Kenyan Phone Tricks

Updated 2009/10/28: Added Safaricom unlimited details.
Updated 2009/07/15:
Updated modem info and yu rate info.
Updated 2009/07/01: Added more Orange CDMA/EVDO “Fixed Plus” info.
Updated 2009/03/23: Added Firefox DNS settings
Updated 2009/03/03: Added Orange Broadband / WiMax notes at bottom.
Updated 2009/02/04: Fixed typo in the “Data balance” table row.  Also updated yu info slightly.
Updated 2009/01/19: Orange Internet is finally working, so details on Orange have been added.

Because no one should ever have to remember all this nonsense, or have to track it all down, here is a Kenyan Internet Phone Phone Cheat Sheet.  If this doesn’t make sense to you, read the text below and then return to the table later.

  Orange Safaricom Zain yu
Speed / Availability EDGE, Nairobi and Mombasa and growing fast 3G in Nairobi and Mombasa, EDGE elsewhere EDGE almost everywhere, occasional drop to vanilla GPRS EDGE, Nairobi and Mombasa only
Activate SIM for first usage Enter PIN1, call 130 Enter PIN1 (no steps needed) ?
Top up *130#code# *141*code# 138*code ?
Check balance *131# (basic) or #123# (with options) *144# *133# ?
Instruct carrier to send APN settings to your phone Blank SMS to 1234 (or call #1234#), although neither works Blank SMS to 445 (or call *445#), although neither works SMS to 232 the word “all” (no quotes, all lowercase). ?
Manual APN settings you can put into your phone or your laptop if there are no presets.  You only need to put in one. (Format is username:password @ APN) saf:data @ safaricom web:web @ (supposedly for postpay “Advantage” but works for prepay too)
web:web @
(or use Zain settings)
internet:internet @
web:web @
Transfer credit into data plan Call #123#, when menu appears select option 4, then option 2, then pick your plan. SMS the word “activate” to one of the following numbers:
442 for 40MB
443 for 100MB
446 for 300MB
447 for 700MB
448 for 1GB
(no prepay plans available) ?
Buy a single day of UNLIMTED data. Send a blank SMS to: 555
Check data plan balance You will automatically receive an SMS with your balance every time you close your Internet connection. SMS the word “balance” to 450. (no prepay plans available) ?
Data price if no plan used or plan exceeded 7 ksh / MB 8 ksh / MB 10 ksh / MB 3 ksh / MB
40MB plan 250 ksh (6.25/MB)
50MB plan 250 ksh (5/MB)
100MB plan 450 ksh (4.5/MB) 500 ksh (5/MB)
250MB plan 850 ksh (3.4/MB)
300MB plan 1000 ksh (3.33/MB)
700MB plan 2000 ksh (2.86/MB)
1GB plan 2500 ksh (2.5/MB)
2GB plan 2000 ksh (1/MB)
Unlimited (rate is daily) 200 ksh (6000 ksh /month if you do it every day)    
Contained within is my attempt to clarify Kenya’s mobile phone situation for new visitors, especially current and future Peace Corps volunteers, who may not be the most technical people.


The Peace Corps recommends that you wait to buy a phone until you arrive.  I disagree.  Good phones here are rare, old, expensive, hard to find, and sometimes fake.  Buy a tri-or-quad band phone with 3G on eBay.  Size of the screen, keyboard, etc, is entirely up to you.  Small Nokias go unnoticed here because everyone has them, but nice phones unavoidably look expensive, and phone theft is apparently common here, so don’t spend your life savings, and for God’s sake don’t think you can pull out an iPhone and expect not to attract thieves.  My current suggestions: the Nokia 6220 Classic (no WiFi) or N79 (with WiFi).  The WiFi is good because you can leech off of other people’s Internet, if you can find it, without toting your laptop around town.  Great for downloading big files that would cost you a lot otherwise.

If you already own such a phone, but it’s locked into a contract, cancel your service but beforehand tell them you’re leaving the country and YOU NEED THE UNLOCK CODES.  They will give them to you if you persist, then just follow the instructions so your phone will work in other countries. If you are buying a new phone, make sure it is UNLOCKED.

Also buy a USB cable that will connect your phone to your laptop.  BUY THIS IN AMERICA, because not only is it expensive and hard to find here (special order at $50US when I was in Loitokitok), good luck even describing what you want to the phone store employee who mostly sells tacky faceplates.

Before you leave the US, install these program on your phone, or at least note them down so you can get them later:

  • Web browser: Opera Mini (if you have a Blackberry you NEED to download and install this before you disconnect your US service)
  • Email: Gmail Mobile (or if you use Hotmail or something else, the appropriate program if you can find it).  Gmail Mobile also works with Google Apps, which is how I have it set up.
  • Maps: Google Maps Mobile
  • Text chat: Skype Mobile
  • Alternate browser: TeaShark


You will decide on your phone company once you get here.  There are three viable options at the moment, with a fourth just starting:

  • Safaricom, the behemoth
  • Zain (previously Celtel), the contender
  • Orange, the European champ moving into Kenya
  • yu, currently only in Nairobi and just started in Mombasa.  I haven’t gotten Internet to work yet but supposedly they have a data network.

To get a line from any of these companies, just buy a SIM card in a shop that has a sign that says “Lines available here.”  Pretty simple, just pop it into your phone and then follow the instructions.  You can also buy little credit card-looking things with scratch-off codes that will add credit to your SIM card.  If you buy SIMs from different companies, each will have its own phone number.


The calling plans are pretty complicated even before you start worrying about Internet.  Most companies have at lest two “tariffs,” which is to say different plans.  They change a lot, so I won’t bother itemizing them, but after you’ve settled down here, ask around and look out for the fact that:

  • Sometimes buying credit in larger increments will lower your per-minute call rate and per-SMS rate.
  • Usually one tariff gives great deals on in-network calls but lame deals on cross-network calls
  • Another tariff usually blends the rates into one flat rate
  • Other tariffs might have good, or even unlimited, “night and weekend” type deals
  • None of these things affects the cost of the Internet, which is where all my money goes, since domestic calls and texts are really not that expensive and incoming calls (including international) are free.

Usually you are allowed to change your tariff once a month.  The way you accomplish this is the same way that you accomplish most things with these companies: you type cryptic, mostly undocumented numbers into your phone and hope that they work.  Usually they resemble *123# or #123#, were 123 are the secret numbers.  Sometimes you will hear people, and even advertisements say, “send a blank SMS to 123,” but I’ve never seen this work.  You usually need to type *123# or #123# (or whatever numbers) directly into your phone and dial.  I won’t bother looking up all the tariff codes… I don’t know them and they’ll probably change soon anyway, but just be aware that they’re out there.  Read the fine print on the posters to find the specific codes.


So now you want the Internet, both on your phone and on your laptop.  Let’s review how to do this.  First of all, good job, you bought a 3G phone, this leaves your options open.

To make the Internet work on your phone, what you need to do varies depending on your carrier.

For Safaricom: Call *445#.  You will get a message on your phone asking you to download your settings.  Do so. (I have never seen this word, sadly, since people usually get messages saying that Safaricom is temporarily unable to send settings, but it SHOULD work.)

For Zain: Send an SMS to 232 that says “all”.  (No quotes, all lowercase.)  You will get a message on your phone asking you to download your settings.  Do so.  This worked right away for me, and interestingly, if you pop in a Zain SIM and set it up, you can use the same settings for Safaricom.  I usually just leave my phone on the Zain settings and I can swap SIMs and surf the Internet with either with no problem.  It is not true the other way around— you can’t use the Safaricom settings for Zain.

For Orange: Send a blank text to 1234 (or my guess, call #1234#).  The text does nothing when I try and my guess doesn’t work either, but at least it says “coming soon” when you try.

It’s worth noting that if you have trouble with this, and you have a Nokia, your phone has a support option somewhere (depends on the model) where you can have Nokia send you your settings, in case your carrier is being dumb.  This is what I did at first for Safaricom.  If that fails, enter the APNs manually into your phone using the cheat sheet table.

INTERMISSION: A rainy day in Loitokitok (Cell tower in background)



You will probably also want to use your phone as a modem (called “tethering”) for your computer.  You can do this even if the Internet on the phone itself isn’t working.  These things are actually unrelated, which is usually sad to realize after struggling to get one to work… that was just the first hurdle!

Most brand name phones have some sort of software package you can install on your computer.  I connect through “Nokia PC Suite,” which is free and has presets for Safaricom and Celtel (now Zain).  I think it may even work on non-Nokia devices.  Anyhow, the more you can do on this front before you leave, the better, because downloading programs needed in order to access the Internet is incredibly difficult when you don’t have Internet.  The steps for this are completely phone-specific.  Find the nearest computer guru and task him/her with helping you set this up in advance.

You can also accomplish the above through Bluetooth (wireless phone/laptop communication), but it takes up extra battery and is slower, so why bother?  Just buy the cable.

Before you leave, you should install on your laptop the following free programs:

  • ZoneAlarm or similar software firewall (blocks all sorts of annoying programs from taking up all your Internet)
  • Opera web browser 10.0 or newer (syncs your bookmarks and stuff with Opera Mini): “Turbo Mode” can save you bandwidth!
  • Mozilla Fennec (mobile web browser that runs on your computer, fast and uses less bandwidth than a normal browser)
  • Firefox (and the below extensions)
    • ImgLikeOpera (more control over selectively allowing images)
    • Greasemonkey (needed to run the below)
      • My custom GreaseMonkey Mowser Images script.  This is a simple script that will make all images pass through Mowser, which is a web site that converts sites into phone-friendly versions.  In this case I’m on a laptop so I don’t want the site to be changed, but Mowser also recompresses images. Anyhow, I still mostly keep images off, but when I selectively “load image” using ImgLikeOpera, this script actually loads it from Mowser to save a lot of bandwidth.  If this ever becomes popular I’m sure Mowser will just stop allowing this.
    • User Agent Switcher (needed to run the below)
      • My custom User Agent list. You can trick sites into thinking you’re using any number of mobile phones, so they’ll give you streamlined versions of their pages.  Gmail for instance gives a cool little version for iPhone and Android, and a super-basic version for the other mobile browsers.
    • Flashblock (forces you click on a Flash element in order to start it— nice bandwidth saver!)
    • Adblock Plus
    • Google Gears (may help you if you use WordPress or other web apps that can take advantage of it)
    • Type about:config into the Firefox address bar and change the rightmost values so they match the below.
    • Do the same for the following, but you will also need to right-click and select “New -> Integer” and type everything to the left of the semicolon.  Then enter the number value to the right.  Doing so will save you a little time and bandwidth because you will have to contact your DNS servers less often.
  • Windows Live Writer or similar offline blogging program, great if you have a blog.
  • Mozilla Thunderbird (and try to set up your email on it before you leave—it’s nice to be able to read old emails and open attachments without having to get online every time)

Because you pay your phone carrier per megabyte (upload/download combined), all of those little auto-update programs on your computer can cost you money and can also slow everything else down.  ZoneAlarm takes care of this by asking you every time a program wants to connect to the Internet.  Get used to saying “No” a lot.  Even with this, you will notice that the Internet on your laptop costs more than on your phone.  This is because the web browser on your phone intercepts data and compresses it before giving it to you, which saves money for you.  This is called a “transcoding proxy server.”  Mozilla Fennec and Opera 10.0 do the same things for your laptop, so use them when you can.  Images cost more than text, so in Opera I stay in “cached images” mode, and only download images when I really need to, and they will then show up on subsequent visits to that page.  Firefox seems to have a clunkier images off/on method, so I use Firefox only for site that use Gears.  Google it and see if any site that you regularly visit can take advantage of Gears.  Live Writer is also great because you can prepare blog entries before you go online, and then you can simply press one button and let it go.  It will shrink the images before uploading them and prevent annoying copy/paste.


If you set up all the above and take no extra steps, credit will simply deplete from your account on a per-megabyte basis.  The rates, to my knowledge, are as follows:

  • Safaricom: 8 shillings per megabyte
  • Zain: 10 shillings per megabyte
  • Orange: 7 shillings per megabyte
  • yu: 3 shillings per megabyte

An MP3, for example, is about 3 megabytes.  Using Skype Video in a rural area will take up maybe 1MB per minute.  These are ballpark numbers if you are not familiar with such things.

If you use more than, say, 50MB per month, you should look into some of the more specific data plans.

  • Safaricom Prepaid: this one is pretty easy.  Basically, if you have enough in you account, you can simply allocate it to a separate monthly data plan.  No contract or anything, just more cryptic codes to put in your phone, so it’s pretty safe to do.  There are three tiers, each with their own instructions:
    • 300MB that will expire in three months’ time: 999 shillings.  This is 3.33 shillings per MB.  If you go over you will just be charged at the normal rate.  Make sure you have enough credit and then send an SMS to 446 with the word “activate”, all lowercase, no quotes.
    • 700MB, 1999/-, 2.85/- per MB: same deal but send the SMS to 447.
    • 1GB, 2499/-, 2.44/- per MB: same again but 448 this time.
    • They recently added 40 and 100MB plans also… see the table for details.
    • The money will come out of your normal balance immediately and you can then check your data balance by sending an SMS to 450 that says “balance” (all lowercase, no quotes).
    • Safaricom also offers an UNLIMTED DAILY package.  Send a blank SMS to 555 to activate for a single day’s time.
  • Safaricom Postpaid: Only viable in the big cities I think, so just visit Safaricom if that’s possible for you.  These are just more expensive versions of the prepaid plans that also lock you into a contract.
  • Zain Prepaid: No plans exist… just the regular per-MB rate.
  • Zain Postpaid: 500MB, 1500/-, 3/- per MB.
  • Zain Postpaid UNLIMITED: This one appears to be a real bargain if you can work out the postpay situation where you’re staying.  3000/-, UNLIMITED DATA.
  • Orange: Plans similar to Safaricom, but with lower lows (plans down to 50MB and higher highs (up to 2GB, the best non-unlimited deal out there).


Each company has a flagship phone that they’d like to sell you, but if you show up from America with that phone, you can probably just get into the phone-specific deal if you want.

Safaricom and Zain: Pretty much identical Blackberry plans.  Zain is pushing the newer Blackberry Bold phone, which is weird because it’s a 3G phone and only Safaricom is 3G.  UNLIMITED DATA (but only when using the Blackberry browser and email programs, other things charged separately), 2000/-.  Good deal if you love using the built-in Blackberry web browser, which doesn’t really allow you to download big files.  Any data usage outside of the built-in Blackberry programs costs extra.  If you want to go down this road and you have a 3G-capable Blackberry, you might as well go with Safaricom because at least they have 3G in Nairobi and Mombasa.

Orange: exclusive Kenyan dealer of the iPhone 3G (like Zain, Orange does not have a 3G network, so don’t get too excited).  300MB for 5000/-, which also includes a certain amount of airtime and SMS’s.

I have a hard time getting excited about the phone-specific deals.


As just mentioned, Safaricom has 3G in Nairobi and Mombasa.  In the Mombasa Safaricom sales office I clocked the connection at 1Mbps down / 256kbps up.  I’ve seen it fluctuate lower, down into the non-3G speeds, but that is still blazing compared to the EDGE connections in the rest of the country, which for all carriers hovers around 50kbps down / 20kbps up.  (Of course, if you don’t have a 3G phone, you’ll never get 3G speeds.  Hence my earlier recommendation, as all the telcoms are promising to go 3G “eventually.”)


If you are in an area where you get a 3G connection, seriously consider Safaricom.  You will love the speed.  You can also get a dedicated modem from them if you don’t want to always be plugging in your phone.  Just be aware that it’s not unlimited, so Skype Video and Windows Update will eat that data plan for breakfast.  Then again, if you’re in Nairobi or Mombasa, maybe you can use cheap Internet cafes to offset your Safaricom data usage.

If you are not in such an area, Zain Unlimited looks like the best deal if you can stomach the 3000 shillings.  Then you never have to worry about another megabyte, you only have to worry about the 1 year contract and postpay arrangement.  They’ll also be happy to sell you a modem.

If that’s too much money, any of the Safaricom/Orange prepay plans seems good.  Just pick the one that you know you’ll use up in 30 days, and if you start to go over, just add more.  It’s way cheaper than paying the same 7-10 shillings per minute all the time.

I’ve seen signs advertising yu as 3 shillings per megabyte, a good deal if you can get yu reception and figure out all the settings.


I feel like I also need to mention the following:

Orange has been working hard recently to be the most confusing phone company in Kenya.  They have two mobile phone networks.  The one we have discussed so far is GSM, like all the other companies, and the other is CDMA, which they call (rather stupidly) “Fixed Plus,” although it really has nothing to do with their Fixed Line services at all.  “Fixed Plus” doesn’t use SIM cards, so you have to use different phones.  I’m under the impression that you need to buy the phone from Orange, even if you have an unlocked CDMA phone, but I’m not 100% sure, since I haven’t tried.  You can tether your Fixed Plus phone to your computer, just like you can with a GSM phone, but Orange charges by the MINUTE (as opposed to megabyte) for Fixed Plus Internet: 1 shilling off-peak, 2 shilling peak.  I know that some people only get Orange Fixed Plus reception in their area, which makes this the only/best option. 

Orange also markets what it simply calls “Broadband,” which is an unlimited flat-monthly-fee Internet plan.  It’s expensive and the brochure is vague.  In a nutshell, they have three speed tiers.  The slower two are supported by both Telcom Kenya’s landlines (meaning DSL) and Orange’s CMDA (EVDO) network, which is the same one used by their Fixed Plus lineup.  What is EVDO?  It’s kind of like 3G, but older and using different cell towers.  To buy the flat-rate service, you need an EVDO modem, which Orange will sell you for the same price as the DSL modem, which is why they (confusingly) do not distinguish between the two services.  The fastest “Broadband” tier can only be had via DSL, not EVDO, because it has an upload speed that is not possible with EVDO.  If this sounds confusing, it is.  The brochure is terrible and few people at Orange can actually explain it.

Some areas also have WiMax as an option.  There are two kinds of WiMax: regular and mobile.  Regular WiMax means you basically need an antennae on your roof.  Mobile kind of resembles the tethering options discussed above, although you need to buy a special WiMax modem.  Different companies provide different services, and usually just around Nairobi/Mombasa, but it’s worth checking out Zuku (who I use) and AccessKenya.


Go back and look at the table— it will make sense now and you won’t have to reread all this text unless you’re looking for the lists of programs.

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