Telecommunications in Ukraine: Cell Phones & Internet
Feb. 10, 2011
Today one can find the same telecommunications infrastructure in the large cities of Ukraine as in other metropolitan areas of the world. Both cell phone and Internet services are inexpensive and easy to use. As of winter 2011 cell phone usage is ubiquitous, but Internet usage is still rising rapidly as more and more people in small towns and villages get connected, as well as middle-aged and elderly residents of large cities who have taken more time to adopt new technologies.
This article presents an overview of cell phone and Internet service for foreigners who plan to come to Ukraine or are already here.
Cell phone service in Ukraine
It's very easy to set up cell phone service in Ukraine. There are two basic forms: "contract" and "prepaid." As the name suggests, contractual service involves signing a contract committing you to pay a certain monthly minimum (which can be very low). Prepaid cell service has no such commitment and can be obtained at numerous kiosks and stands around town.
Contractual service is generally a better deal for people who are on the phone a lot and are in Ukraine for more than 6 months at a time. Prepaid service is better if you don't talk on the phone a lot, if you aren't sure how much you'll be using your phone, if you always call people who have the same cell phone operator as you, or if you'll be in Ukraine for a shorter period of time.
To sign up for contractual service, you'll need to find a mobile phone store that works with the operator you want to sign up with. To get prepaid cell phone service, you simply buy a SIM card at a kiosk or stand and insert it in your phone. This will give you a new phone number and, typically, a small amount of money on your account to make some initial calls. To add money to your account, simply buy a scratch card and enter the code on your phone, or use one of the ATM-like phone payment terminals that have cropped up all over Ukraine's big cities.
Cell phone coverage
It is generally acknowledged that the best country-wide coverage is offered by KyivStar. However, their rates are slightly higher than most other operators. As I travel a lot, I prefer KyivStar, but have also had UMC and Life numbers. Different operators offer different deals to attract new customers, and at different times you may find that different operators serve your needs better.
SMS (text) messages usually cost 0.30 UAH (4 cents) unless you get a special deal giving you a certain number of free text messages each month or a fixed rate of 0.10 UAH per SMS. Calls between numbers of the same operator are usually close to free, meaning that if your friends and contacts mostly use a certain operator, it makes sense for you to sign up with the same provider as your contacts.
International calls can be made with all operators and may cost 5-15 UAH per minute ($0.60-2.00 USD). Roaming services are also automatically made available with most operators when you travel abroad with your Ukrainian cell phone.
If you're new in Ukraine and don't need to use your phone much, a monthly budget of $5 USD is realistic. If you make or receive multiple calls each day but don't conduct much business over the phone and limit your longer conversations to people who have the same operator, you'll probably spend $10-25 a month on prepaid cell phone service.
Internet access in Ukraine
Getting an Internet connection in Ukraine requires a bit more effort than getting cell phone service, and there are more options available: dial-up Internet (old-fashioned and slow), wireless Internet, cable or DSL Internet, mobile Internet, satellite Internet... Furthermore, each provider has their own terms and capabilities.
To set up Internet at your apartment, you'll need to have physical hardware installed. This can be made simpler if you rent an apartment that already has Internet access (DSL, cable, wireless, etc.) installed and you only have to make a monthly payment. Otherwise, the landlords themselves will need to sign the contract for you.
Two of the biggest providers are Volia Cable and UkrTelecom, but there are many others. At the moment (winter 2011) we have unlimited Internet through UkrTelecom in Kiev and pay 60 UAH ($7.50) for the Internet access itself and 12 UAH ($1.50) for the modem, which can be either bought or rented. Service is very reliable and the speed is nearly 1.5 times faster than YouTube video loading speed, meaning we don't have to wait when watching streaming videos. Higher data transfer speeds are available for a higher monthly fee.
Wireless Internet in Ukrainian cities
Wireless Internet is now available in many hotels, cafes, and restaurants in all large and medium-size cities of Ukraine, as well as many small towns (< 100 thousand residents). It is possible, but not always convenient, to choose not to have Internet access at one's home, but get online in various public places.
Often, but not always, a password is required, and using the local wi-fi network usually means buying something to eat or drink. Many or most of these places lack conveniently placed outlets, possibly as a deterrent to people sitting there all day. Problems with wireless access seem to arise frequently in Ukraine, so count on being unable to get online at every third or fourth place you try.
Wireless Internet is almost always available at McDonald's, McFoxy, and Coffee House. If you're unable to get online, talk to a restaurant worker. Generally they just reboot the wireless device and everything's fine. Some places are chronically unreliable, while others almost never have problems.
Must-read post at TryUkraine blog: Using Wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) around Kiev