I am interested in travelling to Sierra Leone to visit family, but from talking to them they do not have steady access to Internet. As someone visiting from the US, will I be able to pay for consistent internet access?

  • Where abouts are your family based in Sierra Leone? Varies a lot by location Feb 21 '17 at 9:24

3G internet in Sierra Leone (which I'm currently using to write this answer :-)) is surprisingly good in Freetown, major cities like Bo and most spots on the peninsula. It's expensive by international standards, but not punishingly so. Outside of those areas, e.g. in the villages, there's very little, though in some places I believe some villages have clubbed together to set up VSAT masts.

In the areas with signal, a popular alternative to simply using the SIM card in your phone (then for computers, tethering or setting up a local hotspot) is a portable 3G router. They seem to get slightly better signal than phones - just remember to tell your devices it's a metered connection when you connect, else they'll burn all your data on random software updates - also watch out for applications like DropBox that ignore the "metered connection" flag and eat gigabytes of your data without any warning, and also that horrible trend for websites to have massive auto-loading decorative videos (see here for that one, and on Windows consider something like Glasswire that lets you see where your data is going). Most of the 3G providers below sell these little 3G routers, they all seem to use more or less the same (Huawei) model. It seems to be a fashionable sign of status for well off locals to walk around town holding a 3G router and brand new Samsung Galaxy phone in one hand.

"Regular" domestic or office Wi-Fi is usually actually 3G as well, but with different pricing and speed control (usually unmetered but fixed to a certain speed), there are few "real" wired connections. Typically they install a small receiver dish on the building pointed towards the nearest mast. This is a very expensive option, unsuitable for a short visit, so I'll stick to conventional 3G.

A quick breakdown of 3G providers (I won't link to their websites because last time I tried to use them they were out of date and/or had no useful info...):

  • Africell in my experience have the fastest and cheapest 3G. It really is very fast, not quite 4G but possibly slightly faster than 3G in other countries e.g. the UK (they market it as '3G++'). Last time I checked they had the best value: they have two tiers of 3G pricing, one for small bundles up to 500mb which you buy through *113# and one for much better value large bundles up to 25GB with no expiry date which you buy through *114#. Note that for the big bundles, the amount of banknotes you need to hand over when topping up are so big, you'll want to go to an Africell shop rather than the usual approach of topping up through some guy on the street. You also might need a special SIM card available with a 3G router, I'm not sure. A couple of prices to give you an example:
    • 500mb expiring after a month through 113 costs 65,000 SLL - at current rates ($100 note = 740,000 SLL), that's about $9
    • 10GB with no expiry date through 114 costs 500,000 SLL, that's about $68
  • Airtel have a reputation for good coverage, especially out of Freetown, and their 3G is pretty reliable, but it's slower than Africell and a little more expensive. What many locals do (and what I've started doing) is having a dual-sim phone with Airtel for calls and Africell for internet
  • Sierratel have a deal where you pay for 3G monthly and (I think) it's unmetered, but it's complicated and I've heard many people complain about the speed and reliability
  • There's also a new player, SmartMobile, but I don't know anything about them. They've got a big shop just outside Lumley Market if you want to be thorough :-)

If you need unmetered Wi-Fi, e.g. for large downloads, there are many places offering free Wi-Fi in Freetown's wealthier districts (it's rare outside of Freetown). These are all the sorts of places that are rarely full during the day where it's perfectly normal to see a few people sitting with laptops for several hours (just buy some food and drinks - note that food and drinks in these places are very expensive by local standards, but average prices by international standards, e.g. $3 for a coffee, $5 for a sandwich).

Off the top of my head:

  • Gina's, Crown Express, Gusto, Bliss and Tessa's on Wilkinson Road
  • Papaya in Aberdeen / Lumley Beach
  • Country Lodge hotel bar in Hill Station
  • Crown Bakery downtown

All of these listed have reasonably reliable connections these days. Not the fastest - slower than Africell 3G, normally similar to Airtel 3G, but if another guest is doing big downloads you'll notice - but pretty good. Country Lodge used to have a reputation for the fastest Wi-Fi but I think the others have more or less caught up now.

There are also some low cost internet cafes with desktop computers in areas like Lumley Market, St John, Murray Town and others.

I see in some comments you mention things like coding courses for your cousins. I'd recommend you visit the Sensi Technology Hub in Aberdeen, just the other side of the bridge from the mainland near the SeaCoach wharf and Indochine restaurant. They're trying to provide low-cost computer access and training and were negotiating a deal with one of the internet providers. It's quite new, I don't know how operational it is yet, but they might be able to help.

Also, Sierra Leone is one of the countries where the Android YouTube app allows you to "Save offline". You can choose what quality you want and it tells you how many MBs, then it downloads those videos and keeps them for a few days. (Note some specific videos disallow this, e.g. music)

  • The more up-to-date info has arrived. Excellent! You're listings bring back memories :)
    – MastaBaba
    Feb 21 '17 at 12:09

Until someone has more recent info, here's my take.

I lived in Sierra Leone for a good year, leaving around 2012. This was just before Sierra Leone got connected to the internet by cable. Before that, all communications ran through satellite.

3G services were available, but they were expensive and unreliable. Similarly, internet cafes were aplenty, but though affordable, quality of their connections was horribly unreliable.

No companies were offering landline connections. Microwave solutions did exist but they, too, were very expensive.

  • Thanks. That's sad to hear, but unfortunately consistent with what I've been able to find on Google. Seems like you pay similar prices to what you would in the United States, but get much lower quality service. Particularly sad because I was hoping to introducey cousins to online coding resources, but that's hard to do if it's unaffordable to get them regular internet access.
    – user57651
    Feb 20 '17 at 17:00
  • The average person cannot afford the consistent unlimited internet service we enjoy in the west. Now if you're talking access perhaps an hour or so a day, that is somewhat doable. Will cost about $2/hour for a VSAT connection or $1/hour at a cafe. Feb 20 '17 at 17:07
  • 1
    @pnuts: Indeed, I actually was present when the cable was officially connected on one of the country's beaches, but for months afterwards, politicians were bickering over who would get control over the IX.
    – MastaBaba
    Feb 20 '17 at 18:19
  • 2
    @user57651: If your cousins have a device on which they can program, it's most certainly possible to get access to programming resources. They can download manuals and work offline.
    – MastaBaba
    Feb 20 '17 at 18:20
  • 1
    Perhaps you already thought of this, but tablets without keyboards don't make good tools for programmers :)
    – MastaBaba
    Feb 20 '17 at 20:56

Internet bundles used to be expensive in sierra Leone before Orange SL (Airtel) reduces the prices up to 58%

As of august 11th 2017

3MB New Bundle- Le450

10MB Old Price le2,500 New Price le1,400

75MB New Bundle - le8,400

50MB Old price le9,000 new Price le4,500

150MB Old Price le11,250 New Price le10,000

200MB New Bundle- le15,000

250MB le45,000 New price le24,000

500MB Old price le67,500 new Price le35,000

1GB Old Price le112,500 New Price le60,000

3GB old Price le270,000 New Price le125,000

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