There may only be two service providers – Etisalat and du – but when it comes to picking a mobile-phone package, there are plenty of options.
It all 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.
The pricing for Etisalat and du packages is similar, but there are more options through the app-based Virgin Mobile UAE brand, owned by du parent company Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company, and Etisalat’s branded package swyp (which stands for “So, what’s your plan?”). Here's our guide on the deals to be had and the strategies to adopt to ensure you make the best choice.
There are 19.3 million active mobile subscriptions in the UAE, according to November 2018 data from the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. The penetration rate is 218.8 mobile subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. In comparison, there were 11 million subscriptions and a 198.5 penetration rate in 2011.
Etisalat, founded in 1976 and part of the Emirates Telecommunication Group, is the UAE’s oldest and biggest operator. Du launched in 2007. Both have similar network coverage and quality, according to TRA data.
Etisalat has 10.73 million mobile subscribers (58 per cent), while du has 7.89 million (42 per cent) as of the end of 2018. These numbers include swyp and Virgin Mobile, services that started in September 2017. Although those services do not disclose their numbers separately, a Virgin Mobile representative said the app was downloaded more than a million times.
Although swyp and Virgin Mobile are sometimes called mobile virtual network operators because they use the existing Etisalat and du infrastructure, they do not have separate operating licenses. Swyp is basically a branded package, while Virgin Mobile is a brand that was licensed from the Virgin group. Being app-based, they go after a specific segment of the market – younger and more tech-savvy. Swyp is only for users between the ages of 15 and 29.
Matthew Reed, practice leader for Middle East and Africa at consultancy Ovum, says the two operators generally do not aggressively slash prices.
“Given the structure of the market, the outcome is that they choose not to compete too fiercely on price,” says Mr Reed, who covers the telecoms sector.
Instead, they have promotions such as free double data and other perks.
Virgin offers competitive pricing because its overall costs are lower, but du's parent company is still careful not to "cannibalise its own service", Mr Reed says.
“Part of the proposition of Virgin is about price. It tends to be slightly better pricing and slightly lower-cost packages,” Mr Reed says. “The fact that it is an app means the costs should be lower because the customers are managing the service through the app and there is less need for customer-service staff.”
Prepaid vs postpaid
Of the 19.3 million active mobile subscriptions in the UAE, the vast majority (15.9 million) are prepaid – where the bill is paid in advance – rather than postpaid, where you receive a bill at the end of the month.
“Unlike Western Europe and North America, where operators offer a phone with packages to get people on a postpaid plan, prepaid is the dominant method,” says Mr Reed. “[UAE] operators are now trying to increase the number of postpaid customers because they tend to spend more and they’re in a contract, so you don’t have to go out and recruit them.”
The operators have done this by offering the flexibility of postpaid plans without contracts, while also offering incentives such as more data or discounts when you sign up for 12-month or 24-month contracts. The penalties for breaking a contract can be costly.
For Etisalat plans, it either costs Dh50 or Dh100 times the number of months remaining in the contract, depending on the package. For du plans, it can be anywhere between Dh100 times the remaining months for a 12-month contract (Smart 150) to Dh1,000 times the remaining months of the second year for a 24-month contract (Smart 1000).
For Virgin, the remaining amount on the plan is non-refundable if you cancel. Although you can upgrade your plan during the contract, you cannot downgrade it.
Choosing a plan
To figure out what plan is 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, du and Virgin all now offer unlimited calling through the applications BOTIM and C'ME for a charge of Dh52.50 per month.
Data can be tricky as well. About 1GB 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 through the UAE Wi-Fi (Etisalat), Wi-Fi UAE (du) or swyp networks.
Including a phone with your plan will require signing up for a contract.
We take a closer look at what the UAE’s telecom providers have to offer:
For prepaid customers, Etisalat has the choice of three lines: Wasel, Wasel Premium and visitor. The Wasel line costs Dh57.75 to activate, while the Wasel Premium line, which comes with a personal number of your choice and 3 GB data free per month for the first six months, costs Dh1,050. The visitor line costs Dh105 and includes such benefits as a free Dh100 Careem ride and discount vouchers.
Pre-paid packages include combo plans; one-day, one-week or one-month packs; local calling packages; and international calling packages. Prices range from Dh36.75 to Dh205 per month.
Post-paid plans, which cost Dh131.25 to activate, include Freedom, Emirati, Smart, new postpaid and premium postpaid. Prices range from Dh52.50 to Dh1,260 per month. Some favour flexible minutes over local minutes, or the opposite, and most include more data when you sign a contract.
Du's prices for activation are the same as Etisalat. But it has an online exclusive prepaid offer that waives the activation fee for a Dh52.50 package that includes 30 flex minutes and 750MB data. Du also waives postpaid line activation fees for customers who sign up for auto payments.
The du website allows users to find the most appropriate plan by choosing between prepaid, postpaid or tourist. Within prepaid, there is a choice between voice and data or data only, and daily or monthly recharge. Within postpaid, there are choices between national or flexible calling and light, medium or heavy data. The range of prices is similar to Etisalat.
A tourist line is as cheap as Dh26.25 for three days of 10 flex minutes and 150 MB data, up to Dh115.50 for 14 days of 40 flex minutes and 2 GB data.
Virgin Mobile’s distribution model is unique in that customers simply download the app, have the SIM card delivered them within an hour and activate it on the spot. Users can customise their data, local and international minutes from more than 125 different options and choose one-month, six-month or 12-month commitments.
The app is used to track usage, amend the plan if needed, set up monthly spend limits and add additional minutes, data or roaming packs.
There are many ongoing promo codes giving discounts for first-time customers (for example, WEB79 currently gives Dh79 off). Customers who want to switch from Etisalat or du can keep their existing number.
A swyp subscription costs Dh52.50 per month, but it only includes 5GB social data for apps like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter and LinkedIn. Add-ons start at Dh26.25 for 50 minutes or 500MB data.
The benefits include unlimited Wi-Fi through the swap network and 30 vouchers for shopping, dining and entertainment that renew every month. You can keep the line if you cross the age of 29 while still a swyp customer.