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This is part one of what we’ve learned about living in Cairo — both things that are hard to figure out from the outside as well as things nobody thought to tell you. More will come.
We didn’t come here for the lifestyle; we came here to learn, and to share. Here’s the first part of that.
Internet Speeds in Cairo/Egypt: A data sim is cheap, fast and your best bet; WiFi in Cairo/Egypt is patchy but fast enough
You should really rely on a local sim. But if you don’t want to, local internet access in AirBnBs and the like is fine… just patchy.
This was hard to figure out from the outside. NomadList rated Internet in Cairo as very slow, to the point where we thought it’d be unusable. TripAdvisor forum gremlins said it was fine, but they usually stay in hotels in the nice part of town. My friends said domestic internet is patchy but mobile internet is fast.
This is our impression: After having tried WiFi in a few places, we know it’s fast enough to work online, stream YouTube and do video calls… when it’s working. It’s faster early in the morning. There are outages. We sometimes get downloads of several megabytes per second (good enough for 4K video), and usually around one megabyte per second (high-def video).
Google Fi speed and availability in Cairo (2019)
We also use Google Fi, which is only available in the US. It costs us $20-30 a month each, and gives us data in the critical few days between when we land and get a local SIM. While it doesn’t work everywhere (we didn’t have data in New Caledonia), I’m happy to report Google Fi speed and coverage in Cairo is fine – it gets us reliable LTE speeds (1-3Megabytes/s when I tested it).
How to get a cheap data sim in Cairo (2019)
Mobile data sims are cheap and easily available from stores like Vodafone and Orange. As of early 2019, you can get 8GB sims for 180LE each (~US$10), and could have gotten 20GB sims for 350 LE (~US$20). We opted for the smaller 8GB one because it’s a voice + data package and comes with easy recharge options; the bigger one can only be recharged by buying another of the same. Our average cellphone data usage (both WiFi and cellular) on is about 200MB/day each, most of which is Skype, social media and YouTube.
The biggest mobile network operator in Egypt is Vodafone (around half the population), so that’s who we used.
While we’re keen to practise our budding Arabic, we were grateful (on day 2) that there is someone in every mobile phone store (Vodafone, Orange etc.) that speaks English.
There’s no WiFi in cafes in Cairo
Firstly the concept of a “cafe” is different. More on this later, but basically it’s mostly men drinking Arabic coffee and smoking shisha pipes. You can find international coffee chains like sparsely located instances of Costa Coffee, Starbucks (two of them!) and even Dunkin’ Donuts, but they don’t typically have WiFi. We’ve seen it advertised a couple of times but it didn’t work or was unbearably slow.
Internet security and privacy in Egypt — Keep safe because everyone is watching
One note: you absolutely need a VPN and a way of communicating securely in Egypt. The government watches everyone. Our recommendations:
- VPN for your phone (even when using mobile data) or laptop: NordVPN end-to-end security and encryption.
- Secure chat: use Signal or WhatsApp (I used to say Apple Messages, but I know Apple stores keys and iCloud data through deals with Chinese state-owned enterprises so I don’t know who else they’d have deals with. Also we use Android right now.)
Yes, you technically don’t secure chat if you’re using a VPN. But given sometimes errors happens and the VPN is off, it’s safer and easy to double up.
Apartments look terrible on the outside, but are nice on the inside
Driving in from Cairo’s airport you see a city of stark contrasts, just as you’d expect from any large capital city. But the contrasts are VERY stark, with beautiful architecture on some large mosques and churches, and decrepit buildings in dismal states of squalor.
It’s hard to take photographs in Cairo. Someone’s always watching. We try, and struggle, to maintain a low profile, even though we don’t look ‘white’ and dress conservatively. Occasionally, we are told photography here is not allowed.
A cursory glance through AirBnB shows that there are lots of apartments for under $20 a night in decent parts of town, like in Dokki or Mohandesiin, with nice interiors and furnishings. We can confirm, after seeing a couple, that they’re as nice as they look. But you might have to walk past trash and through a dusty war zone of renovations in the entrance (as we did) just to get there.
Our guide to neighbourhoods in Cairo is coming soon.
The doorman (bawaab) is your friend, your protector, your watcher and sometimes, your enemy.
The doorman (بواب, bawaab), more a ‘gatekeeper’, is the person that manages the building and all its occupants. It’s their job to know everything that’s going on and to keep the peace.
This means that if you have a guest, the bawaab knows (obviously; they probably saw you). They keep tabs on when the guest comes and goes. Whether the same or different guest comes on different days. They’ll see you from the outside if you poke your head outside the window. They know what packages you receive, from whom, and what’s in them. You need to stay on their good side (for your landlord’s sake), but it’s not always totally clear how. For example, one time I opened a window to take a photo of the blue sky and got an apologetic message from our landlord that the bawaab had asked to not do that, to delete the photos and that he’d be up to check.
The bawaab is also the keeper of morality in the building. This can mean that if you are a single person with an entire apartment to yourself, even if the landlord doesn’t care, the bawaab might object to you having visitors of the opposite sex. Be warned.
Generally, a building with a bawaab is considered safer. But if you live in a nice (expat-y) area, they’re not needed, and you might feel more comfortable without one.
So much more to come…
Even after we were writing this, we found out some surprising things about taking photographs in public places, drones, needing to carry your ID, the intricacies of covering yourself appropriately, whether or not you can hold hands in public, how quickly our price sensitivity increased (“Five dollars [for a big lunch for two]??? Are they crazy?”) and the curious array of things people do when it’s prayer time.