To stay connected with friends and family back in South Africa is of course important to almost all expats finding themselves in Germany. The question is, what is the best way…. In this guide we will cover 4 ways to stay connected, each with its pro’s and con’s:
1. Chat Apps – The cheap and cheerful, but the least flexible way
2. Traditional phone connections – More classic approach, which is easy to handle., but cost a few €.
3. Using roaming – Additional benefits, but costs can easily run up.
4. VOIP providers – more complicated to set up, with “set and forget” and cost benefits
Within this guide, we are assuming that you want to be reachable by contacts in South Africa in a general day-to-day way.
Additionally, we look at some solutions which allows you to be reached telephonically here in Germany by “non-private” contacts, such as banks or service providers back in SA (who most probably won’t be too pleased to have to phone you on your German number and in that way incur international call charges). So, let’s get straight into it…
1. Chat Apps
General chat apps are widespread for modern-day communications. The fact that most people are familiar with these apps and also have at least one or the other app installed, makes it an easy way to stay in touch with contacts back in South Africa. The downside is of course, that both parties must have the specific app installed. Here it does come to one serious limitation: if you want to provide your number to a service provider in SA, like a bank, they in almost all cases are not willing to “phone” you via a chat app.
Well-known apps like Whatsapp and co come into play here. Many people are having (may we say, rightly so) some concerns regarding the data privacy elements of using such apps. The most common apps in SA seem to be Whatsapp and Telegram. In Germany, where there is a much higher value placed on data privacy, the apps Signal and Threema are more clear favourites – don’t be surprised if your German contact is only available on one of these. Zoom is also an app which many ex-pats use to stay in contact, being additionally quite strong in the video calling space.
A favourite under ex-pats is the chat app Skype, where one can also phone landlines by loading credit on the app. By loading credit or buying a calling package, one can also phone mobile phones or landlines in SA. The downside is, that people would not be able to phone you back if you do not reach them, meaning you will have to retry later. Currently, a 400 min package to phone to SA phones (mobile and landline) costs €13,69 per month (3,4c/min), which is quite pricey if you do not need all of the minutes in a month (or need more minutes in the end).
2. Traditional phone connections
As many know, in some spots of South Africa mobile data connectivity is a “scarce good” (or expensive), so calling via Apps is not always that effective. This is where traditional phone connections come in. Under this category, we count both German landline providers and mobile providers.
The most obvious downside with using traditional phone connections is of course that you need to pay the monthly line rental (mobile contract) before you make use of the connection for phoning to SA. Nevertheless, most people already have the connection in place in any event and if this is the case, you can easily book an add-one telephony package to your landline or mobile phone plan with which you can phone SA numbers without too much additional cost.
For example, if you have a landline from Deutsche Telekom already, you can add the package “CountryFlat 2” for €14,95 to your contract, with which you can then phone limitless (flat rate) to SA landlines (and many other countries are included in the package too, such as New Zealand, etc, for those who need it). If you have a landline from Vodafone, they also offer a similar package called “International Flat” for €14,99 covering SA landlines. Vodafone also offers a package called “International-Allnet-Flat” for €19,99 which also covers SA landlines and SA mobile phones.
Also, the mobile phone providers offer similar packages to phone to SA. These are generally not as cheap as the packages available on German landline contracts (listed above). Sometimes these international phone packages are also only available on the more expensive or restricted mobile contracts (like the “Business Mobil” contracts of Telekom). If you do have such a mobile phone contract, however, the flexibility of having such a package as well as not having to pay for a landline connection at home might make it worth it. For orientation, the “International 100” package on the Telekom Business Mobil contract costs €9,95. Vodafone does not offer such a package on their mobile contracts anymore, but O2 does on its “Professional” mobile contracts, costing €10 for the “International Pack 60” providing 60 minutes of calls.
Another option is the so-called “call-by-call” providers. By using this provider, you essentially first connect to a specific provider’s network from your traditional landline and from there you then pay their discounted rate to connect to SA, which is often much lower than what your landline or mobile phone provider would have charged you. For a good overview of call-by-call providers and what they currently charge, you can have a look here.
3. Roaming (on a SA sim card)
Of course, the “downside” with the above two solutions remains that you can easily reach your contacts in South Africa, but they cannot easily phone you back on your German landline or mobile number. This is where some ex-pats have resorted to using a SA sim card on roaming within Germany.
There are many benefits of following this approach, the most obvious being that you are reachable on a SA number for any contacts within SA, including being able to receive SMS from your bank or the like (OTPs) whilst still in Germany. Also, when you are visiting SA, you can just continue using your (same) number and save on roaming with your German number when in SA.
What scares most people off, however, is the risk of being surprised with a crazy roaming bill, since you have to pay for the phone connection between SA and Germany should someone phone you on the roaming sim card. To circumvent this, we can highly recommend getting a phone which supports wifi calling. Both Vodacom and MTN in SA provide the Wifi Calling service under the names “VoWiFi” at Vodacom and “MTN Wi-Fi Calling” at MTN.
The wifi calling technology was developed for situations where your mobile phone company’s signal is weak – your phone then connects you via a wifi signal instead of via the traditional cellphone towers. This can be handily used to connect your Vodacom or MTN contract via your wifi in your house instead of roaming on the cellphone towers of one of the German providers. Your phone then acts as if it is connected “locally” to Vodacom / MTN, meaning you can use your SA sim card and the contract thereof as if you are in SA (you can even happily use your phone in the underground cellar of your house and still phone happily along, seeing you are relying on a wifi signal and not on the cellphone towers of the mobile phone providers in your location). Essentially, in that way you can use your Vodacom or MTN contract free minutes to phone whoever you want to in SA and they can phone you back on your SA mobile phone number. Your phone will then ring like normal, as if you were in SA, without you incurring any roaming charges whilst being connected to a wifi zone. In our experience, having a dual sim phone like the iPhone Xs and up works like a charm for you to still be reachable on your German mobile phone number whilst at the same time being able to toggle your SA sim card on and off as and when you are in a wifi zone.
A word of caution: if you have unstable wifi at your house, your phone could jump over (switch the connection over) to the local roaming cellphone towers to maintain your call connectivity. This would then lead to roaming charges being levied against your account.
4. VOIP Providers
Having a SA sim card in Germany is most certainly a very simple solution, if you can live with “only” placing and receiving calls whilst you are in a wifi zone (or, taking care that you switch off the sim card if you leave a wifi zone). Additionally, you of course need to be able to “maintain” the sim card from Germany by paying the bills (either via a friend or family member in SA) or still having a SA bank account against which to execute a debit order for the monthly phone contract fees.
Possibly you are wary of unplanned roaming fees or unable to maintain a SA sim card (or get your hands on a SA contract sim card from Germany). This is where VOIP providers come in. (VOIP = Voice over IP, basically using the internet to connect your calls and then you only have to pay the “local” part of the call when you phone “foreign” numbers). This is also however the most complicated and “finicky” way to stay in contact with people in SA. If you however manage to get it set up correctly, this is the most cost-effective and also the most stable and simple way to stay connected to people back in SA.
The concept is basically that you buy a VOIP-enabled phone piece (like this one here on Amazon for example), sign up for telephone services via a VOIP provider of your choice (which will also provide you with a local phone number on which you can be reached) and then log in to a VOIP provider. Once you have logged into a VOIP provider, your phone connects to your VOIP provider and you can receive normal phone calls on your VOIP-enabled phone, just as if you were in SA. If you have the popular German Fritzbox internet router which is VOIP capable, you can also add your VOIP provider to your Fritzbox by following this guide (the guide is in German). This has the benefit that you can receive your normal German landline phone calls and your incoming VOIP calls all using the same phone setup by connecting a FritzFon handset to your FritzBox.
Additionally to having a physical phone piece, you can also log into your VOIP provider via smartphone apps such as Zoiper, meaning can also use and access your VOIP provider’s services whilst being out and about. Fritz also provides a similar app if you added your VOIP provider to your FritzBox.
We have made good experiences with the VOIP provider called freshphone.co.za. Another provider that can be recommended is dataphone.co.za. Both providers you can easily top up using your German or SA credit cards (circumventing the need to have and maintain a SA bank account). For both providers you would have to RICA yourself, using your SA passport / ID.
More about freshphone.co.za (call cost = R0,39/min, being ~0,022€/min to SA numbers*)
Freshphone can only provision 087 (non-geographic) numbers, unlike dataphone.co.za which can also provide geographic 021/011/031/etc numbers. Freshphone does not charge a monthly fee for providing you with a 087 number, whilst dataphone.co.za charges R40 per month for providing a localised 021/011/031/etc SA number.
If however you already have an 021/031/011 (or a friend of yours has one which they are willing to sign over to you), you can port the 021/031/011/etc number over to freshphone for a fee of R135. The signup of freshphone is quite simple and can be used immediately after your identity has been verified. Currently, freshphone.co.za also offers a R5 free test credit to try them out*.
More about dataphone.co.za (call cost = R0,29/min, being ~0,016€/min to SA numbers*)
Dataphone.co.za is best suited if you follow the FritBox setup since their system requires a few more tricky setup steps. The benefit with dataphone.co.za however is, that they can provide you with a local SA 021 or 011 or 012 or 031, etc phone number, meaning your contacts in SA can place a local call to reach you (via the VOIP provider over the internet) on your phone piece here in Germany.
For this, you will have to provide an address in the specific local area where you want a number (ie, an address in Cape Town if you want an 021 number). Possibly a family member can help you with this. However, the biggest complication with dataphone.co.za is that you will have to provide them with your IP address you are connecting from or alternatively set up a DNS lookup so that they can allow your connection to their service.
This is best done via the Dynamic DNS service that a FritzBox provides – see this guide here on how to do this. All of this information you would have to provide to the support desk of dataphone for manual addition to their service.
An honourable mention - the Satellite App
The VOIP solution from the German provider Satellite might be of interest to you if you only have contact with one main person. When you sign up for this app, you are provided with a German +49156xxx number (you will need a German address and access to post at this address in order for you to activate the app).
By sharing your app login details, your regular contact back in SA can download the App and log into the Satellite App using your Satellite app credentials. For this, your contact might have to open a separate German app store account, since the Satellite app is only available on the German app store – and not on the SA iTunes or Google Play stores. For a guide on how to do this, see here for Apple and here for Android).
Once your contact has installed the app and logged into the app, you can reach your contact via the allocated +49156xxx number using your German mobile phone rates (or free minutes). The app will then ring in SA on your contact’s phone. What is especially interesting is that each month the Satellite app is credited with 100 free minutes at zero cost (free minutes that are really free!), which your contact can phone your German landline or mobile number directly from the Satellite app. This can work quite well if you only want to keep in contact with one specific person back in SA.
Once you have set up the whole VOIP setup, this solution is very seamless and easy to handle and also by far the cheapest solution, without any risk of having some nasty roaming surprises and well worth the effort if you phone a lot AND want to be able to be reached on a local South African phone number here in Germany.
If you are not inclined to tinker around with a technical setup or just don’t phone as much, some of the other options might be well suited to your needs too.
* Pricing and exchange rates correct at time of publication. E&OE.
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