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Safaricom data bundle for your smartphone
This article is written for users with prepaid Safaricom or Airtel cards in Kenya, but it may be valid in whole or in part for other, similar tariffs as well. The instructions and numbers below are for Safaricom. For other service providers please check their web sites.
Details and background
The Safaricom data tariffs contain a tricky "tax on the stupid". They are designed such that you need a certain cleverness to make the best of them. If you do the simple thing without thinking and buy a small data bundle whenever your previous one has run out, you end up paying more than your clever neighbor. This is an explanation of Safaricom's tricks and how to get around them and save money.
First of all you must know that a Megabyte in a big data bundle is much less expensive than a Megabyte in a small bundle. Therefore you should always strive to buy the biggest data bundle you can justify.
At first it does not look so stupid to buy a small data bundle, because you may not finish a bigger one before it expires, and you may thus throw away the Megabytes you have bought.
However, the lifetime of a Safaricom data bundle can be extended by buying a new one before the current one expires. Safaricom of course hopes that you miss this, let your Megabytes expire, or buy more expensive Megabytes in small bundles in the first place, so we have to make sure we find the best way through the tariff jungle. Here is what Safaricom says in the notes on their data bundle tariff page:
The bigger the data bundle, the cheaper it is per Megabyte. If you keep buying small bundles for, say, KSh 250, you pay more per Megabyte than if you buy one of those big data bundles for KSh 1,000, KSh 1,999, KSh 3,999, or even more.
Note: As of December 2012, there is one exception. The 3 GB data bundle costs twice as much as the 1.5 GB bundle, but lasts two thirds as long. This means that the 1.5 GB bundle at KSh 1,000 is almost always better than the 3 GB bundle at KSh 1999. As long as the tariff works that way, my recommendation is to shun the 3 GB data bundle and either go for the 1.5 GB bundle or all the way to the 8 GB bundle. But check the tariffs, they may change again.
However, even the big data bundles expire after 180 days, and you may not use them up fully during that time. So the remaining Megabytes would expire and be lost.
That is where the renewal procedure comes in. If you buy another data bundle before your current one expires, you can keep and use all those "old" Megabytes during the lifetime of the new bundle. Effectively you extend the lifetime of your old data bundle and get a few new Megabytes added.
Does it make sense to buy another big data bundle if you still have many Megabytes left in the old one? Most likely not, because if you did not finish the first one in 180 days, you will not finish more than these in the next 180 days either.
The trick is to buy a cheap and small data bundle with a reasonably long expiration time. If you still have plenty Megabytes left over, you are not interested in the Megabytes of the new bundle. You are only interested in the additional time.
So which bundle is best for the time extension? Looking at Safaricom's current prices (as of early 2013, check their page for their latest tariffs), you can see that the cheapest way to do it is the cheapest bundle that is valid for 90 days. It costs KSh 50. This is my recommendation.
You still have to be careful not to miss your next renewal time. With a lifetime of 90 days you should buy the next KSh 50 data bundle 88 or 89 days later. SMS the word balance to 450 to find out precisely when you data bundle expires.
To avoid forgetting to renew, my recommendation is to use the Google Calendar and enter an appointment in 90 days with a few reminders one and two days before, so you get several alarms before the deadline.
If your Megabytes are almost finished, you can, of course, buy an even cheaper bundle that extends your time by just 7 days. The cheapest of these costs KSh 5. If you bought these every 6 days, an extension of 90 days would cost you KSh 75, so the KSh 50 bundle is cheaper for any time over 60 days, but for a shorter period you can use the KSh 5 bundle.
Of course, eventually your Megabytes will all be used up. If you do not notice in time, your data use will gobble up all your remaining KSh on your card in no time, because the Safaricom data tariff without a data bundle is outrageously expensive.
So check your Megabytes regularly. If you are running low, that is the time to buy another big data bundle to get a lot of cheap Megabytes and start all over.
Here is the Airtel data bundle page. Note that they apparently try to undercut the Safaricom prices by a little. On the other hand, none of their big bundles lasts as long. But the most important question is, which one has the better coverage for you?
Since Feb 2014 it is possible to Sambaza data bundle Megabytes. This service is called Internet Sambaza.
You can transfer between 5 and 900 MB in one go, subject to some other limitations. The expiration date travels with the Megabytes, if the recipient does not already have a better expiration date.
How to do it:
Kama Kawaida, travelling in East Africa
With your Safaricom SIM card you can phone and text (SMS) in Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda for low international roaming prices through Safaricom's Kama Kawaida service.
The service works automatically. However, you should force your phone to use only the participating network in the country you are in. In Android this is done with the command Settings, Wireless & networks, More…, Mobile networks. Choose the participating network, which you can find on Safaricom's Kama Kawaida web page. Read it and check the rates before you travel abroad.
There is even a way to add airtime to your prepaid SIM card with scratch cards bought from the participating partner network in the other countries. I tried that in Rwanda, but it did not work, so perhaps you should not rely on it. Top up your SIM card before you travel.
Note, however, that your data bundles will not work outside Kenya. If you enable data roaming on your phone, you will pay KSh14 per Megabyte, i.e. roughly 30 times as much as using a big data bundle in Kenya. The exception is Uganda, where you will pay KSh75 per Megabyte. These rates are from early 2013. Check them again before you travel—they may have changed.
This is still not as expensive as in other countries, but it is not cheap. If you don't want to pay that high price, keep data roaming disabled and enable it only for a short time, like a minute, if you urgently need data service.
Also make sure you disable automatic program updates over the phone data connection while travelling abroad. As long as you have regular access to a Wi-Fi Internet connection, set your automatic program updates to "Update over Wi-Fi only". Otherwise enable automatic program updates over the phone data connection when you are back in Kenya.