The United Arab Emirates, in particular, Dubai and Adu Dhabi, have become popular stopover destinations over the years because of Emirates and Etihad. Dubai is known for its luxury buildings, such as its lavish malls and Burj Khalifa, while Sharjah is referred to as the cultural center of the United Arab Emirates. In short, there is a lot to see in the United Arab Emirates.
Roaming with your provider can be expensive in many cases, which is why many travelers exploring the Middle East want to buy local SIM cards. The same applies to the United Arab Emirates. In this article, I will go over everything you need to know about buying a SIM card in the United Arab Emirates. Let's do this.
Telecom Providers in the United Arab Emirates
The United Arab Emirates has two telecom providers: Etisalat UAE and Du. The country also has a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) called Virgin Mobile UAE Lastly, Etisalat UAE also has a sub-brand called Swyp, which is for the youth only (15-29-year-olds).
In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), both providers are mainly state-owned. The government has a 40% share in both operators, which makes Etisalat UAE, just Etisalat, and Du a Duopoly. As a result, there is no real competition between the two companies.
What SIM card should you buy when visiting the United Arab Emirates? If you want to buy a SIM card in the United Arab Emirates, I would recommend going with either Etisalat or Du. Although Etisalat has more customers, coverage, and speed between both operators are almost the same. Although Du focuses more on migrant workers, prepaid customers, and tourists, Etisalat has opened many stores in tourist areas to get more tourists to join them. Either way, any choice would do you well.
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I would recommend buying your SIM card at Abu Dhabi International Airport or Dubai International Airport. Unlike most countries in the world, the UAE does not charge you a premium for buying SIM cards at the airport, which is neat. You need to show your passport with the visa stamp to the salesperson, just like many countries in the Middle East require you to do so.
If you plan on buying a SIM card in town, you can do so by going to an Etisalat or Du stores. Although some unofficial vendors may try to sell you SIM cards at a discount, I would not recommend buying them because those cards are not registered to your name, meaning that they can be shut down at any time.
As of 2018, a 5% VAT has to be applied to all products and services in the UAE. Etisalat has not included this tax in their prices yet, while Du has. Just be aware of this tax.
Internet in the UAE is subject to censorship. Various websites have been blocked, such as Israeli websites (.il domains), sites not in favor of the morals of the UAE, and anything that tries to compete with the Duopoly, such as VoIP services (like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Skype calls).
Although the operators have slowly allowed VoIP calls over the years, they can still be blocked at any time or throttled. Some apps allow you to make VoIP calls, such as Botim, C’Me, and HiU (Etisalat only). I have not used those apps, so I cannot comment on how reliable they are.
With all of this, I would recommend using a VPN to browse the web in peace. I use NordVPN because I get high speeds with their servers. They have around 5500 servers in 59 countries. They have servers in the United Arab Emirates, which surprises me because the authorities do not like VPNs. If you do not trust those servers, then you can connect to Indian, Israeli, or Indian servers (there are many more, but these are the closest to the UAE). You can get up to 70% off your NordVPN subscription if you get yours today!
With that out of the way, let’s see what the Duopoly has 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!
Video Guide for Buying a SIM Card in the United Arab Emirates
Etisalat is an Emirati company that is a big plater in the Middle East and Africa. With more than 13 million customers, it is the largest provider in the UAE. Some claim they have the best coverage in the UAE, while others say it is on par with Du. Either way, their 4G/LTE network covers more than 90% of the population.
Etisalat’s tourist SIM card is called Visitor Line and is sold for 100 AED ($27.20) + tax (applies to all Etisalat prices). The SIM card is valid for 90 days. Depending on where you buy your SIM card, you may be given the Visitor Line card instead of the regular SIM card called Wasel.
Most salespeople will give you the Visitor Line instead of Wasel if you are on a 90-day visitor visa. If you would rather want the Wasel, buy your SIM card at the mall where the probability is high that it is out of stock. You can also migrate from the Visitor Line to Wasel by visiting a proper Etisalat store.
The following combo packs can be added to the Visitor Line, all for 100 AED and active for 14 days:
- 40 domestic and international minutes and SMS, 700 MB, and 5 hours on Etisalat WIFi
- 40 domestic and international minutes, 60 local and international SMS, and 5 hours on Etisalat WiFi
- 1 GB and 5 hours on Etisalat WiFi.
If your pack has expired, you can add a new one for 75 AED. You cannot, however, add a Wasel data back to your Visitor line.
Etisalat prepaid brand is called Wasel and can be bought for 55 AED ($15), which makes it an expensive SIM card compared to other countries in the Middle East. Upon purchase, you get 1 AED credit to be used within a day. Top-up vouchers are sold from 25 AED to 500 AED.
Several data packages can be added, which are listed below:
- 5 AED: 100 MB for 1 day
- 10 AED: 250 MB for 1 day
- 20 AED: 300 MB for 7 days
- 30 AED: 250 MB and 250 MB for social media for 30 days
- 50 AED: 1 GB for 7 days
- 100 AED: 1 GB and 1 GB for social media for 30 days
- 150 AED: 2 GB and 2 GB for social media for 30 days
- 200 AED: 3 GB and 3 GB for social media for 30 days
- 250 AED: 4 GB and 4 GB for social media for 30 days
- 300 AED: 5 GB and 5 GB for social media for 30 days
- 450 AED: 20 GB and 10 GB for social media for 30 days
The social media apps are Facebook (Messenger), Twitter, WhatsApp, WeChat, Snapchat, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
Du “competes” with Etisalat in the UAE. The company has more than 9 million customers and is loved by migrant workers, expats, and visitors. Coverage is about the same as Etisalat, so it does not really matter what operator you choose to do business with.
Du SIM cards are sold in Du shops, at the international airports, and online (to an Emirati address). At Dubai Airport, you can get a Du SIM for free if you have a visit visa, visa on arrival, or a transit visa. Citizens from the GCC can also get the SIM card complimentarily. The SIM card comes with 3 minutes and 20 MB. They can be recharged with regular packs if you change the SIM to one of the plans listed below.
Du sells two types of SIM cards: the Prepaid Plan and the Tourist Plan. The Tourist Plan differs from the free SIM cards because you have to pay for it (55 AED). Moreover, only Tourist Plans can be added to these cards, which are listed below:
- 25 AED: 150 MB and 10 minutes for 3 days
- 55 AED: 500 MB and 20 minutes for 7 days
- 110 AED: 2 GB and 40 minutes for 14 days
Du may only offer you the Tourist Plan SIM card if they see you have a short-term visa. You could ask for a Prepaid Plan, but they may not give it to you. Nevertheless, the Tourist Plan is good enough for those staying in the country for a short period.
The Prepaid Plan SIM cards will not expire as long as you recharge it once a year. Recharge cards are called WoW and are sold from 20 AED to 500 AED. The following packs can be added, where the 5% tax has to be added to:
- 3 AED: 30 MB and 2 minutes for 1 day
- 35 AED: 750 MB and 15 minutes for 30 days
- 50 AED: 1.5 GB and 30 minutes for 30 days
- 100 AED: 3 GB and 100 minutes for 30 days
- 150 AED: 6 GB and 150 minutes for 30 days
You can also add data-only packs, which are listed below:
- 2 AED: 60 MB for 24 hours
- 3 AED: 100 MB for 24 hours
- 4 AED: 150 MB for 24 hours
- 25 AED: 200 MB and 200 MB for social media for 30 days
- 55 AED: 500 MB and 500 MB for social media for 30 days
- 110 AED: 1.1 GB and 1.1 GB for social media for 30 days
- 210 AED: 5 GB and 3 GB for social media for 30 days
- 525 AED: 25 GB and 15 GB for social media for 30 days
Virgin Mobile UAE
Virgin Mobile UAE, just Virgin Mobile, is a subsidiary of Du and uses the Du network. The brand works mostly online with their apps, although SIM cards can be bought in several stores (and online too to an Emirati address. It gets delivered within an hour in most cases).
Topping up can only be done online because Virgin Mobile does not sell vouchers. All bundles auto-renew, so be sure to cancel your card upon leaving the UAE. Else, you will be charged for a service you are not using.
The following monthly packs can be added through the app, which all come with 500 minutes and SMS. A 5% tax has to be added to all prices:
- 163 AED for 3 GB
- 202 AED for 5 GB
- 299 AED for 10 GB
Swyp is the youth brand set up by Etisalat. If you are between 15 and 29, you can buy a Swyp SIM card. If not, you can go with any other provider listed earlier. In fact, Swyp will confirm your age before they will hand over the SIM card to you – be aware of that.
Swyp is, like Virgin Mobile, mostly an online provider, although SIM cards can be bought in stores. The following data packs can be added through the app – add 5% (tax) for the final prices:
- 25 AED for 500 MB
- 50 AED for 1 GB
- 100 AED for 2 GB
- 150 AED for 4 GB
Other Ways to Stay Connected When Traveling in the United Arab Emirates
I have discussed the relevant providers in the UAE in this article because using an Emirati SIM card would be much cheaper than roaming with your provider… in most cases. However, buying a local SIM card is not the only way to stay connected in the UAE. You can buy an international SIM card, use a mobile hotspot, or use free WIFI connections. Below, I will discuss the alternative options to use your phone in the UAE.
Roaming in the United Arab Emirates 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 Ooredoo Kuwait, then you would be roaming with Ooredoo in the UAE.
The issue with roaming is that it can be expensive. There have been many horror stories where people had to pay thousands in roaming fees when coming back from their holidays, which is just a shame, in my opinion. However, roaming does not always have to be expensive, especially when visiting a neighboring country.
Many providers offer roaming plans. Some allow you to roam for free in the UAE while others would offer you a roaming bundle with a set number of minutes, SMS, and data. Finally, several operators let you use your plan’s allowance for a daily fee.
As you can see, there are many options out there, so be sure to explore the roaming options your provider has. Conveniently for you, I have reviewed the roaming options of many providers (and many more to come) and discussed everything you need to know about roaming with your provider. If you are lucky, you may not even have to buy a SIM card in the UAE and can roam for free there.
No idea how roaming works? I made this comprehensive guide about what roaming is and how it works. It is worth the read – promised!
One thing I would not recommend doing is to Roam As You Go. Just like prepaid cards where you can buy bundles or Pay As You Go (as in, charged per minute, SMS, or MB), Roaming As You Go can be insanely expensive (that is how people get expensive roaming bills). So far, there are a handful of providers I have reviewed that offer affordable Roam As You Go rates. But generally, avoid it. Get a roaming plan if you can or buy a SIM in the UAE.
Using an International SIM Card in the United Arab Emirates
International SIM cards are cards that have been made for travelers so that they do not have to deal with roaming costs.
The number of international SIM card providers is too many to count, but international SIM cards give you the same convenience as roaming with your provider. A few providers I know are OneSimCard and SimOptions.
They allow people to call you at one number instead of five in case you are exploring multiple countries in one trip. Moreover, you do not have to deal with multiple SIM cards you will never use again. In short, international SIM cards have been made for the international traveler in mind.
Although this sounds fabulous, international SIM cards are much more expensive than local SIM cards in the UAE. Some international SIM card providers charge ridiculous fees (sometimes, even more than roaming with your provider), while others offer awful service. It is, therefore, important to go with a reputable company so that you do not have to deal with surprised when traveling around the world.
On the other hand, international SIM cards are appealing to those who travel frequently or are visiting multiple destinations in one trip. Many countries in the Middle East 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.
Using Portable Hotspots (Pocket WIFI) in the United Arab Emirates
Portable hotspots, also referred to mobile hotspots or pocket WIFI, are routers small enough to bring with you everywhere you go. They are portable, battery-powered wireless routers that allow 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.
Just like with the number of international SIM card providers, there are so many mobile hotspots out there that it is challenging to keep track of them all. Skyroam and Vision Global Wireless are reputable pocket WIFI providers. 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. Both services cover more than 130 destinations around the world.
The first time I used a portable hotspot was when I was in Bangkok, Thailand, with my dad. He uses the Dutch telecom provider called KPN, which does not let you roam for free in Thailand. I was with 3 Denmark (3 Danmark), which also did not allow me to roam for free. The router was offered for free by our Airbnb host. Let me tell you how convenient that thing was!
I do not remember the exact brand router we used, but we could connect our phones to it, explore Bangkok, and upload highlights of our trip on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and WhatsApp without the need of connecting to unsecure and slow connections in Thailand.
That is why I often recommend those who are traveling in groups or with families to consider getting a pocket WIFI device so that each individual does not need to buy a local SIM card and data packages. In some countries, the cost of getting a local SIM card or packages is so low that it is not even worth getting a mobile hotspot. In others, it could save you money.
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.
Connecting to Free WIFI Networks in the United Arab Emirates
Finally, we have the most cost-effective way to stay connected in the UAE, which is using free WIFI networks.
Using WIFI networks should not cost you any money (unless you are connecting to premium hotspots), which is why it is a popular option for travelers. Go to a local café, buy a coffee, connect to their WIFI, and post your pictures to Facebook or Instagram. Straightforward, right? Well, let’s see if that is indeed the case.
First, you need to find hotspots. In some regions, they are readily available. In others, you cannot find any, require you to give your personal details (for commercial purposes), are restricted for those who are a subscriber of an operator’s, or are so slow that you wished you never connected to them.
In the case of the UAE, you can find plenty of hotspots around the country.
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.
The Best Way to Stay Connected When Traveling in the United Arab Emirates
Getting a SIM card from Etisalat or Du would do you well when considering an Emirati SIM card. Be sure to explore the roaming options your provider offers you, as they may offer free or cheap roaming bundles.
You could also consider getting an international SIM card or using a portable hotspot. International SIM cards are attractive for those visiting multiple destinations at once or within a year. Portable hotspots will be useful when traveling with multiple people so that not each individual has to get a SIM card but can use the hotspot.
Visiting other countries in the Middle East? Check out my Middle Eastern SIM card buying guide, covering other Middle Eastern countries, such as Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. 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 the United Arab Emirates
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 the United Arab Emirates. If you are not ready to take off yet, set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog, and they will notify you once ticket prices to the United Arab Emirates drop.
Book Your Accommodation for the United Arab Emirates
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 the United Arab Emirates. At least, that is how I see it. Moreover, Airbnb can often be much cheaper than staying in an Emirates hotel.
Get Your Travel Insurance for the United Arab Emirates
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 United Arab Emirates, 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 currency of your destination 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.
Enjoy your trip!