- 1 Basics
- 2 Etisalat
- 3 Du Mobile
- 4 Virgin Mobile UAE (by du)
- 5 Swyp (by Etisalat - 15-29 y/o only)
The United Arab Emirates have two network providers:
The first MVNO Virgin Mobile launched on the du network in 2017.
Etisalat or du?
Both of them are partly state-owned. Etisalat is the biggest provider in the UAE with 13 million users, but used to be focused more to local and landline customers. Rival du, now at 9 million customers, filled the gap and aimed at the many migrant workers, prepaid clients and tourists. Nowadays, both are pretty much on par as far as speeds and coverage are concerned. Etisalat quickly opened up stores in tourist areas and now competes with du for prepaid plans. The country remains nevertheless a duopoly with two state-associated providers.
2G is on 900 and 1800 MHz, 3G on 2100 MHz up to DC-HSPA+, 4G/LTE is on 1800 MHz (B3) and 800 MHz (B20), 5G NR has started in 2019 on 3500 MHz (n78) in major towns like Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
The coverage of both operators is very good in the cities, populated areas and along the desert highways on 2G, 3G and even 4G/LTE, giving good speed and performance. The first MVNOs or rather subsidiaries started in 2017 with Virgin Mobile on the du network and a new youth brand on etisalat.
The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) of the UAE has revealed that the country’s 2G networks will be shut down at the end of 2022, with spectrum to be repurposed to support 5G services.
Both du and etisalat now have shops in the arrival halls of all three terminals at the airport of Dubai as well as in the airport of Abu Dhabi, where you can buy the SIM card right away at arrival without surcharge. Often they are side by side. So it's easy to compare plans which are still slightly different between operators. Both are rather expensive compared to other Arab countries, especially when it comes to foreign voice calls.
For buying a SIM card you need to show your passport with visa stamp. They will photocopy it in the store and do some paperwork, which can take a while.
Outside of the airport etisalat and du are present with own branded stores in the major shopping malls. Both are selling tourist SIM cards with some bonus programs and a rather limited validity and regular prepaid SIM cards. Often the tourist SIMs are out of stock and you only get a regular plan that can be even cheaper.
In small mobile stores in downtown souks and markets in Dubai and Abu Dhabi small vendors offer discounted SIM cards and options at less than 50% off the official rates. This can be an option, if you are aware of the local market and prices. Often they are illegal for various reasons, as they can't be registered on your name and are probably assigned to someone else. So better stay away, if you need a reliable data connection.
To keep a local SIM active outside the UAE, etisalat costs AED 8 per year, whereas du costs AED 10 per year.
From 2018 the UAE government has introduced a 5% Value Added Tax (VAT), which applies to all products and services. Etisalat has not included this new tax to its prices, while du has mostly included it.
The UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority instructs ISPs to block various types of websites and services, which therefore cannot be directly accessed, for the following reasons:
- Inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political or moral values of the UAE
- Competition to state-owned telecoms monopolies (e.g. VoIP services)
- Sites with an Israeli .il domain
A new "cybercrime law" introduced in 2016 states that "Whoever uses a fraudulent computer network protocol address (IP address) by using a false address or a third-party address by any other means for the purpose of committing a crime or preventing its discovery, shall be punished by temporary imprisonment and a fine of no less than AED 500,000 and not exceeding AED 2,000,000, or either of these two penalties".
The effect is that it's illegal to use a VPN or proxy server to access blocked websites or services. The law does not specifically outlaw VPN use, and VPNs are lawfully used for example by employees to access corporate networks. Bear in mind that, although it's impossible for the authorities to detect which websites or services are being accessed via a VPN, many commercial VPNs whose primary purpose is to circumvent blocking are different from those used to access corporate networks.
VoIP ban (Viber, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Facetime etc.)
Most popular VoIP services are blocked too, as Etisalat and du are the only two operators licensed to provide VoIP services. Snapchat’s new voice and video calling feature was blocked upon its launch in 2016. Similarly, WhatsApp’s voice feature was blocked shortly after it was introduced in 2015. Two months after that, Facebook’s video-calling feature was also blocked. Similar products such as Viber or Apple’s Facetime have been banned since 2013. Skype has been restricted to text messages since 2013, with voice and video calls blocked. Apple agreed to sell its iPhone products in the UAE and Saudi Arabia with the FaceTime functionality omitted. Even outside the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Apple’s Facetime video-calling feature can't be added or used if the iPhone was purchased in these two countries.
Despite these restrictions, circumvention software and proxies are commonly used by UAE residents to access blocked content and VoIP services. The problem is that when you try to bypass the block by a free proxy/VPN app, speed will drop and latency will increase so much, that it becomes useless. So when going to the UAE, you should consider installing a commercial VPN, if you rely on VoIP, but be cautious and be aware of the law. In recent years many VPN protocols have been disabled by Emirati providers. So better bring a good selection of them. It's now often easier to install a VPN on a hotel WiFi connection than on mobile internet.
Without the choice of VoIP, the UAE is presently one of the most expensive countries to call from internationally: a call to EU countries or the US will set you back more than AED 2 per minute with all providers on their standard rate. Given the high rate of immigrants in places like Dubai, this grants the two state-affiliated telcos good revenues.
In 2017 the situation became even more obscure. The ban on Skype calls was lifted only to be re-instated some months later, while users suddenly noticed they were able to make WhatsApp calls and video calls, but the regulator maintained that nothing has changed. In face of the Saudi lift of their VoIP ban the two UAE providers Du and Etisalat have become more accessible to VoIP calls:
Recently, they have introduced some discounts for IDD calls, that are featured in the article, as an exception on this data Wiki because of the ongoing blockage. International prepaid calling packs for 100 minutes can be as low as AED 36 to some countries.
They have now authorized 4 VoIP apps for what is advertised as "unlimited international calling" that can be found in the Play and App stores:
- Botim: share photos, videos, voice messages, location, text messages (SMSs), contacts, web clips and more like group chats, voice and video calls
- C'Me: VoIP HD voice and video calls and instant messaging
- VoiCo UAE (on du): voice and video calls
- HIU Messenger: voice and video calls
Etisalat by the Emirates Telecommunication Group Company PJSC, in Arabic: مؤسسة الإمارات للاتصالات, Mu'asissat al-'Imārāt lil-'Ittiṣālāt meaning communications.
Etisalat is the biggest telco operator with 13 million customers and the best mobile 3G and 4G coverage in the UAE. It's partly state owned and more focused on the internal market. Their prepaid SIM called Wasel is open for 4G/LTE, already covering 90% of population.
With the re-launch of their prepaid card called Wasel finally affordable mobile internet packages are available by etisalat. The Wasel SIM is available for AED 55 (plus VAT) as mini-, micro- and nano-SIM with a bonus of AED 1 valid for a day.
We don't mention regular Wasel Prepaid plans anymore, as they are (officially) only available to UAE residents holding a UAE ID.
For AED 100 you get started with the Visitor Line and subscribe to any one of the below packs, It stays valid for 90 days and it can be extended for 90 more days by re-registering for AED 10. The starter is only available at certain stores like in airports or major shopping malls. Most visitors on a visitor visa will only be given this line for 90 days and not the Wasel plan. The SIM card will be valid for 30 days and the validity can be extended for an additional period of 30 days for just AED 10.
Recharges are by vouchers of AED 25, 50, 100, 200 or 500 using *120*<voucher code>#. Balance can be checked by *101#.
Starters come in three varieties and cost AED 100 plus 5% VAT valid for 14 days:
- Surf: 1 GB data, 5 hrs of etisalat WiFi
- Talk & Text: 60 local mins, 60 SMS, 5 hours etisalat WiFi
- Talk, Text & Surf: 700 MB, 40 local mins, 60 SMS, 5 hours etisalat WiFi
Data feature packages
Data by default is restricted to prevent accidental charges. You can subscribe to Super Data Blocks to use data in emergency at AED 1.05 per 20 MB with a daily limit of AED 9.45 - dial *101*60# for details.
These packages can be added for more data by *101#:
|Data per day||for 1 day||for 7 days||for 28 days|
|75 MB||AED 2.5||AED 15||AED 42|
|150 MB||AED 4.2||AED 25||AED 63|
|250 MB||AED 8||AED 40||AED 90|
|500 MB||AED 15||AED 60||AED 130|
|1 GB||AED 30||AED 100||AED 200|
For social access to Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Twitter, LinkedIn, WeChat, Snapchat, Instagram and the Internet Calling Plan Apps (text only) you can add:
|Data per day||for 1 day||for 7 days||for 28 days|
|150 MB||AED 2.5||AED 15||AED 42|
|250 MB||AED 4||AED 25||AED 63|
Data allowances will be credited daily and will reset at midnight. Daily allowances cannot be rolled over. Data will be stopped after daily allowance is used. Multiple subscriptions will be allowed. All prices are VAT inclusive.
They also offer these monthly add-ons on the Visitor line:
|General data||Social data||Price|
|1 GB||1 GB||AED 100|
|3 GB||2 GB||AED 150|
|5 GB||3 GB||AED 200|
|7 GB||4 GB||AED 250|
|10 GB||5 GB||AED 300|
|20 GB||10 GB||AED 450|
|25 GB||15 GB||AED 500|
Alternatively, you can migrate free of charge from your Visitor Line to Wasel (see above), if you stay for longer holding an Emirati ID. For more info check the Etisalat mobile app or visit the nearest Etisalat outlet.
For their preferred roaming partners in 100 countries (list) they now offer these packages:
- daily packages (for 24 hours):
- 1 GB: AED 35
- 500 MB plus 15 mins: AED 60
- weekly pack: 2.5 GB plus 500 mins: AED 250
- monthly packs (for 30 days):
- 2 GB plus 60 mins : AED 350
- 5 GB plus 500 mins: AED 600
- 10 GB plus 1000 mins: AED 1000
Activation is by *177#. Minutes are incoming and outgoing. All packages can be renewed up to 6 times within their validity period.
- Because of the ongoing blockage of usual VoIP apps (see Basics), internatl. call rates remain very high in the UAE at AED 2.52 per min
- APN: etisalat.ae
- Website in English: http://www.etisalat.ae/en/index.jsp
Du is run by the Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company, in Arabic: شركة الإمارات للاتصالات المت
Du is the second largest mobile network operator in the UAE and 39.5% state owned. They now care for about 9 million users and are preferred by most expats, migrant workers and visitors.
Both providers are very much on par and committed to the same policies about censorship and VoIP ban. So it doesn't make a major difference anymore which provider to choose: Du coverage map
Their SIM cards are available at the Du online shopto be sent to an UAE address. Offline in branded du shops (store locator) in shopping malls. Expect some waiting there. At the Abu Dhabi airport arrival hall and all terminals of Dubai airport. Expect some more waiting there. Mini-SIM (2FF), micro-SIM (3FF) and nano-SIM (4FF) are available.
To skip the lines some mini marts and supermarkets carry both the SIM and recharge vouchers. The activation may take a little longer than when purchasing from du shop as the retailer must send images of your passport to activate. Furthermore you can try Axiom, Fono, Eros and One Mobile shops and some other mobile phone shops
They have a choice of two different prepaid lines. The Tourist Plan is more for short-time tourists, while their regular pay as you go line is more for longer stays. The tourist lines haven proven to be unavailable at times. But when available, they might force every traveller on a tourist visa to get this plan and no other.
Their Tourist plan is available from any authorized store in the airport or across the UAE in three starters:
- 500 MB + 20 mins for 7 days: AED 55
- 2 GB + 40 mins for 14 days: AED 75
- 3.5 GB + 50 mins + 1 GB du WiFi for 14 days: AED 110
For more data you can recharge and top-up the same local data plans as mentioned below. The Tourist SIM is valid for up to 90 days. You can extend it for another 90 days by dialing *135#.
Activation and Recharge
To top-up you can buy recharge cards called WoW of AED 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 or an e-voucher. To activate see below, as you have two accounts. Check your balance by *135# or by texting 'BAL' to 1355.
When you first use your SIM, you must activate it by calling any local number (maybe your hotel phone number) and follow the voice instruction to select your preferred language. Cheat sheet: for English press 2 and then press 1 to confirm.
Data feature packs
Data by default is 1.05 AED per MB (tax included).
For messengers they offer non-stop internet access for 30 days for AED 50, with slow speeds of up to 192 Kbps speed for the first 150 MB, and 72 Kbps thereafter.
For higher speeds on short-time base on up to 3 Mbps they offer Internet Data Pass bundles:
- for 1 hour: AED 3
- for 2 hours: AED 5
Activation is by *222#.
These monthly packages can be added:
|200 MB||200 MB||AED 25|
|500 MB||500 MB||AED 55|
|1.1 GB||1.1 GB||AED 110|
|5 GB||3 GB||AED 210|
|25 GB||15 GB||AED 525|
To all prices add 5% VAT tax. To activate type *135*3#. To check package balance text 'BAL' to 135. All packages auto-renew.
Overuse is charged at the default rate of AED 1 per MB. 4G/LTE access is now available for prepaid users who purchase 1 GB or larger data bundles.
You will have at least two accounts: a data account and a call/text account. The data bundles are activated when your data account is recharged by the required amount. *131*<voucher PIN># puts money in your data account.
Code *135*<voucher PIN># puts money in your call and text account and *138*<voucher PIN> in your IDD call account. Many people find this multiple account scheme confusing. If you have topped up your call/text account instead, you can activate the data bundles too by texting "moredata###" to 1311 whereas ### stands for the price in AED of the package. To check prepaid balance use code *135#.
Roaming data is disabled by default, and you need to dial *135*20# once abroad to either buy a Roaming Data Pack or activate roaming data pay per use at AED 1 per 30 KB (you will need to reactivate it every 24 hours). For roaming in 86 countries (list) these packages are given out:
- 500 MB for 1 day: AED 35 - activation: D
- 2.5 GB for 7 days: AED 200 - activation: W
- 7 GB for 30 days: AED 500 - activation M
- 20 GB for 30 days: AED 1000 - activation: V
For activation text letter to 5102. In GCC countries (Oman, Saudia Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait) pay per use data rate is AED 3.122 per MB and you can subscribe these Easy Roaming data bundles:
- 5 GB for 3 days: AED 99 - activation: GCC3
- 15 GB for 10 days: AED 199 - activation GCC7
All usual VoIP apps like Viber, WhatsApp call, FB Messenger a.s.o. are blocked. Through the 4 licensed apps Botim, C'Me, Voico UAE or HUI Messenger you are now able to voice and video call 'officially' through the internet.
For this you need to buy an Internet Calling Pack for AED 50 (plus 5% VAT) by texting 'ICP' to 1012. This package is valid for 30 days and will auto-renew. To stop text 'STOP NETCALL'. HiU is not yet supported.
Data for the VoIP calls comes from your regular data balance. These are the only legal options to place VoIP calls from the UAE on du. Of course, you can try your luck with a VPN instead.
Free SIM cards at Dubai airports
Since May 2019, tourists arriving in Dubai by air enjoy a free du tourist SIM card, including 3 minutes' free talk time and 20MB free data, both valid for 3 days. Tourists above 18 years get the free du SIM card, thanks to a new initiative by the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs in Dubai.
Tourists will get the SIM card from the immigration officer on arrival in Dubai. Only travellers with transit visa, visit visa, visa on arrival and GCC citizens arriving at Dubai International Airport are eligible of the complimentary service. The SIM works in sync with the immigration system and will be deactivated once the tourist exits the country or after one month.
To activate the SIM card needs to be inserted in the phone, then dial *122# and follow instructions. You can change this card to a permanent one with the rates shown above.
- APN: du
- Username and password: du
- Tethering is allowed, VoIP calls are still prohibited and blocked (except through the options shown)!
- Attention when recharging your account. You have to choose which account you want to charge with money (call <135> or data <131> or international <138> account - see above).
- Website in English: www.du.ae
Virgin Mobile UAE (by du)
Virgin Mobile launched as a subsidiary and second brand of du in 2017 on the same network in 2G, 3G, 4G/LTE and now 5G NR without surcharges. They only sell fully customisable monthly bundles, managed by their app available for Android and iOS.
The SIM card can be ordered via their smartphone app for delivery within one hour to most UAE addresses where your local ID document will be checked at delivery. Courier service is not available for foreigners, who need to go to a Virgin Megastore or an airport store for registration showing your passport (store locator). eSIMs are available for compatible devices.
All bundles are prepaid by Visa or MasterCard credit card. Virgin states that it accepts debit cards, but that not all debit cards support recurring payments. Prepaid cards and American Express are not accepted. No vouchers or other ways for top-ups are offered.
Customers must buy an auto-renewing bundle to use the service. The monthly renewal of bundles can be suspended ("paused") but this incurs a charge of AED 10 per month to your payment card, although this charge is fully credited to your account (called "wallet"), which can be used indefinitely. In their T&Cs they reserve the right to charge your credit card for this and any roaming consumption. Moreover, they have the right to suspend or disconnect all services provided if such services aren’t used for a period of 90 days or more. That's why you should better cancel your SIM, instead of letting it expire, if you don't need it any more.
Data feature packages
All monthly plans have three components: local calls and SMS, local data and optional international calls and SMS to more than 100 countries.
These monthly data plans are offered with 50 mins/SMS:
- 750 MB + 25 mins/SMS: AED 35
- 1.5 GB: AED 50,
- 2 GB: AED 79
- 6 GB: AED 119
- 10 GB: AED 162
- 20 GB: AED 250
- 30 GB: AED 322
- 50 GB: AED 382
- 100 GB: AED 607
To all prices add 5% VAT for the final price. 30% discounts are given for half-yearly and 50% for yearly subscriptions. You can also add 100, 200, 300, 500 or unlimited local minutes for a monthly surcharge.
When data is used up before renewal of the plan, you will get 200 MB at reduced speed of 100 kbps or you can buy a Booster add-on.
Like its parent company du, Virgin doesn't offer any weekly data bundles, which can make it more expensive than rival Etisalat for a short-term visitor to the UAE.
IDD calling rates
You can add internatl. mins and SMS to about 100 foreign countries: 50 mins for AED 18, 100 mins for AED 35, 200 mins for AED 70, 300 mins for AED 90, 500 mins for AED 155 and 1000 mins for AED 355 plus 5% VAT.
Alternatively, you can use "internet calling" for abroad through the two allowed VoIP apps Botim and C'me for AED 50 per month.
- Virgin's T&Cs prohibit VoIP services and circumvention of web filtering, in line with UAE law. Both the mentioned "official" OTT apps Botim and C'me are allowed.
- APN: internet1
- Website: www.virginmobile.ae
Swyp (by Etisalat - 15-29 y/o only)
Just after the launch of Virgin on du network the UAE got a 4th provider in September 2017. Swyp is a subsidiary of Etisalat operating on their network in 2G, 3G and 4G/LTE.
Swyp is a youth-centric brand with a focus on data. In contrast to Virgin you have to be between 15 and 29 years old to register. They’ll even ask to check your ID before handing over your SIM card. That's why it's mentioned here only briefly, because it's not available to the "general public" and it can be only a valid option, if you fit into their age group and if they are willing to accept foreigners.
Like Virgin Mobile, Swyp prides itself on being app-centric and you need to download their Swyp app for Android or iOS to use it. You can buy the SIM through this app to be delivered anywhere in the UAE. Alternatively, you can sign up via an Etisalat store or sales partner if you wish.
The base plan offers 5 GB of social data (this appears to be confined only to unnamed ‘social apps’) for AED 50 for a month. You can then pay for add-on packages for general data:
- 500 MB: AED 25
- 1 GB: AED 50
- 2 GB: AED 100
- 4 GB: AED 150
These packages are valid for a month, don't auto-renew and need to be purchased through the app. You can buy multiple packages.
You can also pay AED 25 for additional 50 flexi national and international minutes to 100 countries which makes it a good IDD deal in the absence of VoIP. You also get access to Swyp’s network of Etisalat's WiFi hotspots (locations) throughout the UAE. To all prices add 5% VAT.