It all depends on your needs: pre-paid or post-paid, 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.
UAE mobile phone tariffs options
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.
Matthew Reed, practice leader for Middle East and Africa at consultancy Ovum, says generally the two operators 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. Etisalat’s latest is an automatically-renewable plan of 1GB of full-speed data for Dh1 per day for pre-paid users.
Virgin offers more 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.
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“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.”
Pre-paid vs post-paid
Of the 19.3 million active mobile subscriptions in the UAE, the vast majority (15.9 million) are pre-paid — where the bill is paid in advance — rather than post-paid — 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 post-paid plan, pre-paid is the dominant method,” says Mr Reed. “[UAE] operators are now trying to increase the number of post-paid 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 post-paid plans without contracts, while also offering incentives, such as more data or discounts, to sign up for 12-month or 24-month contracts.
Etisalat began offering its new Freedom post-paid plans in December, giving customers who sign up for a one-year contract up to 20 per cent discount on monthly rental and six months free Apple music.
Du’s Smart Plan gives customers more data with longer contracts; the Smart Plan 150 gives 1GB data without a contract, 3GB data with a 12-month contract and 6GB data with a 24-month contract.
While Virgin and swyp are both pre-paid, Virgin is trying to attract long-term customers by offering six-month packages at 30 per cent off and 12-month packages at 50 per cent off. The offer with the campaign “Cut your mobile bill in half” was launched in July.
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The penalties for breaking a contract can cost dearly, though. 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. While 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 VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) services such as Skype and Face Time 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. 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) or Wi-Fi UAE (du) or swyp networks.
This is what the UAE’s telecom providers have to offer:
For pre-paid 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 post-paid and premium post-paid. 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 pre-paid offer that waives the activation fee for a Dh52.50 package that includes 30 flex minutes and 750MB data. Du also waives post-paid 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 pre-paid, post-paid or tourist. Within pre-paid, there is a choice between voice and data or data only, and daily or monthly recharge. Within post-paid, 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 swyp 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.