You will find 3G and 4G networks throughout the UAE, while the 5G cellular wireless network is available in many parts of the country.
Free Wi-Fi is also widely available in public areas and transport throughout the UAE.
The Emirates unveiled WiFi UAE, a countrywide initiative to provide a free, high-speed wireless internet connection, in 2015. WiFi UAE is available to use on public transport, including Dubai RTA taxis, Dubai Metro and Abu Dhabi buses.
You can use your own mobile phone if it is global system for mobile (GSM) compatible and unlocked, which means it is not locked on to a specific carrier.
Here’s our guide on how to choose a service provider, compare costs, buy Sim cards and how to ensure you make the best choice.
Who are the providers?
The UAE has two main telecoms service providers: etisalat by e&, formerly known as Etisalat, and du. Both offer coverage throughout the UAE.
Abu Dhabi-based etisalat by e& was founded in 1976 and is the UAE's oldest telecoms company. It has operations in about 16 countries across the Middle East, Asia and Africa, serving more than 156 million customers.
In the UAE, etisalat by e& recorded 13.9 million subscribers in the first quarter of this year.
Dubai-based telco du was launched in 2007. The company’s mobile customer base hit eight million subscribers in the second quarter of this year.
Both operators are licensed to provide public telecommunication services, which include landline, mobile phone, internet and satellite TV connections, according to Walaa Ibrahim, senior analyst – Middle East and North Africa at technology research and advisory group Omdia.
The parent companies of both providers launched virtual networks seeking the young customer.
Du launched the Virgin Mobile UAE app in 2017, targeting younger consumers. Virgin Mobile UAE is a subsidiary of du’s parent company, EITC, and it uses du’s mobile network to provide services.
Once the Virgin Mobile app is downloaded, users can select their own number (with the option to use their existing du or Etisalat by e& number), customise their mobile package according to their requirements, and have a Sim card delivered to their door.
Etisalat by e&, meanwhile, unveiled its own youth-oriented brand, Swyp, in the same year, targeted at millennial and Generation Z customers. Swyp, a branded prepaid mobile service, is only available for users between the ages of 18 and 29.
The UAE had 20.35 million active mobile subscriptions at the end of the first quarter of this year, according to Omdia’s market data.
“The UAE had a mobile penetration rate of 215 per cent at the end of the first quarter, according to Omdia’s research,” Ms Ibrahim says.
“Our research shows that there were 4.29 million postpaid mobile subscriptions and 16.06 million prepaid mobile subscriptions in the UAE at the end of Q1 this year.”
What is the best plan?
The mobile phone plan you are looking for depends on your needs: Prepaid or postpaid, tourist or resident, local minutes or international minutes, a little data or a lot of data, contract or no contract, phone or no phone.
However, coverage may vary, so ask friends or colleagues about which service provider they use and consider their feedback.
Most mobile phone users in the UAE use prepaid services. If you have just moved to the country, this is your best option so you can get an idea of network coverage, as well as a good understanding of what elements of the mobile plan you will be using more, such as data, minutes, text or international calling.
Both prepaid and postpaid plans offer users many options, allowing you to optimise it for your requirements and budget.
What documents are needed?
To obtain a postpaid mobile phone plan, you need a passport and Emirates ID card, says Keren Bobker, an independent financial adviser and senior partner with Holborn Assets in Dubai.
It used to be that a copy of a visa was required, but these are largely issued electronically these days and not stamped in passports, so an ID card should replace that, she says.
“Requirements for a prepaid plan are usually a passport and ID card and often credit card details to make the payment,” she says.
There are telecom provider kiosks in airport arrival halls in all the emirates, where you can obtain a Sim card, choose the plan based on your texting, calling and data needs, and start using the service.
“Tourists can pick up a free etisalat by e& or du Sim card at the airport. These have limited data but are a good option for a few days at least,” she says.
“Tourists can buy data packages from all three providers for a fixed amount, which can be a good option for a short stay.”
If you phone is unlocked, just insert the Sim card and get started. Use your provider’s website or app for top-ups or go to a grocery store or mall kiosks that sell top-up cards.
Which provider to choose?
Etisalat by e& and du are not known for their aggressive price competition. Instead, they compete on quality of services and flexibility of offers, says Ms Ibrahim.
Both operators offer diverse services and packages, including a range of postpaid and prepaid mobile plans. Both operators also offer fixed broadband, fixed voice and TV services, and devices that include smartphones, tablets and accessories.
“Virgin Mobile UAE offers an app-based service that allows the customer to tailor their mobile package to their needs and is focused on the young and individuals who are tech-savvy,” she says.
How to choose a plan?
To figure out what plan is best for you, first determine how many local and international minutes you would use on an average month through a few bill cycles.
For international calling, since Voice over internet Protocol services such as Skype and FaceTime are blocked in the UAE, another consideration is subscribing to an internet calling plan.
Etisalat by e&, du and Virgin all now offer unlimited calling through applications such as Botim and GoChat Messenger for a charge of Dh52.5 per month.
In terms of data, about 1GB a month is typically enough for those who use WhatsApp, Google Maps and light internet. For those who stream video and music, 5GB or higher is more suitable.
Some plans offer free Wi-Fi such as UAE Wi-Fi by Etisalat or Wi-Fi UAE du.
One of the main considerations is always going to be cost, but that is linked to the data package, according to Ms Bobker.
“You need to consider how much data you really need as there are so many free Wi-Fi options when out and about,” she says.
“Surveys have shown that Etisalat by e& has the best overall coverage across the UAE, but du and Virgin are not far behind.”
Factor in the offers from each company, number of free international minutes, number of minutes for free local calls, and whatever else you need for your standard use before making a decision, she says.
If you also require a landline, you can often get a deal on having both but if in doubt, always ask about offers and upgrades.
“When signing up for a postpaid plan, it is important to properly read the contract. Don’t just sign the forms assuming all is fine,” Ms Bobker says.
“Invariably, there are charges or penalties for cancellation or late payment and signing is accepting. The penalties can be substantial so do check for yourself.”
What are the options?
etisalat by e&
For prepaid customers, etisalat by e& has a choice of three lines: Wasel Flexi, Wasel Prepaid Line and Emirati Wasel.
Under Wasel Flexi, you can customise your plan according to your needs and you get 50 per cent off when you sign up for a 12-month plan. It starts from Dh35 per month and comes with a free Sim card and double data on all plans. The plan also offers unlimited calls to one e& mobile number.
The Wasel Prepaid Line comes with a free Sim card, per-second billing on local and international calls and starts from Dh30.
Emirati Wasel is a plan tailored for Emiratis and starts from Dh75 per month.
The visitor prepaid line for seven days costs Dh200 and includes such benefits as a new Sim and free activation, unlimited local data and 25 per cent off first two Hala taxi rides.
The visitor prepaid line for 14 days costs Dh319 and includes benefits such as a new Sim and free activation, unlimited local data and 25 per cent off first two Hala taxi rides.
The visitor premium line for one month costs Dh200 and includes a new Sim and free activation, 22.5GB of local data, 30 Wi-Fi hours and 25 per cent off first two Hala taxi rides.
The price of postpaid plans range from Dh125 to Dh500 per month. They provide a free Sim and free activation.
Some favour flexible minutes over local minutes, or the opposite, and most include a 12-month commitment.
The du website allows users to find the most appropriate plan by choosing between prepaid, postpaid or tourist options.
Prepaid plans start from as low as Dh25. While the Flexi plans are discounted when you pay upfront for a year and come with a free Sim and express delivery, among other benefits, the Pay As You Go plan gives you a Sim card for Dh55 with no contract commitments.
Postpaid plans for du start from Dh125 per month and go up to Dh1,000 per month. All prices exclude VAT.
Benefits vary per each postpaid plan and include features like free delivery of a Sim card for online purchases, free activation, flexi minutes, free WiFi UAE hours, roaming data, a Disney+ subscription, Amazon Prime membership and OSN streaming subscription, among others.
This is a fully digital mobile service. You can purchase a Virgin Mobile UAE Sim card on the app with a valid Emirates ID or passport if you are a visitor to the UAE.
They can also be purchased from kiosks at all UAE airports. If you purchase online, the Sim card will be delivered in 60 minutes, according to the carrier’s website.
Starter plans begin from Dh36.75 and go up to Dh52.5 and include a free Sim card and free delivery of the card as well as free data.
Meanwhile, a VIP Gold plan on a 12-month contract costs Dh7,056 and includes unlimited local minutes and monthly cashbacks with Virgin Mobile Rewards, among other features.
You can also build a customised mobile plan based on your data, local and international call and SMS requirements.
On the Swyp app, users can build a mobile plan based on their data usage and call preferences.
Prices start from Dh50.35 for a 1GB, 100 local minutes auto-renewal plan for 28 days, for example.