: dial *200*16#
  • 40 000 MWK: 20 GB. Activation: dial *200*17#

You can also get TNM social media bundles for Facebook or WhatsApp:

  • 70 MWK: 30 MB for WhatsApp for 1 day. Activation: dial *200*3#
  • 110 MWK: 50 MB for Facebook for 1 day. Activation: dial *200*2#
  • 230 MWK: 120 MB for Facebook for 7 days. Activation: dial *200*22#
  • 230 MWK: 120 MB for WhatsApp for 7 days. Activation: dial *200*33#
  • 560 MWK: 500 MB for WhatsApp for 30 days. Activation: dial *200*333#
  • 1200 MWK 1 GB for Facebook for 20 days. Activation: dial *200*222#
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Other Ways to Stay Connected When Traveling in Malawi

So far, you have been informed about the SIM card options in Malawi. However, that is not the only way to be online in Malawi. I have already briefly mentioned that you can roam with your provider, although it can be expensive in most cases. Besides that, you can use free WIFI connections, mobile hotspots, or international SIM cards.

Roaming in Malawi with Your Provider

Roaming is a term used in wireless telecommunication that indicates a mobile device is outside the range of its home network and has connected to a different, available cell network. Let’s say your provider is Sure Saint Helena, then you would be roaming with Sure Saint Helena in Malawi.

You may have read horror stories of people coming back from a lovely holiday, only to be confronted with a roaming bill in the thousands. This can still be the case if you do not review your roaming options before going on a holiday. Luckily for you, I have written about the roaming options you have with various providers around the world, which you can read here.

Some operators offer roaming plans. Others allow you to roam for free in Malawi, while several operators let you use your plan’s allowance for a daily fee. As you can see, roaming does not have to be a horrific experience. If your provider is generous and lets you roam for free in Malawi, then you do not even need a local SIM card (although I would still recommend doing so, as your connection speed will be much slower as a roamer than someone who is a customer of the network).

No idea how roaming works? I made this comprehensive guide about what roaming is and how it works. It is worth the read – promised!

Pay As You Go roaming should be avoided, as that is how travelers get high roaming bills. One provider charges you about 1000 USD per GB in certain destinations, which is insane. If you really want to roam, check whether your provider has attractive roaming plans. Else, you will be better off with buying a local SIM card.

Using Free WIFI connections in Malawi

This does not require a lot of explanation, but using free WIFI connections is the cheapest way to connect to the internet because you do not have to pay anything. Nothing beats free stuff, right? Well, not so fast.

First, you need to find hotspots in Malawi. In some countries of cities, you will find so many hotspots that you can try them out one by one and find the one with the fastest speeds. In other places, however, WIFI connections do not seem to exist.

In the case of Malawi, you will not find many hotspots.

Additionally, public WIFI hotspots are unsecure. They are a prime target for hackers to steal your data and use it for illicit purposes. That is I use, and would recommend you to start using, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) if you connect to a public hotspot. What a VPN does is creating an encrypted tunnel between your device and the hotspot so that your data will stay private. I use NordVPN, and you can get up to 70% off when you get a NordVPN subscription. Get your subscription now or learn more about NordVPN.

Using a Pocket WIFI (Mobile Hotspot) in Malawi

Pocket WIFI is a portable, battery-powered wireless router that allows you to connect your phone, laptop, or tablet without needing multiple SIM cards for those devices to be connected to the internet. They are compact and lightweight so that you take them along with you whenever you need internet access on the go.

Many companies have created mobile hotspots (just have a quick search on Amazon, for example, you will find many). Skyroam, Vision Global Wireless, and Travelwifi are reputable pocket WIFI providers I know. You can get a discount if you rent a router through Skyroam by using coupon code PHONETRAVELWIZ. Cellular access with Skyroam starts at $8 a day while using a Vision Global device starts at $2 a day. Travelwifi offers Teppy, the name of the pocket WIFI, starting from $7 per day. All these services cover more than 130 destinations around the world.

Vision Global Wireless Banner

I often recommend mobile hotspots to those who are traveling in groups or with families. They can save groups a lot of money if they are visiting destinations where buying multiple SIM cards would become an expensive endeavor.

I recently wrote an article analyzing the 7 Best Mobile Hotspots for Travelers like yourself, which should be an interesting read if pocket WIFI is something you are considering. I do reviews of individual devices every now and then, so check out my mobile hotspot category to stay up to date.

Getting an International SIM card for Traveling in Malawi

International SIM cards are, as the name implies, SIM cards for international use. Well, that does not explain anything. Although most providers allow you to use your card abroad, some actually restrict this possibility. An international SIM card lets you go abroad without having to change SIM cards when visiting multiple destinations. They have been made with the traveler in mind.

All of this sounds lovely, but international SIM cards are much more expensive than local SIM cards in Malawi. Not only that, some offer poor service as well for high rates. Some reputable companies I know are OneSimCard, SimOptions, Surfroam, BNESIM, and SimCorner.

OneSimCard Banner

International SIM cards are appealing to those who travel frequently or are visiting multiple destinations in one trip. Many countries in Africa require you to register before you can use a SIM card, which can be a hassle for some. Additionally, the language barrier may be off-putting to some travelers, which is why an international SIM card can be handy. You order it before you depart and can use it in various destinations.

My recommendation, however, is to get a local SIM card if you are only visiting one destination. If you are visiting multiple ones, an international SIM card could be handy. If you want to learn more about international SIM cards, check out my international SIM card comparison article, where I analyze 10 international SIM card providers so that you do not have to.

The Best Way to Stay Connected When Traveling in Malawi

Getting a SIM card from Airtel would do you well when considering a Malawian SIM card. Be sure to explore the roaming options your provider offers you, as they may offer free or cheap roaming bundles.

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You could also consider getting an international SIM card or using a portable hotspot. International SIM cards like OneSimCard, SimOptions, Surfroam, BNESIM, and SimCorner are attractive for those visiting multiple destinations at once or within a year. Portable hotspots like Skyroam, Vision Global Wireless, and Travelwifi will be useful when traveling with multiple people so that not each individual has to get a SIM card but can use the hotspot.

Going to other countries in East Africa and Southeast Africa? Check out my East Africa SIM card buying guide, covering other East African nations, such as Botswana, Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, Eswatini (Swaziland) Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mayotte, Mozambique, Réunion, Rwanda, Seychelles, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

What about other places in Africa? My Africa SIM card buying guide covers all African destinations, such as Algeria, Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Egypt, Ghana, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan, and Tunisia.

Going to other places around the world? Then you should also check out my sim card buying guides for other destinations around the world.

What is next?

Looking for the best companies and gadgets to enhance your travel experience? Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel! Save money on plane tickets, bus rides, cruises, and accommodation. Besides that, I also list services and items I use to make my life easier – and I believe they will help you too!

Book Your Flight for Malawi

It is time to book your flight. Find cheap flights with AirWander so that you can add free or cheap stopovers in destinations you have not considered yet before going to Malawi. If you are not ready to take off yet, set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog, and they will notify you once ticket prices to Malawi drop.

Book Your Accommodation for Malawi

I am a huge fan of Airbnb because it allows me to live with a local or get a local place for myself. Staying in someone’s house or apartment feels much different than being in a ho(s)tel, especially in Malawi. At least, that is how I see it. Moreover, Airbnb can often be much cheaper than staying in a Malawian hotel.

Get Your Travel Insurance for Malawi

You will regret not having travel insurance once you actually need it and “forgot” to get it. Nowadays, travel insurance is cheap and comprehensive unlike back in the days. World Nomads is by far the best travel insurance for adventurous travelers like yourself. You can even get insured WHILE already traveling in Malawi, which is not something many insurance companies allow you to do.

Get a Travel Debit Card

Travel Cheques are outdated. Paying with your credit card or debit card can be expensive because of all the exchange commissions banks charge you. TransferWise allows you to convert your main currency to the local currency for a small fee (up to 8 times less than with your bank!) Getting a Transferwise Borderless account is FREE, so you will get an instant return on your investment.

Transferwise Banner

Enjoy your trip!

Ernest Adu

Ernest Adu, going by just Adu, is the founder and editor at Phone Travel Wiz. He has been a traveler for 6 years. Although from Europe, the Netherlands, Adu's favorite region in Asia, in particular, East and Southeast Asia. He currently lives in Tainan, Taiwan, and plans on exploring Oceania and more of East and Southeast Asia.

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