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SIM cards and mobile phones in the UAE

Mobile phones in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are straightforward, easy to set up, and offer many price options for SIM cards. We explain everything you need to know.

UAE SIM card

By Valentine Marie

Updated 28-2-2024

Most people these days won’t board local public transport, let alone move to a different country, without their mobile phone. For most people, it’s one of the first priorities on their checklist. Fortunately, expats considering a move to the United Arab Emirates should have little trouble communicating with loved ones near and far, as your phone will work as soon as you arrive.

Between choosing a service provider, checking costs and coverage, and buying SIM cards in the UAE, we’ll walk you through the basics of setting up your phone. This guide includes the following information:

The mobile network in the United Arab Emirates

The two main categories of phone systems worldwide are Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) and Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA). The UAE, like much of the world, only uses the GSM system. So, check if your phone is GSM compatible if you would like to use it in the Emirates. Furthermore, keep in mind that some US carriers use CDMA exclusively (Sprint, Verizon).

Woman taking a photo of Dubai with her mobile phone

Fortunately, you will find 2G, 3G, and 4G networks throughout the populated areas of the UAE. Furthermore, the 5G network is set to expand wildly in the coming years. In fact, 5G is already available in many parts of Dubai. Click here to check out a network coverage map.

Wi-Fi connection in the United Arab Emirates

Wi-Fi is widely available throughout the UAE, offered in businesses, hotels, and restaurants. In fact, in parts of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah, you can access free public Wi-Fi in hundreds of locations; including some taxis and public transport. Click here for a coverage map of free Wi-Fi. Like something out of a sci-fi novel, you can even access Wi-Fi from a few street lamps in Dubai – aptly name LiFi.

Can expats use their own mobile phones in the UAE?

You can use your own cell phone provided it is GSM-compatible and unlocked, i.e. not locked onto a specific carrier.


Conveniently, this allows you to simply pop in a new SIM card and use your phone on the new network. Therefore, with your unlocked phone, getting a SIM card in the UAE is very straightforward. If you leave the UAE and use your Emirati SIM card, there are roaming fees depending on the carrier and where you travel.

Mobile phone operators in the United Arab Emirates

There are two major network operators; du (based out of Dubai) and Etisalat (based out of Abu Dhabi), and both offer coverage throughout the UAE. Etisalat is the oldest network provider while du has been operating for just over a decade.

New virtual networks

Recently, the parent companies of both providers launched their own virtual networks targeting young people. Du launched the Virgin Mobile app where everything – choosing a number, registering for a SIM card – is done through the app. Etisalat soon followed with its launch of Swyp, offering most of the same services on their virtual network.

Whether you are looking for a prepaid or monthly plan, there’s an option for you. However, coverage may vary, so ask your friends and neighbors about which carrier has a better network for their needs and their area.

Pre-paid vs mobile contracts in the United Arab Emirates

Most cell phone users in the UAE (a whopping 82%) use pre-paid services, where they pay their bill in advance, instead of a regular contract. If you have just moved to the Emirates, your best bet is to get a pre-paid plan so that you can get a sense of network coverage, as well as a better sense of what elements (e.g., data, minutes, text, international calling) you will be using. Both pre-paid and contract offer tons of add-ons, allowing you to customize your plan for your needs and your budget.

Mobile phone plans and contracts in the United Arab Emirates

The great thing about being an expat hub is that the phone system in the UAE is built for people far from home. Therefore, you will find that all providers offer affordable international calling and texting to dozens of countries, allowing you to easily keep in touch. Both du and Etisalat offer various pre-paid and contract options in different price brackets, ranging from AED 36 to over AED 200 monthly.

The pros and cons of contracts

Contracts lock you in for either one or two years and have a AED 100 fee for early termination. Contracts have the benefit of offering more bells and whistles for less money, but the drawback of early-termination fees, so think carefully about your needs before you settle on your choice. For a handy plan comparison, check out this article.

How to get a mobile phone contract in the United Arab Emirates

Depending on the provider, getting a contract may require a few different documents, including a GCC-issued debit or credit card, your Emirates ID, and/or your job contract. You should be able to do the entire request online (with some providers in the UAE offering free SIM card delivery within the hour), at a provider store, or a mall kiosk. The process is simple and fast. For the requirements for specific plans, refer also to the websites of du and Etisalat.

Pre-paid SIM cards in the UAE

Getting a pre-paid SIM card in the UAE is super straightforward, you will just need your passport and a method of payment. Conveniently, you’ll find various provider kiosks in the airport arrivals in various Emirates, where someone can help you with purchasing a SIM, choosing the right plan for your texting, calling, and data needs, and getting set up. If you have your unlocked phone with you, you can just pop in the SIM and get started. For top-ups, you can use your provider’s website or app, or go to a grocery store, businesses, and mall kiosks that carry cell provider cards.

Mobile phones in the United Arab Emirates

Mobile phones are widespread in the UAE. In fact, the country has 228 phones per 100 people; this is as if every person there has two phones. In fact, the UAE has the highest smartphone penetration in the world, at 82.2% of its population.

Smartphones in the United Arab Emirates

The most popular models in the UAE in 2017 were the iPhone 6, iPhone 6s, iPhone 7, and iPhone 7plus.

iPhones at the Apple Store in Dubai

In general, however, over 34% of cell phones in the UAE were made by Samsung, followed by Nokia at nearly 23% and Apple at 15.5%. With options for long-term repayment, people in the UAE tend to buy new phones, either in mall kiosks, network providers, or cell-phone shops.

The United Arab Emirates mobile numbers

When you’re dialing within the UAE, the first few digits depend on whether you are calling a landline or a mobile. Landline phone numbers depend on the Emirate and begin as follows: 04 (Dubai), 02 (Abu Dhabi), 06 (Ajman), 06 (Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain), 07 (Ras al-Khaimah), and 09 (Fujairah).

Mobile phone numbers begin with the following digits, depending on your carrier: 050, 054, and 056 are Etisalat, while 052, 055, and 058 are Du. To call a UAE number from outside the UAE, dial +971, drop the 0, and dial the number.

Repairing a mobile phone in the United Arab Emirates

Cell phone repair is a thriving business in the UAE, and you can find repair shops throughout the Emirates and online. Because of the volume, it can be tricky to choose a merchant; ask your friends and neighbors for recommendations. When looking, make sure to ask if the repair shop has done work on your particular phone model before and whether they provide a warranty on their repairs.

Mobile phone laws in the United Arab Emirates

Traffic law prohibits drivers from taking photos and texting (and applying make-up) while driving, so be careful or you will get a hefty fine. Emirati culture and society greatly values privacy and respect. So, here are some things you shouldn’t do if you want to avoid a fine, jail time, or deportation:

  • Filming or photographing people without their permission
  • Sharing photos or video of other people without their permission
  • Photographing certain military, government, or political buildings

If you don’t have a mobile phone in the UAE

If you don’t have a cell phone, you will be hard-pressed to find public payphones in the UAE. With the meteoric rise of cell phone use, many payphones have fallen into disrepair and never been updated. Many businesses, however, do have landlines that you can ask to use, and you can sign up for a landline in your house with one of the network providers.