There's a loophole for sending free WhatsApps on MTN – if you are really, really desperate

Business Insider SA

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  • South African students are exchanging WhatsApp messages even after their data runs out, by simply turning their mobile connections on and off.
  • But it's not as easy as it sounds – and you need to be pretty desperate for it to be more worthwhile than spending R2 on a WhatsApp bundle.
  • We could only get it to work on MTN.
  • It is not a bug MTN intends to close, though it won't talk about the details.
  • For more stories go to the Business Insider South Africa homepage.

We were more than a little dubious when we learned, via a student informer, that young South Africans had figured out a way to send one another WhatsApp messages even after their data had run out.

But after our own experiments we can confirm that there is indeed a method to send text messages over one mobile network – MTN – without any data or a WhatsApp-specific bundle.

The method is simple: just turn off the data connection, compose and send a WhatsApp, then turn the data connection back on, and keep toggling it on and off and the message is delivered.

See also: WhatsApp will no longer work on a bunch of phones – but your odds of being okay are pretty good in South Africa

In practice, however, the mechanism is unreliable and excruciatingly slow in order to, as our editor put it, "save not a lot".

Especially when you can hack MTN to get a 250MB WhatsApp bundle for R10.50 – or just pay R2 a day for a smaller 50MB bundle.

The good news is that MTN is aware that this is possible, and seems to have no plans to close what it says is not, in fact, a loophole.

"In certain instances, MTN applies a zero rating policy for low data volumes within each hour of the day," MTN's corporate affairs executive Jacqui O'Sullivan said in response to question from Business Insider South Africa.

"Further detail of this policy is competitor sensitive and therefore confidential. MTN has systems in place to account for all data volume, and we confirm that this is not a bug or loophole."

Here's how to send WhatsApp messages on MTN, without any data.

We started with a new "Bundle Bonanza" SIM card.


The "MTN Bundle Bonanza 2.0" packs hit shelves in September 2019, and our testing suggests it possible that the bug is specific to these packages.

The SIM cost 49 cents. 

Fresh out of the box, that half-a-rand does not buy you access to WhatsApp.

MTN fresh connect

As expected, we could not send or receive WhatsApp messages on the brand new SIM, with no data loaded and no connection to a wifi network.

To get our new SIM connected to WhatsApp, we bought a little bit of data.

MTN data buy

R10 buys you 20MB of data on MTN via First National Bank. But, annoyingly in our case, the new MTN bundled SIM comes with 250MB of WhatsApp-specific data, activated as soon as you spend R10 or more.

That meant we had to burn through that data first, before we could experiment in a data-less state.

MTN data bought

Pro tip: a quick way to waste WhatsApp data is to start uploading a file of just under 100MB (the attachment limit in WhatsApp), then cancelling it just before it completes, and repeating as often as necessary.

Finally we were disconnected from WhatsApp again, and unable to send or receive messages....

MTN depleted

... except when toggling the network connection on and off, by messing with Flight Mode.

By turning Flight Mode (or "Airplane Mode" in this case) on and off repeatedly, we disconnected and reconnected to the network, as advised by the informer who first told us of this loophole. The same effect can be achieved by turning mobile data off and on, or restarting the phone.

We could find no reliable way to get messages to send; sometimes short disconnections worked, sometimes being offline for longer seemed to work. Messages would send seemingly at random as we went through these steps.

But it was never easy. Sending a single message could take minutes, and there was no chance of having a real-time conversation, or doing something else while waiting for a response.

As best we can tell, this is not possible on Vodacom, Telkom Mobile, or Cell C.

We went through the same process for the other networks, starting with fresh SIM cards, loading data, depleting it, and then trying to send messages. We could not recreate the free WhatsApps on MTN.

There are better ways to send WhatsApp, unless you are particularly desperate.

Our tests showed it is possible to send WhatsApp messages through a mobile network without paying – but also that you can get WhatsApp data cheap.

For R10.50 you can buy a new MTN SIM, and activate 20MB of general-use data and 250MB of WhatApp-only data. That's a lot of messages, if you stick to text only, and the next week you can buy a new SIM and repeat the process.

Alternatively, MTN will sell you a 50MB one-day WhatsApp-only bundle for R2.

We'd rather spend the time trying to raise that R2 than go through the painful process of sending WhatsApps without data.

See also – SA is seeing a new WhatsApp scam outbreak: here's how to protect yourself

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