In Part 3 we will be tackling cell phones (more in depth as I covered it briefly in Part 1) & the internet, how to pay bills, health insurance, and going to the doctor/pharmacy.
Let’s get started, shall we?
I’m going to require a lot of help from Youssef on this one as I recognize that a lot of what I knew of these specific topics 1. has either changed since I left or 2. is completely inaccurate and misleading! So, again I’m thankful to have Youssef to kind of set the record straight. The good thing is though, that most ‘neighborhoods’ in Beirut are pretty self-sufficient; meaning you won’t need to go too far outside of where you are living to access most of the above (cellphone stores, cafes with internet, pharmacies..).
After spending the better part of an hour ranting and raving about my cell phone woes, Youssef kindly point out that most of my experiences ‘were probably unique to you‘ and ‘whoever was guiding you obviously wasn’t aware that there is an easier way to do things.‘
Well,..umm I guess for my part of this section I’ll just reiterate what I wrote in Part 1 about cellphones. Essentially you can use the phone you use in your home country as long as it’s unlocked. There are options to get your phone unlocked in Lebanon, as well as to buy phones (I came with an iPhone but ended up buying a blackberry for between $75-$100)..so essentially what you do is up to you. I will tell you that cell phone rates are kinda sorta completely ridiculous in Lebanon. Call your top 5 contacts for free? Free nights and weekends? Roll over minutes? HA! Non-existent. So, if you’re one of those who likes to have loooong drawn out conversations about that Lebanese guy you met in poli-sci..you will have to have your conversations over BBM or Whatsapp.. If you’re planning on staying in Beirut for an extended period of time I really recommend that you go with a postpaid line rather than a pre-paid line. For some reason (I was under the impression that it was really difficult for foreigners to get a postpaid line) I used a pre-paid line for a year a half..and take if from me it was a royal pain in the a**. So..yeah, go with a postpaid if you have the choice. (If you end up going with pre-paid there are cellphone stores and corner stores everywhere, so it will never be too hard to fine a recharge card).
Ok, I’ll let Youssef take it over from here.
Oh the days of free nights and weekends and the 3000 roll over minutes accumulated along the years!!! If you’re the type of person who doesn’t want to worry about how much credit you have left on your cellphone or how long it will last you, etc, you’re better off getting a postpaid line. Unlike the US, Europe, and the majority of the world, postpaid accounts do not require a long term contract. That’s because contracts do not come with offers for the handset. The nice thing about it is that you are not bound to a long term contract and are free to cancel it at any time. You are also not boxed in with a limited number of phones that you can choose from. On the other hand, you have to pay full price for a phone you want to buy which is subsidized in the long term contract with carriers like AT&T and Verizon. (so you’re best bet would be to bring your phone from home).
So how does a postpaid line work? To get one you have to provide the following to one of the two carriers that monopolize the market:
- Copy of an ID.
- $100 cash deposit or Bank Direct Debit
- Completed and signed mtc touch contract
For the Lebanese Resident:
- ID or Civil record or Valid passport or Military Service Card or Army Reserve Card or Military Specimen number 2.
- Proof of Residence (Residence Certificate stamped by the mayor not older than 3 months, or Water, PSTN or electricity bill issued in your name, or a house lease contract, house property deed in your name)
- Deposit: $100 deposit when migrating the line from prepaid to postpaid and $50 when purchasing a new postpaid line
For the Foreign Resident:
- Valid Passport or Personal Identity Card or Residence Permit
- Deposit of $100 in case of line migration or $50 Deposit in case of new postpaid line.
- Proof of Residence or Letter of guarantee or deposit of $250 per line or Residence Certificate stamped by the mayor or Water, PSTN or electricity bill * issued in the name of the customer or House lease contract, house property deed.
- N.B: If you have a residence permit, there will be no need for any Proof of Residence or its equivalent.
- Payment method automatic direct debit at the bank is obligatory.
For the Foreign Non-Resident:
- Valid Passport or Personal Identity Card
- Deposit: 250$ (deposit or as a letter of guarantee) per line
- Payment method is obligatory through automatic direct debit at the bank
mtc seems to have the least demanding requirements. It’s very easy to get this setup. My advice is to go directly to the mtc or Alfa offices and get all of the paperwork done there. This way you avoid any extra charges a reseller would charge you, or any confusion and obstacles.
Cellphone plans/rates are all set by the government and the Ministry of Telecommunications, so it’s futile to shop for better prices between the two carriers. The only difference you might find is in the service. That is both the customer service and line service. Depending on the location, one carrier might have a stronger signal than the other and better service. I personally have had a line with mtc and so far I have had very little problems with it. Everyone experiences dropped calls, but that’s for people who actually make phone calls on their phone :P
Which brings us to the next part about cell phones. A ‘major’ update in service has been made recently in terms of the wireless Internet service/data plans on cellphones. Thanks to the efforts of the people behind @Ontornet, a good portion of the country is now receiving 3G service coverage. Some are even luckier and get 3.9G (That is of course in theory. In practice some might still be stuck on EDGE if they get connected at all). The prices have also dropped tremendously. Here’s a table of the prices which are the same for both mtc and alfa:
Because the per minute rates are so high, my suggestion is to get the 3G service on your smart phone and use Whatsapp to communicate with your friends. I’ve had long stretches of time where I haven’t made or received a phone call – almost everything can and is done through Whatsapp. And with its emergence and popularity, this app has made the BBM service unnecessary and people are slowly moving away from the Blackberry and more into the iPhone and Android market.
Getting a line is really not that complicated, whether prepaid or postpaid. With both you have to be mindful of your consumption, but with gchat, skype and Whatsapp you can cut the BS talk on the phone and just use voice calls for the necessities/emergencies. Do like the house maids do, talk with your friends from balcony to balcony if it’s something that has to be said and can’t be typed :P
I had to take a break before coming to this one..stressssss!! before I start, I have to input a few Maya Zankoul comics to give those of you who dont know, a sense of what you’ll be dealing with.
Ok,,so yeah..now that that’s over. The internet had to be one of my bigger pet peeves (there were many, yet I still loved it) while living in Leb. Again, maybe my experience was unique to me..maybe it wasn’t.. but essentially the apartment where I lived didn’t have a land line, and the landlady wasn’t interested in putting one in, so my roommate and I each had to get our own portable wireless internet devices (we soon realized that we couldn’t share one) to use while we were at home. I wrote a post about this little device, called Mobi..here.
Remember when I said that Lebanon has one of the highest telecommunications rates in the world? Well,,that goes for Internet rates as well..except Lebanon also has one of the worst (if not the worst) internet connections in the world as well (oh the joy!). Internet woes occupied wayyy too much of my time (and money) while I was in Leb. Whether at work or at home, it seemed like every day was a constant mission just to get basic things done online. There would be days at work (and I worked at a digital agency mind you) where the internet would cut for hours!! And at home, I just felt restricted ..not a good way to feel when you work in digital media and have a blog which you like to keep updated! Streaming video? Uploading/Downloading pictures? Having 5/6 pages open and loading at once? Not an option..I mean, not if you want your “bandwidth” to last an entire month. Ahh..which takes me to prices. $45 – $50 dollars gets you internet for a month with a service like Mobi (i believe they have another one called Wise), but..that also comes with a very limited bandwidth..so..if you get busy streaming video, and uploading and downloading a bunch of pictures, it’s very easy to run through your bandwidth in a week (trust me, I’ve done it.)..so that you end up spending over $100 on sh**ty internet service per month!
You can buy a USB mobi dongle thingy at electronic stores (like Radio Shack in Hamra). You can buy ‘internet cards’ at the aforementioned stores as well as at electronic repair/supply stores around town. They aren’t as prevalent as cell phone stores, but you will be able to find them with a little searching. My advice to you is to always keep an eye on your bandwidth limits (when you DL the software that comes with the dongle, this should be easy) so that you never find yourself with no internet..something i’ve done way too much. Or just go to cafes around your neighborhood as most offer free Wifi, or Wifi for a small fee..still, you won’t be able to download/upload/stream as much as you are accustom to..so get used to it. You’re better off buying series from nabilnet.net than streaming from Hulu.
The cap on the internet usage in Lebanon is something that creates lots and lots of stress within the Lebanese community, but guess what? There’s actually unlimited nights in this case! If you use mobi, you get unlimited downloads between midnight and 8am, and if you’re on IDM it’s between 23:00pm and 07:00am. Isn’t that great news? Maybe for all the insomniacs in Lebanon; and if you’re not an insomniac, you just might turn into one.
The major internet providers in the country (Ogero, IDM, Cyberia) give you DSL which requires having a landline hooked up at your apartment. if everyone cooperates, the process is simple. But you’re likely to either have a stickler for a landlord (like Danielle did), live outside the reach of Ogero’s cables, or have one mafia or the other who is monopolizing communications in your area. I mean, isn’t hassling foreigners over the basics of day to day life the best way to demonstrate how Lebanon is one of the most hospitable countries in the world, whose economy is based primarily on toursim? Of course it is! In this case, you have the mobi option. A portable USB dongle that gets you internet through the wireless networks. In fact, mtc and alfa now offer this service as well through their 3G networks. But this was the option you were going for anyway, you’re new in town, always on the move, meeting people at cafes, and not sitting at your apartment skyping with your mom back home, right?
For mobi’s packages and prices, check their website.
Speaking of cafes, free WiFi is more or less available at every cafe in the country. In fact, believe it or not, free WiFi can also be found at Lebanon’s public parks and with, on average, 300 sunny days a year, why not spend your weekend in the park with your laptop? For a list of public parks, checkout +961’s post.
I was fortunate in that I didn’t really have many bills to speak of while I was in Leb. I never ended up getting a credit card, mainly because I didn’t have a residency visa 1, nor did I have any credit in Lebanon 2.. so that’s that. I just applied for a checking account while I was there – which is pretty standard so I didn’t really feel the need to go into depth about it.. Now when it came to electricity and water,..the caretaker (“natour” as the Lebanese call it) would come to my apartment every month, show me my bill (or leave it at my door if I wasn’t there), and I would just give him the amount in cash so he could take care of it (pretty informal – I know, but we never had a problem with our electricity shutting of..so yeah I love this about Leb). My roommate explained to me that if we didn’t have the money on time to give it to the caretaker, we would have to go the water and electrical companies ourselves, and THAT’S where it gets complicated. So, in the year and a half that I was in Beirut this is how I paid my bills..I never wanted to find out what it was like to pay them myself so I made sure that I always had the money on time. I’m not sure if this system is standard in Leb, so we’ll see what Youssef has to say…
There aren’t that many bills to account for usually. For the postpaid cell lines, you can either have an automatic bank draft that takes care of it automatically or pay your bill monthly (usually either on the 1st or the 15th of the month) at any OMT or Money Gram store (they’re everywhere and easy to spot). The internet bill is payed at the LibanPost if you’re with Ogero, or prepaid cards if you’re on mobi or Wise or any of the other providers. As for utilities, a bill collector usually comes to your house to collect the money. It is possible to ask the collector to actually come at a later time to collect the money, so for example if you are not at home when the electricity bill collector comes, he’ll leave you a small green piece of paper with the amount you owe and the day he’ll come back. Like Danielle said, it’s very common to have the building caretaker (every building has one) take care of the bills for you, just don’t forget to leave him a nice tip during xmas/ramadan.
For the most part, cash is the common method for recurring bill payments in the country. Some services give you the bank draft option (eg. cell phone carriers, which might actually be enforced if you’re a foreigner) and some also use credit cards. But you might have problems paying with a foreign credit card, for example mtc does not accept foreign credit cards if you want to pay your postpaid bill online. There’s an abundance of ATMs, especially on a street like Hamra, so you do not have to worry about getting your hands on some cash, same goes for money exchange booths who also sell mtc and alfa recharge cards.
Health Insurance & Going to the Doctor/Pharmacy
Health insurance is yet another thing I lived without during my time in Beirut. (No car, no health insurance, no credit card, prepaid phone and internet, electricity cuts for 3 hours a day amongst other things..yeah..talk about building character) I guess I figured that if anything serious happened I always had health insurance in the States..and being young and invincible, what could possibly happen right? And from what I know about health insurance in Lebanon (through work at least) or in general, it’s not at all like it is in the states, where you pay a co-pay of let’s say.. 20% of what the actual cost of the visit is,,and they cover things like annual physicals, etc etc. In Lebanon, insurance covers things like hospitalization and death (again, I may be mistaken here). The good news is, doctors visits are relatively reasonable. A doctor’s visit well generally run you around $50 – $75 dollars. (Always be prepared to pay cash when you go to the doctor..in my experience some of them only accept cash).
Again, coming from the States (where you’re advised to show up 15-20 minutes early just to fill in 15-20 pages of paperwork)..going to the doctor in Beirut was a very different experience. It’s very informal (shockingly so actually) – they don’t even ask you for your ID to verify your identity – which i thought was strange in the case that you fall unconscious and they want to access your medical records? Or in the case that you’re using a false identity? ..and from what I remember, patient privacy doesn’t exist all that much either (maybe this is just the American in me talking,,maybe we have a skewed sense of what patient privacy actually means). I remember going to pay for my visit one time, and the receptionist screaming out to the doctor “What did she get done? What do I have to charge for?” I mean, really?
This informality definitely extends over into the pharmacy as well. I wrote a very detailed post about what I think about pharmacies in Beirut, and about a few personal experiences I had..so I suggest you read it just so you know what to expect.
In a nutshell, if you’re coming from the States, there are a few things you will need to get used to:
- the things you are accustom to being over the counter, are actually behind the counter
- many pharmacists are dressed in plain clothes, and tend to not be very discrete when discussing your personal business (inside voices anyone?)
- Lebanese people don’t seem to understand the meaning of personal space, and will stand up right next to you or almost on top of you while you are trying to speak with a pharmacist.
- you will end up using many generic brands, as well as brands from Europe that are cheaper but work just as well (even so I recommend that you research the brands to make sure it is in fact what you need, as there have been incidences of pharmacists prescribing the wrong things..i think this is mainly due to miscommunication..and obviously things/medications might not have the same names as they do in the place you’re from)
Yup, pharmacies in Lebanon are not the over glorified candy stores like CVS or Walgreens found in the US. In most pharmacies (except maybe in Hamra) you can only get medication – no shampoo, beauty products, etc etc. The key to a successful visit to the pharmacy is the same as a visit to any other place in Lebanon: be friendly, initiate small talk with the person you’re dealing with, and you’ll be well taken care of. Now, I’m not a female who doesn’t feel like broadcasting when her feminine cycle is due, nor am I a person who cares much for privacy. So although I have not experienced the annoyances Danielle mentioned, I know the Lebanese mentality and way of handling things, and that kind of behavior is typical and is bound to cause awkward moments for those who aren’t used to it. On the other hand, there are plenty of female run pharmacies who tend to be a bit more discrete and mindful of a girl’s need for privacy.
As for insurance and Dr’s visits, there are options available for you obviously. If you are working for an employer with the proper legal paperwork, your employer is legally bound to enroll you in a health plan. If your work is under the table like many foreigners I know, then you’ll have to resort to getting your own insurance. I am personally enrolled in “Sm@rtcare” by United Medical Group. My contract was done through Bank Audi, but their offer is limited to Lebanese nationals only. I did ask them about a plan for foreigners and Bank Audi said they do not provide one, but the provider they use does. That is one option, and I know a few other options exist as well. You do not have to go through your stay without medical coverage. Depending on what plan you get, some cover doctor visits, some cover medications, others cover ER visits, and any combination of the mentioned services. I believe, I may be wrong about this, an insurance plan that covers hospitalization and lab work would cost you less than $2,000/year (that’s what my 60 year old father pays, who’s considered at high risk to be hospitalized). But in most cases, you will have to pay upfront and then get reimbursed at a later point. Although, since a sizable portion of the population is not covered by insurance, many private practices cater to these cases and give reasonable prices for the visits, and labs like Dr’s Laboratories near Bliss St also provide reasonably priced lab tests. Some things are cheap enough that you might find it more convenient to just pay the bill cash and not worry about filing a claim.
So there you go! part 3! Probably not as interesting/exciting as the other two before it, (and as usual, long as hell) but information anyone moving to Beirut needs to know.
Hope this helps!
If anyone has anything to add, please do leave it in the comments! Again, think about how we could making people’s lives just a little bit easier! ;) They’ll have enough on their hands when they get to Beirut.
-Dani and Youssef