Living in Dakar: A How To Guide

There’s a lot about living here that is very different and difficult for a foreigner and non-Francophile (my French is awful, but slowly improving). There are some expat groups on Facebook which can make things easier, but there was still a lot to learn and a very steep learning curve. I don’t often write instructive “how to” blogs because usually I find there’s already a bunch out there, but I didn’t find much for Senegal or Dakar, at least not in English, so  I’m writing what I have learned so far, and maybe someone else will have an easier time adjusting to living here.

The SIM Card

My phone data plan is a high priority when I arrive in a new country. I feel like I can’t do much else without it, and in Senegal you really need that local number to use ride shares, delivery, and digital wallets. There’s a reason it’s first on my list. Pre-departure research led me to believe that Orange would be my best bet, and the Embassy had scheduled a “get your sim card” event in the orientation, so I had not undertaken to get one on my own, but it’s not that hard, especially if you can speak a little French.

Finding the right store: Orange is both a phone/internet company and a money service. Not every Orange store does both, so it’s important to find the correct location. We went here: AGENCE ORANGE DES ALMADIES Of course, you need an unlocked phone, and you’ll need your passport to register your new phone number with the gov’t (I swear this is normal everywhere except America). The SIM card cost 500CFA (about 75cents US) and comes with a few days of data/minutes.

Finding your phone number is a little tricky because it doesn’t just show up in your “settings > about phone”. Instead, dial #237# and hit the call button, you’ll get a screen message showing your new Senegalese phone number. I took a screenshot of mine.

Setting your Orange Money PIN: When you get your SIM card, ask the clerk to help you set up your password (mot de passe). You can change or reset the 4 digit pin by dialing #144# then choosing option 7 (options) and then 3 to modify or 6 to reset. If you’re struggling with all the French, take a screenshot and port it into Google Translate (select the camera icon, then click on the image icon in at the bottom of the screen to access your screenshots).

Be sure you know your phone number and your secret PIN before you leave the store!

Topping up your phone plan: All phone plans in Senegal are prepaid. There are two apps you’ll want to use: Orange et Moi and Orange Money and they are only in French, sorry. Also, be sure you choose the Senegal versions since Orange is popular in a LOT of countries. Orange et Moi is the app for charging up your phone, but before you do that, you have to add money to your account.

Install Orange et Moi Senegal (careful you get the right country) and follow the steps to set up your account. You’ll need to enter your new Senegalese number and choose a password for the app.

Visit any Orange Money kiosk and deposit money into your account – cash only. I started out with just 10k (about 15$). You just say “dépôt orange” and give them the phone number. You should be able to see your new balance right away, but make sure it shows up before you leave the shop! (Image Credit: Minette Lontsie, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I had to put in 200k in order to get the new work laptop and it was nerve wracking walking into a tiny hole in the wall shop with that much cash. Some kiosks are just huts the size of an outhouse, but they are guarded since the worker inside has a lot of cash. Thankfully for my nerves, the guy in the little shop added money to my account before taking the cash which made me feel better. It’s SO different from everything I’m used to and I’m working on finding a way to transfer money into my Orange account digitally because cash makes me nervous. There seems to be a way to do it if you have an African bank account, but the “add money by credit card” function on the app may or may not be permanently unavailable.

Your Pre-Pay Plan Will Expire! It’s important to note that this isn’t the kind of prepay that hangs around until you use it. There are time limits. Some plans are good for a day, some for a week, and the longest for a month. So don’t put a bunch of money on there thinking you can just top up when you use it all. I personally futzed around with the settings until I found the least amount I could add to get the 30 days, figuring if I used it up, I could add more which would be better than overpaying and losing it. I did not use it all.

How to Top Up in the App: The plans change from month to month, so I can’t suggest the best one, but some steps should stay the same: Acheter = buy and will take you to the menu of plan options. Illimix or Illiflex are the best options that mix data and phone (flex lets you choose how much data v phone you get for your money). It will ask you “choix du beneficiare” and you can choose your own phone number or enter someone elses, which if you are travelling with friends/family might make the whole thing easier. Make sure you get something that will last … avoid “jour” (day) and choose “semaine” (week) or “mois” (month). After you buy, you can see your remaining data/sms/minutes in the app by choosing “Conso”.

Money, Money, Money

Cash & GAB:
Senegal is a cash based economy. Very few places take cards, especially foreign cards. When I got here, the only way for me to access my US money was to go to a local ATM (or GAB since ATM isn’t a word here). The Embassy also warned us against using any ATM on the street (while also somehow NOT telling us they were called GAB). If they had their way, I’d be schlepping over to the Embassy every time I wanted cash to use their ATM inside. Not a practical solution. I also mentioned in my previous post that not all banks have GAB and Google Maps definitely doesn’t have a complete or accurate list, so it’s a good idea to figure out where your closest safe indoor GAB is before you need the money.

Why indoors? Apparently putting card skimmers on the machines is a thing here and the indoor ones all have security guards who keep more than one person per machine from going in at a time and CCTV (maybe?) to make sure no one does anything nefarious. It’s also easier to put your cash away inside than on the street. You don’t want to have a wad of cash in your wallet or bag. Only keep what you need in a day in reach. People don’t get mugged often here, and then mostly only at night alone, so it’s not a huge risk, but there’s no point in tempting fate.

However, cash is a pain, not only because it’s a germ vector and requires us to open our purse or wallet to get to, but local people ALL want you to have exact change, and no one wants to GIVE change. (to ask to have a bill broken ask: “as-tu de la monnaie”;  to ask if someone has change when you are buying something ask: “as-tu la monnaie”) Even at the grocery store where they have a full register of change they don’t want to part with it. I had to pop into a corner store to get a 1k bill broken into 2 500bills to pay my driver the other day. I have no idea how to keep myself topped up with enough change to satisfy drivers and street vendors. If I ever find out, I’ll update this post.

Digital Wallet:
In the mean time, I’m happy to report that Senegal is working on going cash free in a leap-frog way. (leapfrogging is when a culture skips a developmental step, in this case, going directly from cash to digital wallets without bank cards in between). Google Wallet and Venmo aren’t here in Senegal yet, but QR code based digital payment options Orange Money and Wave are. Orange Money comes built in with the phone package, and the only way to top up (without a local bank account) is to visit a kiosk and fork over the cash. It’s fairly easy to do and there are kiosks everywhere, but it doesn’t eliminate the need to go to the ATM all the time. Wave, however, has a partner app called SendWave that allows you to send money to a Wave user (including yourself) from a foreign bank account with no fees!

Getting SendWave:
Set up is a bit of an ordeal. You have to install the app, sign up, upload your passport photo and bank card then try (and fail) to send some money, and wait for someone to call you back. I hear your concerns and objections to uploading ID and bank card details, but it’s a reputable service. A big part of why it’s such a hassle to set up is that they have security measures in place to make sure no one is being scammed or stolen from. Trying to make your first payment starts the process. You can set up your wave account (separate app) and try and send it to yourself, or you can send it to a friend who already has their account set up. I’d start with just 1$, it’s going to get cancelled anyway.

When they call, they speak English quite well, which is nice. They verified me and checked to see that I really did know the person I was sending money to, then they asked me to submit a copy of my visa stamp to prove I was actually in Senegal since I’m sending money to myself here. I assume for people who are living outside the country sending money to family back home, it is different, but for us expats, they want proof we are really here. I uploaded a photo of my visa, and that turned out to not be sufficient. The entry stamp in my passport was so faded I had to run it through some strong filters to make it visible, but eventually I got a version they accepted. The whole process takes a few days, but once it is set up, the money transfers are instant. 

Pay with Wave:
Shops that accept Wave payment have the Wave Penguin with their QR code ID. You just scan the code, enter the amount you want to pay, and boom. Some retailers want to see your screen to verify, some get a message on their own phones right away. When paying at shops, there’s no fee to use Wave.

The Sendwave/Wave combo not only saves me from excessive GAB visits and foreign transaction charges, it also saves me from the problem of exact change. I ordered delivery the other day and the guy didn’t have change. It was 12 and I had a 10 and a 5, so I gave him the 10 and sent the other 2 by Wave. Same thing happened in a Heetch car when the driver couldn’t break my 5. I kept my cash and paid him the full amount by Wave. This is a little trickier, since the drivers and delivery folx are not “vendors” they’re just people. In that case you pay a 1% fee to transfer, so you have to take that into account when entering the amount to pay and check the amount they receive. At first I thought they should take the hit when they don’t carry change, but then I remembered my place of privilege and paid the pennies myself.

There’s a way to buy Orange phone plans with your Wave account, but it only applies to your phone/data plan and does NOT appear in your regular Orange Money account, so don’t send a bunch of money to your Orange account thinking you can spend it through Orange Money. In fact, don’t use these services for large amounts of money until you’ve tested them on small amounts and feel comfortable with them, because if you mess up and you don’t speak French, it’s going to be hard to get help resolving it.

The Electricity

Woyofal is the electric company and there’s a link to them in both Orange Money and Wave apps. Like all things here, electricity is pre-paid. When your credit runs out, your power goes off. There’s a little meter that plugs into an outlet (which is really annoying since the outlets here already only have one plug instead of two) and you can see how many kwh you have left. The little light goes from green to red when you’re running low, and starts flashing just before you get cut off.

The tiny text at the top is all the codes you can enter to get various information. To top up your credit, you first need your unique account number, which you get by entering 804 + the blue button and waiting to see the number. It’s long and takes two screens, so be patient. I took photos of mine to keep it in an easy to find place. Once you have your number, you can go to your Wave or Orange Money app and follow the directions to pay bills, and open Woyofal. It should ask for the account number and the amount you want to add. When it goes through, you get a message with another really long string of numbers that is your confirmation code which you then go back to the little box plugged into your wall and painstakingly type in, followed by the blue button.

It sometimes takes a moment to catch up to itself. If the green light doesn’t come back, try typing 805+ the blue button to prompt it to display your remaining credit. It forces the machine to send and receive the signal. As far as I know, you can put as much as you want on there and unlike the phone minutes, it doesn’t expire. I have so far only put 10k on mine because I just got here and I wanted to test it out before doing a larger amount of money just in case I made a mistake in the process while learning. Again, with all these digital wallet things, do stuff in small amounts until you’re comfortable with it so you don’t lose much if something goes awry.

The process isn’t particularly difficult, but it is in no way intuitive to anyone coming from a country where utilities are post-paid and the bills are all online. Here is a more detailed blog about the Woyofal counter.

Shopping

This isn’t tourist shopping at the souk advice, it’s daily life stuff. There’s actually plenty of “how to shop at the market” advice out there (also I haven’t tried it yet), but not so much on “how to buy a new pillow and a coffee pot for your apartment”.

Food Delivery:

I’ve been using Dakar Food Delivery, but there’s also Bring Me and Yassir (I have not tried this last one yet). The hardest part of this is that apps are stuck in French (unlike websites which you can run through Google Chrome to auto translate) and that there are no addresses. Also the exact change thing. Some restaurants have online ordering through Google or their own website, so if the French is too much of an obstacle you can try that way, but you will still have to speak to the driver. Every driver is a new challenge. Somehow even though I live across the street from a pharmacy (which are excellent landmarks here because they all have unique names) my driver the other day ended up at the supermarket down the street, then said I didn’t speak French very well (which ok, yeah I don’t, but “pharmacie” and “supermarche” are not words I mix up).

Grocery Delivery:
You can get basic stuff at most corner stores, but sometimes you don’t want to cart heavy stuff home and sometimes you want stuff that’s not at the corner store. Bring Me has grocery delivery for the same day, but a fairly small selection. I am now using Club Tiossane which has to be scheduled for the next day (or more for some items) but is really easy to use and the delivery guy only had one question about my written directions, he wanted to know if I was to the left or right out of the elevator. They even called to follow up on my first order to make sure everything went well! I know Auchan also has a delivery option on their website, but I haven’t tried it yet.

Home Goods:
The larger grocery stores have some (as do the grocery delivery apps), but I had a bit of a search to figure out where to get new pillows since there’s no box stores here (Target, Wal-Mart, E-Mart, HomePlus, etc). Part of me is really happy there’s no Pottery Barn because I love small business, but it does make things harder. I ended up at a store called Orca which was definitely overpriced.

For anything you’re willing to get used, I’d say go back to the expat community. People are always going in and out so there’s plenty of stuff on offer. I was going to buy a used washing machine that way before my landlady decided she’d rather buy a new one herself. The Dakarium (ex Dakar Craigslist) group on Facebook seems to be the place for it. I just … don’t want used pillows, you know?

Finally, there’s Jumia, the “Amazon” of Africa (make sure you go to Jumia Senegal because the different countries have different Jumia sites). I suspect I could have ordered my pillows from there, but I wanted them that day (I was not sleeping well in the new bed on flat pillows). I have successfully used it to order some electronics for my office and more recently to order more henna and a coffee pot. Jumia is a bit complicated, like everything here. When you order, you can choose to have it delivered to your home or to a pick up point (so far, like Amazon, right?). Unless you have someone to receive the package when it arrives, home is not the best idea. My very first order, I chose the cash on delivery payment option and then realized that the delivery window was “sometime in the next 3 days”. Thankfully, it worked out, but I don’t want to do that again.

My second I chose the nearest pick up point, which is about 1km from me at the post office. There was no cash at pick up payment option so I had to schlep over to an Orange Money Kiosk to deposit the cash there in order to pay for the order on the website…I feel like Jumia would be perfect if it partnered with Wave instead of or in addition to Orange since you can digitally top up a Wave account, but you can only refill Orange Money by physically taking cash to the kiosk. However, the delivery worked just fine. They sent a text when it was ready to pick up and I walked on over, showed the text message as proof of purchase and got my new laptop.

My third order was almost bad, but ends up being a reassuring story. I found a coffee maker for much cheaper than the ones at Orca, ordered it to the pick up point, submitted my Orange payment, and then something went awry. The money left my Orange account and I got a payment confirmation text from Orange, but Jumia denied receiving it! I tried to call the help line, but either the connection was bad or they just couldn’t deal with the language barrier because they hung up. I sent a message through the online help instead and waited. They called back again the next day, but by the time I found the TV remote to mute my show so I could hear them, they had hung up again. All this was over the weekend, and I was planning to get a friend who speaks better French to help me on Monday, but before I could, I got a message saying my items had shipped. When I logged back into the website, I saw that the items were still in my cart but also that duplicate items were listed as in process. I’m not sure if the website sorted itself out, or if someone read my message and fixed it manually on their end, but it got fixed, which is the important thing.

Getting Around

Taxis are everywhere, but they are not metered in Dakar. I heard this isn’t a problem in other parts of Senegal, but I don’t have this luxury. So, you flag down a taxi and DO NOT GET IN. Instead, standing a bit back from the window for safety, you tell them where you want to go and ask how much and then haggle because they are trying to overcharge you. To make this more fun, there are no addresses, so you have to tell taxis where to go by landmark and be prepared to tell them more details when you get closer. Oh, and they don’t speak English. In fact, many of them don’t even speak French well. They are often poor and undereducated coming in from the countryside to work… or coming from other countries, because it’s a desirable place to live in Africa, and like any large city, there’s a big migrant and immigrant population. 
(Image Credit: Boydiop2, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The buses are wild. As in untamed. There are buses, I’ve seen them. They are stuffed to the brim. I’ve taken uncomfortable and crowded public transit before, but I think I’m going to follow the Embassy advice and not do it here. Not only are they very uncomfortable, but you have to have exact change, and know where you want to get off because there’s no marked stops. Even if you speak French or Wolof well enough to ask the driver about the route, you are not likely to be able to get to him for the crowd. Plus, with so many people packed in, it’s a prime place for pickpocketing. I might try the bus one day, when I can leave everything valuable at home or tuck it into my traveler’s belt under my shirt, just so I can see what it’s like first hand, but it’s not the kind of thing you want to rely on to get a place.
(Image Credit: Dr. Alexey Yakovlev, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Ride share services have recently launched here! The only two services in Senegal are Russian owned Yango, and French owned Heetch. There’s no Uber or Lyft, I’m afraid. Yango launched in December 2021 and Heetch launched in January of 2022, so this is really new. You will need to register with a phone number, and as yet there’s no way to add a digital payment option inside the app (although if you don’t have right cash, you can probably use Wave with the driver). It took me several tries to get Yango to work, so if that happens, just uninstall and reinstall the apps and try again. Stuff doesn’t always work here. Yango and Heetch cars are significantly nicer than the taxis. The drivers are less likely to be harrassy, more likely to speak French or even some English, and more likely (but not guaranteed) to have change than taxi drivers. There’s also a way to complain to the company if there’s a problem.

The ride share apps allow you to enter your location by searching for a business name or selecting a location on the map. This is really great since there are no addresses, but it’s not something most drivers are used to yet. No matter what you put in, they still call and ask where you are and where you’re going after they accept your ride request. I actually turned on the “don’t call me unless its an emergency” option in Yango and it made zero difference. I’m hoping this will improve over time, but honestly, I had taxis in Korea who couldn’t use GPS either, so …. Anyway, be prepared to explain it in French to a very impatient driver. I find I often can’t understand them on the phone either because of background noise or bad connection or just because they are talking too fast or with slang. In that case you can send a text message, a WhatsApp message or message through the app itself, allowing you to use the translating app of your choice. Most of the app drivers have a minimum level of tech ability and literacy that allows them to deal with the text messages. (side note, people actually prefer calling to texting here, and even in the text based app WhatsApp they will record and send voice messages rather than type. I love talking on the phone to my friends, but it’s a solid nightmare to try and do it in another language)

Always Ask

Things here are changing rapidly. I learned all this by asking and searching on Google, but there are expats embedded here and even locals that don’t know some of this because many of the more convenient digital/online services just launched in the last year or two and they stopped looking for better ways to do things. If you don’t know how to do a thing or where to buy a thing, ask and keep asking until you find a solution that works for you. If I’d listened to the people who were supposed to help me, I’d be in much worse shape, living in a way less nice apartment and overpaying for most things or just doing without. Instead, I found a couple of Americans who had been here for long enough to share what they had learned and compiled everyone’s knowledge gems into one place. I hope this guide is helpful to someone. I know I would have loved to know these things before I landed here, but even if the details become obsolete, the basic advice of “keep asking” will always be true.

EU Mobile Data : An Informative Rant

While WiFi is becoming more common, and the EU recently passed the free roaming rules, getting mobile data as a non-EU resident is more challenging than it needs to be. I read a lot of blogs before I went and no one really seemed to know what I should do. If you’re an EU citizen, it’s great, because you can travel anywhere in the EU and use your home plan without paying more. As a tourist, it gets … complicated.

Some people (mostly older than me) may wonder why I’m so data dependent. It is really a convenient way to combine your travel guide, phrasebook, map, and camera in one little device. Sure, paper can’t “break down” but it can be heavy to carry all of those things, and they can be lost or damaged, too. I just like being able to look up any and all necessary info on the go while traveling. How and where to get my SIM card is one of the most critical parts of preparing for a trip.

This post is part rant, and part hopefully useful information for future travelers who encounter the same obstacles I did.


Paris:

I arrived in the airport quite late at night and all the shops that might have had SIM cards were closed. Instead, I got my first SIM card the following morning at a little neighborhood shop. I opted to use LycaMobile as my service provider.

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I bought a month worth of data thinking it would work all over Europe. I was wrong. I can’t tell you what you should buy for an EU trip starting in Paris, but I advise that whatever company you chose, start with the minimum purchase and add more GB later if it works. That way if it stops working when you cross a border, you don’t loose as much. Oh, and don’t expect to be able to add data or minutes using any online form of payment unless you’re a resident of the country you bought the SIM card in since they don’t let foreign bank accounts pay online!


Belgium:
My mobile data stopped working as soon as the bus crossed the France-Belgium border. It said I was running with 3G but refused to load anything. I tried to fix it but nothing worked. Brussels has a lot of free WiFi so I survived my arrival, but the smaller towns were not so convenient.

I was stuck going to Ghent without data because it was the only time I could see St. Bavo’s, but the next day back in Brussels I tried to find the LycaMobile shop, thinking maybe they could get my SIM card from France to work.

I walked around aimlessly because I just could not orient myself on the map without mobile data to fill in the blanks. I used to read paper maps, I feel like I’m usually good at maps, but for some reason the streets of downtown Brussels were confusing as heck to me.


Finally I found it and it turned out to be two dudes in a tiny room with one fan and one desk and a lot of people in line. (That photo is from Google Maps, the day I went it was sunny and there were WAY more people in line, but this is about what it looked like.) The line was short when I walked up but it grew fast. LycaMobile is the cheap phone service of choice in the EU which is why I picked it, but I was not the only person having problems. In Belgium you have to register your sim card at an authorized shop and there aren’t many of them. The only other white people in the line were also backpackers.

The guy who helped me really did his best. He tried everything to get it to work and when he couldn’t he took it to his boss. In the end the answer was definitive: LycaMobile France and LycaMobile Belgium aren’t really the same company, just owned by the same company, so this isn’t really our product.

I don’t blame the guys at the shop (well maybe the one in Paris who should have known this was going to be a problem), but I must recommend AGAINST LycaMobile for non-EU residents who want to do multiple countries. They get good reviews online which is why I chose them, but when I went back and looked later, all the good reviews were from EU citizens.
Orange had some bad reviews from non-EU citizens that were basically once they got your pre-paid money, they don’t care if your service works.

Proximus looked like my best option so I went to find the one in the train station. The line was long again but it was a real retail store and not some shady looking box with two guys at one desk in front of a roll up security door the way LycaMobile had been. (this photo is from Proxiumus’ website, but you get the idea)

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When it was my turn the sales person helped me to understand the way the card worked as well as how to top up. For 10€ I got the card and 500Mb. It doesn’t seem like much but they’re is a lot of free WiFi around, so it is enough if you’re careful about uploading and streaming. I asked the sales clerk about the Netherlands and she said she thought it should work but urged me not to buy too much data just in case (refreshing to be urged to spend less!).

Important to note, that while the SIM must be purchased in a regulated shop and registered, top up cards are all over the place. I was told you can only top up online with a Belgian credit card, so once I leave Belgium won’t be able to get more. I was going to be in Belgium technically 2 weeks, one in Brussels and the other in Lanaken, the small town near Maastricht, Netherlands where my Airbnb was located just on the Belgian side of the border. During that week I’d be going across to The Netherlands and Germany, and I figured if the data worked I could buy lots before finally leaving Belgium for good.

One more thing I noticed, when I got LycaMobile in France I had to activate roaming on my phone for it to work… even though I was in France. I thought it was weird but also thought maybe it was a feature of the global plan that it was just always roaming.
My Belgian plan looked like normal data, no roaming needed in Belgium which is more in line with my expectations.

Later that week, on my way to Antwerp, I had another mobile mishap. I didn’t realize I needed the PIN code to restart my phone, sooooo I accidentally locked myself out for the day (the PIN was in my hotel room and I was already at the train station!) In addendum to recommending Proximus, I would urge users to carry their SIM pin on them in case the phone resets.


The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway

Proximus worked smoothly across Lanaken (Brussels), Maastricht (Netherlands) and Aachen (Germany). I decided to buy what I hoped was enough data for the rest of my trip through Germany since I thought I would not be able to top up once I left Belgium.

I had zero issues all throughout the Netherlands (Den Haag, Amsterdam), crossing back into Belgium (Leige), and in Hamburg, Germany. The Proximus service occasionally took a few minutes to adjust to crossing a border while it searched for a new network but it operated exactly as advertised.

I also discovered the happiest of circumstances while in Germany. I accidentally forgot to use my WiFi to upload photos and it ate all my data. I had been told that it would not be possible to purchase top ups outside Belgium without a Belgian bank account, however, the Proximus website had a PayPal option!!!!! I was able to top up my account from Germany using my Korean PayPal. Plus, buying top-ups came with free Mb, so it was actually a very good deal financially. I was able to stop worrying about hoarding my data bytes and just enjoy the trip for the rest of the EU countries.

TDLR? LycaMobile BAD. Proximus GOOD!

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Moscow

I heard that there was tons of free WiFi all over Moscow, so I decided that my 20 hour layover didn’t require a SIM card. I regret this decision.

I was able to use the WiFi in my hostel with no issue, but when I tried to log into the free WiFi at the metro station, I could not get anything to load.

During lunch, I asked the staff of the hotel restaurant if there was any way to log on, but without a room number or Russian phone number it was impossible. They didn’t even have a guest account available for customers of the bar or restaurant. The more places I went, the more I realized this is just the way it works. Even Starbucks, a place famous for it’s free WiFi was inaccessible to anyone without a Russian phone number.

Wi-Fi has already been rolled out on six of the metro's 12 lines.

Eventually, I was able to figure out the public WiFi on the metro; however, two things: it only worked IN the subway cars (not on the platform or in the station), and the internet access was severely limited, allowing me to use Google Search and Google Maps, but not Facebook or Instagram. It did help a little, but it was hard because the service would also stop every time the cars pulled into a station!

So, if someone tells you not to bother with a SIM card because there’s plenty of free WiFi they are both right and wrong. Depending on when your helpful adviser was last in Moscow, there may have been an abundance of free public WiFi. However, just like the EU is changing it’s roaming rules, the Kremlin is kracking down on anonymous internet use. In 2014 the government began to implement laws requiring netizens to have some kind of ID to get online. I’m assuming this is why you have to be a guest at a hotel to use their wifi (the hotel collects your ID), or you have to get your confirmation code via text to a phone number that is also matched to your ID somewhere.

The WiFi is still free to use in the sense that it doesn’t cost money, but you can’t use it without some kind of ID. If I had known, I would have made getting a SIM a higher priority since it seems they are not too hard to find, but by the time I realized that WiFi was going to be impossible, I was more than halfway through my day and had no way to look up where to buy a SIM!


I didn’t receive any kickback for reviewing any of the companies above. This is just my experience and opinion in the hopes that my trial and error may help out a fellow traveler some day. Also, as I noticed myself, the times they are a’changin’, so if you’re reading this post in the distant future, please double check that these policies are still in effect for the time of your trip.

Bureaucracy Wars Episode III: Revenge of the SIM

As some of you may know from reading my previous posts about bureaucracy: The Visa Saga or Clash of the Bureaucracies, I tend to wait until the situation has become ludicrous bordering on the the Kafkaesque, a feat of clerical confounding that would make Orwell or Gilliam reach for the typewriter with pure inspiration before I type it into a blog story. Well, it’s finally happened again. I cannot fit all of the absurdity and frustration of this event into a mere facebook post any longer.

Let me begin with the Iqama.

This is the Saudi equivalent of a green card. It is a national identification card that you will use for everything while living here. It will take you at least three months to get this once you move here. For me, the Iqama journey started the day after I landed, back in early September. My first full day in Saudi I was driven to a medical clinic where they took some samples, asked for my passport and the 6 passport photos I’d been told to bring, and (supposedly) began the Iqama application process.

They returned my passport and sent me on my way. I thought this was odd, because everyone told me that the government would need to keep my passport while the Iqama was processed, but that this didn’t matter too much since I couldn’t leave the country until then anyway.

So then at the end of September, weeks later, I come to find out that they should not have returned the passport, and have not started processing the Iqama yet. But, now it’s Eid (a two week holiday when all the government offices will be closed) so they won’t get to it until the second week of October.

Ok. mafi mushkela. Deep breath. Keep waiting, Inshallah they will hurry and you will have it in only six weeks.

Why is this a problem? Well, because you can’t do anything without the Iqama. You can’t get a SIM card, cell phone or bank account. So it’s not just about leaving the country, but about getting off this cheap pre-paid dumb phone my boss has purchased on her Iqama for me to use in emergencies, and about being able to pay my US bills with my Saudi salary, cause it’s doing me no good accumulating in my lingerie drawer.

So, after much fuss and pestering, I finally get my Iqama on November 10th, a little over 2 months after I arrived, so really, despite the bad start, not too bad. Time to get a real phone! (check out the phone buying adventure/disaster in Smart Phone, Dumb Dating) In addition to the skeezy guy hitting on me as I got my SIM card set up, there was some serious confusion about the payment options. I was initially issued a pre-paid card, then issued a second post-paid card.

Now, in the US pre-paid is usually more expensive per minute and more limiting in data. Contracts where you agree to pay a certain amount per month tend to be a better deal. So, I thought that was likely to be the same. Silly me. More on that later, however, because now we get to the real reason I need a SIM card of my very own, the bank account.

You need a SIM to open a bank account, and you need and Iqama to get a SIM. So, Iqama: check, SIM: check… time to go to the bank, right?

Oh, no.

You also need a bank letter. This is a letter from your employer (who sponsored your Iqama) saying that you are employed and earning a salary. I’m not really sure why this isn’t obvious by the fact that I have an employer sponsored Iqama, but I need another piece of paper, so I ask my boss about this paper. Riyadh is working on it.

Why? I ask, did they not just send it with the Iqama? It’s not like getting a bank account is optional for me. The company requires me to get one so they can direct deposit my paycheck. Up to this point, they have been depositing it in my boss’s account and having her give it to me in cash… which we both dislike. So the company knows I need a bank letter whether I want the account for any personal reasons or not. So, why wait until I’ve received the Iqama (FedEx, btw) to start processing this letter (which also will be sent FedEx)????? Why not just start processing it as soon as possible and send them together?

My boss’s answer: because that would make sense. You see why I like her.

Sixteen days later, the bank letter arrives. It is now Wednesday November 26th. But I can’t go to the bank immediately. Bank hours are the same as school hours, so I have to leave school to go to the bank. Fortunately it is in my contract that the school must give me paid leave time to do this in. However, when any teacher is absent, their class is split among the remaining 2 teachers, so if possible, some forewarning and planning is appreciated by all. Thursday is quiz day. Friday and Saturday the banks will be closed. Sunday is the first day of the week and not a great day for me to miss class. So Monday or Tuesday it will be.

I leave as early as is reasonable, about halfway through my second class. Assuring the students I will be back for class three after lunch (and this is why we say Inshallah instead of committing to anything). We drive …

My driver has been having some attitude and entitlement issues of late. He stops at a couple of gas stations on the way. This is not ok. He’s been told to fill up the tank either before he picks us up or after he drops us off. And I’m trying to get to the bank and back to school in time to scarf some food before class three! So I text the SD, who has the AA call and tell him not to waste time (in Arabic).. while I’m still in the car. So natch, the driver gets mad at me for ratting him out. How hard is it to just do your job?

I go into the bank and take a number and sit down to wait my turn. It is a very long queue. I continue texting with the SD to remonstrate him for getting the driver mad at me. Whereupon, he apparently calls the driver and bawls him out (which I hear about much later). Next thing I know the driver has come into the bank and started demanding someone who speaks English to come and help me (even though it is not my turn).

This works. Not surprising really since so much in Saudi is about who you can get to listen. They take my Iqama to begin the process.

No, we cannot open account for you.

Turns out my name is spelled wrong in Arabic on the Iqama. I feel like my face is going to split and peel off in frustration at this point. I call my AA to help with some translation, because the driver has something to say but has very limited English.

He says we can go to (Arabic word I can’t recall) office and get them to change the Iqama there. No problem. Women can’t go into the building, but it’s ok, he’ll handle it, I can wait in the car. We arrive at the building just as Duhr prayer begins, so we have to sit it out. After about 30 minutes (did I mention this is the one day I decided to leave my water bottle in my office?), he can enter the building.

He comes back and asks me to go with him. So I go in, the only woman, feeling very conspicuous. We shuffle from one unmarked office to another. There are no numbers or names or departmental descriptions on these doors, just halls and halls of doors. (what did I say about the absurdity?). If nothing else, his impatience pays off here because he just keeps bothering people until we get to the right office.

He comes back out of the office unsuccessful and gestures me to follow him back to the car and to call my AA for translation. It turns out that they won’t allow him to make any changes on my behalf unless he has a stamped letter from my employer processed through Riyadh. And they won’t let me make any changes on my behalf unless I have a penis.

So, the Iqama must go back to Riyadh to be fixed. Oh, it gets better. I’ve already made plans to go to Dubai for my birthday in December, and you need to use your bank account to pay for your exit visa. But I can’t get a bank account. So I can’t pay for my exit visa. Because my name is spelled wrong on my Iqama.

Let me talk about the phonemes of Arabic. My last name starts with a hard CH sound. Arabic does not have this phoneme. The sound does not exist in the language. Words like “chocolate” and “sandwich” are pronounced with a soft “shh” sound. So when you want some Pringles, it sounds like you’re asking for a woolly grazer that goes “baaa”. They CAN’T spell my name “right” in Arabic. So this is semantic. They want a different incorrect spelling of my name.

We can do this! We find out how to enable my boss to use her bank account to pay for my visa and I give her the cash. So at least the trip isn’t ruined. And I turn over my Iqama expecting the new one to be back by the time I am. Not so much. A few days ago, the company informs us that they cannot fix the Iqama without the Passport, which my boss tells them they are not getting until I get back from Dubai. I did mention I like her, right?

Then, this Sunday (remember that’s the first day of the workweek), while I am sitting locked out of my office (cause my boss has my key) I discover that my mobile data is not working on my phone. Neither is my text, or calling. Looking at the date, I realize it has now been one month exactly since I signed up for my new phone, and because I have no bank account, I have not been able to pay the bill, so the service has (probably) been cut off.

When I get home, I try to log on to the website, thinking I will just pay the bill online and all will be well. However, the website tells me that “in order to protect me” I will be sent a text message with a secret code to log in on a new machine…. But, they’ve turned the phone off, and I can’t receive text messages.

So I download the app, thinking that if I’m logging in FROM the phone, this should prove I have the phone in my hand as effectively as a text message PIN. Right? Right? Nope. The app in the phone wants to send me a text too… I can’t even.

Ok! Well, I’ve logged in from my office computer before so it should be in the system, I’ll just deal with it in the morning before class. Nope. Still wants to send me a text. So, I meander over to my boss’s office over lunch to commiserate, and let her know that I’m not able to get calls/texts cause that’s actually work related news, and that I’m going to try to go into the shop the next day to pay the bill in person.

This moment is one of the things about Saudi I may never get used to. Advice here is infinite and contradictory. All the people who give you advice are well meaning. And I’m sure that each one of them is truthfully telling you what worked best for them. The problem is, that nothing seems to work the same way twice. It’s like there is an irrational number of possible methods to accomplish anything here. Infinite and non-repeating. So, when I mention the post-pay to my boss, she asks, why are you doing it that way?

Remember back at the beginning of this story I said it works different here? Turns out pre-paid is the better deal 9 times of 10. Especially for data plans. My post paid plan was 200 SAR/month for 2GB of data and unlimited in-network calls. To be honest, I felt like I was back in 2001, limited data and “in-network” calling? who does that anymore? But, I figured, hey, they didn’t even get camera phones until 2004, obviously they’re behind the times on the phone thing.

Pre-paid plans offer unlimited data plans for a decreasing cost in bulk amount. A year is 1500 SAR (breaks down to 125/mo, way cheaper and unlimited). Then you pay for calls by the minute. But since I hardly ever call anyone (sometimes call the driver to say I’m finished… usually less than a minute), and can communicate with the other teachers on WhatsApp or email, I don’t actually need calling minutes as much as I need data.

Awesome! I’ll just pay off this bill and leave the post paid deactivated, switch back to the pre-paid and get on the unlimited data bandwagon. Only a few problems with this.

One, I don’t have my Iqama. My boss handed it over to be shipped off to Riyadh to be “fixed”.

Two, I can’t find the other SIM card. !!!. I distinctly remember putting the teeny tiny SIM card into a little jewelry box, then putting that box inside the box my phone came in with all the warranty junk and receipts so I would have all the phone stuff in one place that was hard to loose.

Oh safe places. You know the ones I mean. The safe places that are so safe you can’t ever find them again? I turned my entire (small) apartment upsidedown looking for that box. I could see it in my mind. I looked in every drawer and cupboard. I got a flashlight and looked under the couch. I got the wobbly chair and looked on top of the wardrobe. I moved all the couch cushions and found a pencil I thought I’d lost forever.

Finally, I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to get a new pre-paid SIM card. But for this I would need my Iqama for sure. But I could call or text the SD who had it. And I couldn’t call or text my driver to cancel the afternoon trip to the store. So, using the internet alone, I What’sApped my boss, to explain the situation and ask her to contact the other SD to arrange to get my Iqama and reschedule the driver.

Whew!

Then I sat down and spotted the box.

I took out the pre-paid SIM and installed it in the phone. But I decided it was still probably better to go ahead and get the Iqama and go to the store the next day after all the hubbub and confusion.

Finally, today, the day I went to the store to pay the bill and get the unlimited data plan. My driver picks me up at 4, after Asr prayer, and we drive and drive. Apparently its a long way away. I go into the store, same as last time I was there, but am shooed away and told to go in the other door.

Now, I don’t know if it’s because last time I had a man with me or what. But the “other door” led into a tiny white room with a tiny square hole at about face height. There was a big standing advert blocking my view of the main store (although I’m sure it was meant to be blocking the men’s view of me), and a little bell to allow me to summon a clerk.

In broken English, we establish that I am a current customer, that I have two numbers, that I want to pay a bill and recharge a card.

He goes away. He comes back. I can pay the bill with ATM. I explain I do not have such a thing, I do not have a bank account, I only have cash.

He goes away. He comes back. I cannot pay with cash. But I can recharge the pre-paid phone with cash… Soooo, this place is set up to handle cash. I paid for my SIMs originally in cash. The man who was with me at the time was told he could not pay for his router with a card, and had to pay in cash. But I can’t pay my bill with cash?

He goes away. He comes back. Nope, no cash. He tells me I can pay at a bank. I explain again I cannot pay with a card. I switch to broken Arabic: Iqama mushkela, mafi bank. There is a problem with my Iqama, I don’t have a bank. Inshallah, maybe one month I will have a bank and can pay. Finally, he is able to express that I can take cash into a bank and pay the bill through the bank even without an account. I remain skeptical, but this is irrelevant because banks are only open during school hours and I’m not taking more time off school to pay this bill. They can wait.

Ok. Ok. But what about the pre-paid card. I explain the offer on the website of unlimited data, and he says but not all phone numbers, maybe yours.

He goes away. He comes back. Ok. Your phone number ok. So I explain I would like to pay for the data plan and also put some additional money on the Sawa (the money used for pay by the minute calling). I hand him the money.

He goes away. He comes back. No. Finished. He cannot process the request, despite having told me earlier in our conversation that they could take cash for pre-paid. And he can’t really explain why, because the poor man’s English is just not that good.

I have learned some things about Saudi behavior by interacting with my students. These last seven weeks of emotional displays and demands for explanations of every policy or decision coming from women with limited English has given me a very direct and visceral understanding of how they react to unwanted situations, how they are culturally programmed to react. So, I channel my students. Why?! I demand, voice warbling into a higher tone, approaching the whine threshold.

I turn away, I raise my hands, tears well in my eyes as I continue to plead for assistance. He tries to tell me I can go to Extra or Panda (other stores) to buy a Sawa recharge, but I don’t know how to do this either, and I don’t see how it will help with the data plan, since all I know of Sawa is the pre-paid minutes aspect.

Perhaps I should be ashamed of my adopted histrionics. In the US, when confronted with something this frustrating, I would have calmly thanked the clerk, then left the store and screamed in the privacy of my own car while banging on the steering wheel to release tension before finding a new solution. But here, it’s actually rewarding to channel that frustration into an emotional display.

The clerk then offered to come outside to explain to my driver (in Arabic) what needed to be done. The driver then took the cash and I sat down in the waiting room and was brought a cup of sweet Turkish coffee to enjoy while I waited.

About 30 minutes later, the clerk came in with the receipts my driver had brought back, and then programmed all the credit into my phone, and signed me up for the internet plan I wanted. And, apparently for buying so much Sawa at once, I got like an extra 100 SAR credit on my phone too! Looks like I shouldn’t have to worry about paying for anything on the phone for at least the next 6 months.

To be sure the Bureaucracy Wars aren’t over yet, but I’m closing this chapter with a win. SIM card and Data Plan – achievement unlocked.