When you step off the plane for the start of your new life in Dubai, you can of course continue to use your mobile phone in roaming mode, paying the stated charges to your provider in your home country – but we all know that is going to be a very expensive option.
Fortunately, there are some instant solutions.
Two providers – Etisalat and Du; a tale of Tweedledum and….
It’s not quite like the apocryphal story of Henry Ford’s wonderful Model T – the one you could have in any color you wanted so long as it was black – but you are limited to just two providers in the UAE, and both are firmly under the control of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.
Nonetheless, there is a semblance of genuine competition between the two, and by studying what each offers carefully, you may well find that one suits your needs better than the other. Start with the respective websites: Etisalat and Du.
How easy is it to get a local SIM?
Very! In fact, you’ll find both Etisalat and Du sales booths right at Dubai’s two International Airports, as soon as you pass through the final customs check and out into the Arrivals area.
Etisalat offers an all-in-one pack called Visitor Line, which costs AED 100. It includes a local SIM for your phone and is valid for up to 60 days. It can be further extended, but most new arrivals will have their residency visas and places of abode settled by then – and will probably want to move to something more comprehensive (and cheaper) for longer term use.
Du, incidentally, offers pretty much the same thing to the new arrival called the Visitor Mobile Line. It costs just AED 35 and is valid for 7 days. It can also be renewed/topped up, so you’d need to do the math on which of the two deals above is best/cheapest for your personal needs.
Be very sure what you need.
Regardless of which company you choose as your provider, you’ll come under some heavy pressure when you visit one of their many Dubai retail locations to buy one of their “combo” packages. That means mobile, landline, Internet, and Television all for a single monthly fee, and for a contractual period of, usually but not always, two years.
If that’s what you’re looking for, then fine; go ahead and sign on the line. But forewarned is forearmed, so it may save you heartache further down the line if you acquaint yourself with bewildering array of options that you’ll be presented with.
“Mobile? How many minutes per month? Or would you prefer unlimited minutes? Fixed number of texts (SMSs) or unlimited? Mobile Internet? Yes, and how much data will you be needing? Just 1 gigabyte per month? Are you sure? We have this really good limited-period offer…” And on it goes – and that’s just for the mobile.
So put your glasses on and get reading. Here are the relevant links: Etisalat’s Mobile Plans and Du’s Mobile Plans. If I had just one piece of advice to offer it would be this: err on the side of caution.
If you find after a couple of months that you need more minutes, or more gigabytes of mobile data, it’s always easier to upgrade to a more expensive plan that will give you what you want than it is to downgrade – because you’re not using (or likely to use) all those minutes and gigabytes you thought you would need.
A few other hardware-related matters that are good to know about
Both the Dubai/UAE phone service providers will also be very happy to sell you new phones. The dizzying speed with which the major players in the market launch new models means that your current phone will have a “life” of about one year, before it’s on the slippery slope to obsolescence.
The new models are bigger, have more features, make better use of the newest version of the Operating System, and so on.
Etisalat and Du have plans that include the newest models as well as the minutes/texts/gigabytes of data. So, over the twenty-four months of the contract, you’re paying off the hardware as well as paying for the services you are using.
This may very well suit your budget perfectly to keep your phone upgraded in this way, but once again, a few minutes with the calculator to know exactly what you will be paying for the phone will help keep reality in focus.
Here are the current offers for iPhone 6S models, just launched on the Dubai market at the time of writing. No matter how enticing the “Free – when purchased with a plan” offer looks, I think you can be fairly sure that the full cost, or a goodly portion of it, will be spread out through the life of the plan.
And consider that you can buy discounted iPhones at kiosks in Dubai Mall. It may be easier to do it all in one outlet such as a DU or Etisalat outlet, or you may be worried that you will get a bad deal from a kiosk.
Usually the kiosks are reliable; it is the people who offer to deliver a discounted phone to your house that you should avoid. But I do know someone who bought a “new” phone in a sealed packet from a either Du or Etisalat (I forget), only to find that it had been opened and had someone’s photos on it already.
Of course, if you have the receipt, you can return the product (which is what he did). This applies to kiosks, too. There is no way to track down that home delivery when it proves to have had five previous users – another true story.
Facetime, Viber, WhatsApp, and VOIP
The TRA didn’t like Facetime when Apple first launched it in 2010. The spectre of lost revenue loomed just too large, so Facetime is not included on iPads and iPhones sold through official outlets in the UAE.
It’s not just a matter of going to a foreign Apple Store and downloading it either: there are instructions written into the firmware of the devices that mean Facetime can never be added, unless you do all manner of risky and warranty-voiding operations known as “jail-breaking.”
But curiously, iPhones purchased elsewhere – like kiosks – with Facetime installed, allow Facetime calls (voice and video) exactly as they do anywhere else in the world.
There doesn’t seem to be any restriction on the use of WhatsApp, Viber, or Messenger for text messaging. These now all allow free phone calling if you are in a Wi-Fi zone, but this facility is blocked in the UAE. The same applies to the granddaddy of them all: Skype. Viber is still available on the UAE AppStore, but WhatsApp is gone.
There are now a number of articles appearing in the English-language UAE media stating that the use of commonly available software add-ons to allow the use of Skype, WhatsApp, et al, is illegal and that offenders, if apprehended, face stiff fines. I haven’t seen any cases before the UAE courts, but still, caution is recommended.