Visitors to Kenya face SIM card deregistration, fines and even jail?



Regular visitors to East Africa, holding local telecom operators’ SIM cards they use on arrival, may be in for a rude shock when next returning to Kenya, where the registration deadline for mobile phone numbers expired at the end of last year and where telecom companies are now starting to switch off non registered numbers.

According to information from Kenya have tens of thousands of such unregistered SIM cards already been deactivated, with an overall number of more than 6 million due for the same, many believed to have been purchased by regular visitors from East African neighbouring countries or further abroad.

Non compliance can under a recently introduced new law attract fines of up to 300.000 Kenya Shillings and / or a jail term of not exceeding 3 years, now by many seen as draconian and likely to be used in political or business vendettas, like in the old days of currency regulations the possession of a mere 20 Dollar bill could end you up in jail, and in several select cases actually did.

Registration on line, in this day and age of e-communications, was ruled out and personal appearances in telecom companies’ service centres are required with picture ID documentation at hand, all aimed to combat cyber crime in the economic field, prevent individual threats from ‘Number Withheld’ phones and eliminate political hate campaigns ahead of Kenya’s general election in March this year. The registration applies as much for SIM cards used in phones as well as for those inserted in USB Modems or tablets / iPads. Returning visitors to Kenya, and soon the other East African countries too, will therefore need to set aside time to visit such service centres soon after arrival, to register and have, where needed, their SIM cards reactivated, and the sooner the better as indications are that numbers struck off may in fact be re-allocated to new subscribers in due course. After that period has expired the purchase of new SIM cards with full registration at the time will then be the only option left.

In Uganda the deadline for such registration is reportedly in March this year while in Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi similar exercises are ongoing too. While it is understood that cyber crime is the main focus of the registration requirement, there are also suggestions that state organs could access relevant information from telecom providers and use it against political opponents, with unfettered access in many instances already granted by sweeping anti terrorism legislations forced upon many countries in Africa by supposedly ‘friendly countries’ which at the time made aid contingent on ‘compliance’.

For tourists coming to East Africa, inspite of such new regulations, it is still advisable though to buy a local SIM card which will at reasonable cost allow calls home, uploads of pictures taken to Facebook and Twitter accounts, with some operators in fact allowing free access to FB and Twitter while charging nominal fees for internet ‘bundles’ which allow browsing on smart phones, tablets and iPads.

Tourism sources in Kenya have in the meantime also given assurance that no tourists are expected to be arrested or prosecuted when they come back to the country with still unregistered SIM cards and attempt to use them or belatedly register them. It was acknowledged that even a single such case would attract widespread negative publicity abroad and lead to similar reactions like any outbreak of violence through anti travel advisories. Watch this space.

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