How (Not) to Get a SIM Card in Ukraine (Kyiv)

When traveling to Ukraine, it’s a great idea to get a SIM card for independent travel. Though we arrived at Boryspil International Airport (KBP), we didn’t buy one there because the shop was closed. Mobile data is neither expensive nor cheap in Ukraine. Here are our learnings from getting a SIM card in Ukraine on our first day in Kyiv, so you can avoid the mistakes we made. And ooh boy, we made a lot of mistakes! FYI, the country code for Ukraine is +380

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Our Experience Buying a SIM Card in Ukraine

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This happened on the 26th of July, 2021

Trying to Buy a SIM Card in Ukraine at the Airport

We arrived at 4:00 at Boryspil Airport and were in the public areas by 4:30. There was a SIM card shop there with all the major Ukrainian telecom providers, but it wasn’t open. Since we couldn’t check in early in our Airbnb in Kyiv, we hung around for quite some hours. At 8:00, we went downstairs again to check if the shop had opened, but it hadn’t. That’s when we gave up on getting a Ukrainian SIM card at the airport and took the train to Kyiv.

useless telecom shop at Kyiv borispil international airport no vodafone no kyivstar no lifecell sim card

Keep in mind for the rest of this article that we were extremely fatigued at this point after this hellish journey from Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

SIM Card in Ukraine Success! At Kyiv Train Station

Upon arrival at Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi (Ukrainian: Київ Пасажирський) train station (location), we encountered a Vodafone SIM card shop in the direction of the main exit to the city (northeast). Next to it was a KyivStar shop. From the SIM card in Ukraine research Jonas had done before coming here, Vodafone came out as the best option along with KyivStar. The factors we looked at to choose a SIM card in Ukraine were coverage and price. Both have good coverage, but Vodafone seemed to have slightly better prices.

Side note: when we traveled to Belarus in 2018, we had MTS SIM cards which we were very happy with. MTS is Russian-owned. Vodafone Ukraine is actually MTS but rebranded because of the war that began in 2014.

In the Netherlands, I had a Vodafone contract for many years, which was pure pain. I hate this company with a passion and would love to buy popcorn for a front-row seat to watch it implode. But on paper Vodafone Ukraine came out as the best option, so we bought it.

The Vodafone Shop at Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi: Kinda Sketch

The Vodafone Shop at Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi train station how to get a sim card in Ukraine

At the Vodafone shop, we found a young guy behind the counter. We asked for two SIM cards in Russian and we soon switched to English. His English was excellent.

He showed us a list of possible plans and we decided to buy the unlimited data package for 260 Ukrainian Hryvnia (written: UAH, ₴, or грн), or about €8.15 or US$9.67 at the time of writing. This is for 30 days, which we would need to extend twice if we’re staying in Ukraine for the full 90 days. Our learning from Kyrgyzstan is that it’s nice to get the unlimited data package and just be done forever.

The guy put the SIM cards in our phones and didn’t torture the device as we had experienced in Malaysia. Meanwhile, he was asking me if I needed a screen protector plastic, then he asked the same to Jonas, then he asked me if I wanted to buy a power bank or headphones. Quite a hustler, trying to upsell us on all those items. But he didn’t push us hard.

The guy used all the fancy Vodafone USSD codes to activate it and make sure it works. Then when it was time to pay, it wasn’t ₴ 260 per SIM card, but ₴ 300 (€9.38). The extra ₴ 40 (€1.25 or US$1.49) was for the SIM card itself. Jonas added another bill to it but it was a little strange.

Before giving us the SIM card envelopes, the guy also took photos of the envelopes with our phone numbers. I didn’t know why, but a day later I have a little feeling of what that was all about.

One Hour Later… The Vodafone Trouble Begins

We went to a vegetarian restaurant in Kyiv and after eating I opened up my laptop to do a little work. I shared my phone internet with my computer as I always do when it’s unlimited. All went well for like five minutes when I suddenly receive a text from Vodafone which says something in Ukrainian. Simultaneously, my pages stop loading on my computer. I have a feeling where this is going.

I run the text through Google Translate and learn the hard way that sharing the internet requires another package for another ₴ 50 (€1.57 or US$1.86). So the internet is not unlimited. Typical Vodafone, the true mafia of Europe. I curse them out with a passion and tell Jonas about the betrayal by Vodafone… Я плачу́ и пла́чу.
Vodafone are the mafia of Europe

He’s like I guess they own us now, so we’ll pay that extra ₴ 50 for one of our phones. But topping up via the website didn’t work for Jonas because credit card companies think that sending money to a Ukrainian company is super sketchy. So we had to find one of those payment processing machines – similar to the ones in Uzbekistan – to top up the money.

So by now, to get just ONE phone in working order with a SIM card in Ukraine, we already need to spend ₴ 360. That’s €11.27 or US$13.39. This is getting out of hand.

More Fuckery with Vodafone Ukraine

The day after our arrival, we had checked into our Airbnb and connected to the local WiFi. The need for mobile internet sharing to my phone wasn’t super urgent, so we didn’t top up the phone to book the additional extortion package just yet.

In the morning, both our phones receive a call almost at the same time. Shit. Some telemarketing spam calls. Of course, we don’t pick up the phone. I thought I had the function ‘block all incoming phone calls by unknown numbers’ on, but apparently, this still comes through.

I start to think about why our phone number hasn’t been online for 24 hours yet and someone already has their hands on our phone numbers for telemarketing spam. Was it the guy at the Vodafone shop at Kyiv train station? Is that why he took a photo of our phone numbers? Did he just make some extra money on the side by selling our phone numbers?

Jonas says that he’s already so sick of Vodafone that we should leave in 30 days. What? Leave the country? We just got here! But no, Jonas meant leaving Vodafone by the end of this month and buying a new SIM card in Ukraine, but this time KyivStar. I concur with this assessment.

Later in the day, we both receive spam calls again. The next day, we receive loads of annoying and sketchy texts from Vodafone itself. If we’re talking about the path to ending the cycle of suffering of humanity, murdering Vodafone is a great place to start.

Mistakes We Made Buying a SIM Card in Ukraine

  1. Buying Vodafone; next time I’m in Ukraine – which is probably after the Danube kayak trip – I’ll make sure to get KyivStar
    • Side note: I cannot guarantee that KyivStar is fuckery-free
  2. Buying it at the train station with this guy who had some sketchy hustling practices
  3. Paying up instead of cutting our losses at the first signs of fuckery

Buying a KyivStar SIM Card in Ukraine?

Despite my passionate hate for Vodafone and these particular SIM cards, we of course couldn’t be arsed to buy KyivStar a month later. I fully intended to make the effort to find a KyivStar shop and go through the set-up process again, but Jonas had mellowed out so we decided to stick with Vodafone for the full 88 days we digital nomaded around Ukraine.

But I promise you that next time I’m in Ukraine – on average I’m there every eight years – I’ll get KyivStar and write a better article.

FAQ SIM Card in Ukraine + Internet Freedom

Which provider should I choose?

There are five telecom providers that operate in most of the Ukrainian territory. From our initial research, KyivStar or Vodafone Ukraine came out as the best choices.

These two have the best coverage in Ukraine, which was a very important factor to us since we were hitchhiking and traveling to smaller towns. Their prices were also good on paper.

Where can I buy a SIM card in Ukraine?

Keep your eyes peeled for any shop that says KyivStar or Vodafone. Small telecom shops that sell the three big ones (Kyivstar, Vodafone, and Lifecell) exist at the major airports, but that’s no guarantee that they’re open when you arrive.

KyivStar ukraine shop in Chernihiv I think vodafone shop at kyiv passenger train station main in Ukraine sim card on arrival

If you’re in a smaller town, you should be able to find a telecom shop by just wandering around the city center. You can also ask people on the street for “magazin Vodafone” or “magazin KyivStar” or sit down at a café with WiFi and find one on Google Maps.

With Vodafone, you can also try using their store locator. Here’s an example of their stores in the city of Uzhgorod.

For KyivStar, they also have an attempt at an English store locator list and map, but it was very dysfunctional when I tried using it for Uzhgorod and Sumy. But you can find their shops on Google Maps.

Should I buy a SIM card at the airport?

Yes, if possible, try this. The rates at airport telecom shops should not be different than at a telecom shop in the city. But if you want to make sure you’re not overpaying, check the price of the package you want to buy on the website (KyivStar or Vodafone) before you fly.

What documents do I need to buy a Vodafone SIM card in Ukraine?

No documents, just money. We didn’t need to show our passports to buy a prepaid SIM card in Ukraine.

How do I activate the Vodafone Ukraine SIM card?

Since the menus will probably be in Ukrainian, let the Vodafone vendor do this for you. They can set it up completely for you as part of their service. If you buy your SIM card in a big international city like Kyiv or Kharkiv, it’s also likely that the employee will speak very good English. So you can ask them specific questions.

Should I download the Vodafone Ukraine top-up app?

We never used the app. If you want to give it a try, you can do so on Google Play if you’re an Android user and on the App Store if you’re snorting iOS.

How do I check my Vodafone Ukraine balance?

If you have the unlimited package, you never have to check your balance, which is nice.

But if you really want to know or have a different package, run the USSD code *101*4# to find it out. They’ll send you a text in Ukrainian that you can run through Google Translate if you need that.

How do I top up my Vodafone Ukraine balance?

The first time, we used a machine to top it up. You’ll find these kinds of payment processing machines in tunnels in the big cities or in the supermarkets. Locals use them to also pay for gas and light. The great thing about these machines is that they take cash. The bad thing is that you see them constantly until you actually need one. And if there’s an English menu, we haven’t found it.

SIM card in Ukraine mobile topup machine tunnels of Kyiv topping up mobile phone sim card in ukraine

You select “поповнення мобільного”, type in your phone number, feed the machine your cash and go through the screens until it says you’re done. You will receive a confirmation text of your top-up, although you might need to leave the tunnel for that.

Topping up your ukrainian sim card at one of those payment processing machines top up successful ukraine sim card vodafone when you don't know ukrainian

The second and all times after that, we used the My Vodafone Ukraine website to top up. You can pay with your Visa or MasterCard. The website is pretty decent.

my vodafone ukraine english website top up

How do I book mobile internet packages? Which package should I buy?

As heavy internet users, we always prefer to buy the unlimited internet package. This one costs ₴ 260 (€8.15 or US$9.67) and is valid for 30 days. We enjoy never having to think about how much data we use and for us, this price is good enough.

vodafone ukraine montly packages unlimited internet

I also checked out the rates for KyivStar, and two things stand out:

  1. There is no unlimited data package (just 30GB of data, which should suffice)
  2. The package is only valid for 28 days instead of 30

kyivstar rates package prepaid sim card

What happens if I use more internet than the package allows with Vodafone Ukraine?

That can’t happen if you buy the unlimited package. If you don’t have that package, the overuse rate is ₴ 7 (€0.22 or US$0.26) per 200MB.

Does the Vodafone Ukraine SIM card allow sharing of mobile data?

No! This was the worst part of being with Vodafone. To share your unlimited mobile data package from your phone to your computer (or someone else’s phone), you need to buy another package just for that. It costs ₴ 50 (€1.57 of US$1.86)

I like calling people. How much does that cost with Vodafone Ukraine?

With the unlimited package, you have 350 minutes for 30 days, which should be more than plenty. Most locals are fluent in WhatsApp, Telegram, and/or Viber, so there’s never really a reason to call old people-style.

How is the coverage? Will I have cell service while traveling Ukraine by train? What about Chornobyl?

Mobile internet coverage in Ukraine has improved a lot in recent years. Keep in mind that Ukraine is the biggest country (that’s fully) in Europe so it’s not easy to provide service everywhere. If you want to check out a specific area of Ukraine, visit this coverage map website. Here are the coverage maps for KyivStar and Vodafone:

kyivstar coverage SIM card in Ukraine vodafone coverage SIM card

The train network in Ukraine is very big and it passes through some areas where nobody lives. On some routes, you won’t have mobile service the entire way, but only at the towns with a stop. For example, we traveled from Kharkiv to Sviatohirsk for two hours by train and every now and then, we wouldn’t have internet. The same would be the case for the one-hour train ride from Kherson to Mykolaiv, during which we saw the connectivity bars get lower and into EDGE mode and then higher again.

In the Chornobyl exclusion zone, we had perfect mobile internet coverage all the time.

I don’t want to buy a SIM card in Ukraine, where can I get WiFi?

Your accommodation will almost certainly offer WiFi. Many restaurants and cafés also have WiFi, in which case you’ll have to ask for the password (Ukrainian and Russian: “parol WiFi”—пароль). However, if you’re staying in Ukraine longer than, let’s say, a week, I would think it’s worth going through the effort of getting a local SIM card.

What about Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk?

These areas are de facto not under Ukrainian control anymore, so they have missed out on all the developments in Ukrainian telecom since 2014. If you would find yourself on the other side of the border or frontline in Crimea, Donetsk, or Luhansk, you’d have to buy a Russian SIM card or whatever local telecom provider operates.

Note that there are parts of Donetsk and Luhansk under the control of the Ukrainian government, which have developed telecom services. Think of cities/towns west of the contact line, such as Mariupol and Sviatohirsk in Donetsk Oblast. We were in both of them and our Vodafone reception was as good as in other oblasts.

The info I’m looking for about Vodafone Ukraine SIM cards is missing in this article…

Please leave a comment at the bottom of this article and I’ll get back to you to try and answer your question. Commenting also helps other people who are here for the same question!

Is the internet blocked or monitored in Ukraine?

Some popular Russian websites are blocked in Ukraine because of the ongoing conflict over Crimea and the separatist areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. If you need to access these websites, you can simply access them by turning on a VPN.

There’s no evidence that internet or social media usage is monitored by the government.

Should I download a VPN before going to Ukraine?

Yes, I think that’s wise. Sometimes, the Dutch news website I sometimes use didn’t allow me to watch videos. I turned on the VPN and then it worked. At other times, websites didn’t allow me to visit until I turned on my VPN to a more ‘acceptable’ country.

In general, I think it’s never a bad plan to have a VPN. We use ExpressVPN and we’re happy with it. If you want to try ExpressVPN for 30 days for free, you can sign up via this link. It’s a referral link, so if you sign up I might, might, receive €8 from ExpressVPN for pointing you in their direction. Of course, this 30-day free trial isn’t long enough if you’re staying in Ukraine for the full 90 days as we did.

You can find ExpressVPN on Google Play and on the App Store.

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