The iPhone 5 introduced a new SIM size to the world: the nano. This brought with it a new set of challenges for the Apple traveller, namely finding countries that have providers that carry it and then finding one of those said providers that will sell you one without requiring a contract.

Of course, it is possible to cut down a micro SIM to a nano size but the idea of stuffing something I’ve hand-cut and filed into the delicate innards of my very expensive smartphone held surprisingly little appeal to me, so here in Mexico I decided to do it the old fashioned way.


In Which Complicated Things Turn Out To Not Be Complicated

When we first arrived in Playa del Carmen, we attempted to hunt down one of these elusive cards at a few mobile resellers but to no avail. We were advised that we would have to go to the official Telcel offices but as free WiFi was everywhere we never quite got around to it.

Finally, 6 months later in Guanajuato, we decided that it was probably time we join the mobile revolution and sought out the official store, still unsure if they would a) have the SIM and b) have it in a Pay as You Go flavour.

The process involves going to an official Telcel Centro de Atención a Clientes. The first stop was reception, where we initially requested an Amigo prepago SIM (Amigo is the name of their prepaid plan) for our iPhone 5.

It’s a good idea to take your passport just in case they ask for it, although they didn’t ask to see ours.

Instead of recoiling in horror at the request, the receptionist simply asked if the phone was locked and warned us that there were no refunds if it turns out it was locked and the SIM doesn’t work.

We were then given a ticket and told to go and queue for an assistant who would actually get the SIM for us. However, while we were queueing, someone else came up to us and took us aside to go and sit in a cubicle.

I’m guessing that’s because we were a pair of lost looking gringos getting in way over our heads again.

A photo of the nano SIM with an iPhone 5

See it? Yeah, me neither. Nobody sneeze.

The lady in the cubicle once again confirmed that the phone was, indeed, unlocked and then got the SIM at which point we were told to head to another window to actually pay, and bring the receipt back to her. Having done so, she activated the SIM and did the initial set up for us before sending us on our way.

The whole thing was easy and took about 30 minutes. We were well taken care of but they didn’t seem to speak a word of English in there so having some level of Spanish definitely helps.

Once you’re all activated, you can check your credit and top up at Mi Telcel, although topping up online didn’t work for us.



Telcel or Movistar?

There are other mobile operators here in Mexico with Movistar being the second biggest. We went with Telcel in the end because they have greater coverage, but Movistar is slightly cheaper (their 1GB data plan costs MX$100 less than Telcel’s, at MX$199) and you can see their range of options here.

Carrier: Telcel

Costs: SIM cards cost MX$149 and include MX$50 of phone credit. The data on this credit costs a crazy MX$0.10/kB, but you can ‘convert’ your top-up credit to get better data rates. First, top up with regular credit (which has validity ranging from 1 hour to 30 days). Once it’s on your phone, you can visit Mi Telcel or send a text message to convert a portion of it into data (Google Translate is your friend) which is valid for the same length of time as the original top up: MX$299 for 1GB, MX$339 for 2GB or MX$399 for 3GB (these prices are for the one month phone credit—make sure you have more credit than the amount you want to convert).

How: Find the nearest Centro de Atención a Clientes, take your passport down and ask for an Amigo prepago SIM para iPhone cinco. Make sure you mention the iPhone 5 so you get the nano size.

Topping up: It’s supposedly possible to do this online, but when we tried the service wouldn’t allow us to enter the UK postcode associated with our credit card causing the transaction to fail. Otherwise, the ubiquitous Oxxo stores throughout Mexico all sell top ups (cash only). You hand over your phone number to the cashier and it’s automatically added to your phone.

Coverage: Telcel’s coverage is slightly better than Movistars and covers all of the major towns and cities throughout Mexico. We’re currently in the sleepy beach town of San Pancho and we’re still getting 3G.

Data speeds: 4G LTE service is available if you have the right model iPhone (North American/Canadian GSM iPhones can get LTE service with Telcel), otherwise it’s good ol’ 3G for the European models.

Note: If you don’t need a nano SIM, buying a regular or micro SIM in Mexico is even easier.


Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.


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The iPhone 5 was the first mainstream phone to use the nano SIM size. Simon attempts to track one of them down in Mexico and finds it ... surprisingly easy.

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14 Responses

  1. Sylvain

    My question would be more basic than that… what real use do you make of a phone while on continuous travel?

    While I was doing the normal few weeks vacation trips… I sometimes carried an active phone with me… but in reality made little use of them beside checking emails when I had no wi-fi.

    Now that I’m about to embark the full-time travel lifetime, I don’t see the need to carry an active phone with me. Yes, making phone calls could be useful now and then… and for that there are payphones. As for contacts with home… Skype is there.

    Other than a fix for social network addiction, I don’t really see the use of a cell phone while on the road.

    So, what use do you really do of a cell phone on the road?

    • Simon

      You’re right, you don’t need it. We survived for 3 years without one. But life gets a whole bunch more convenient with one.

      Last year in Italy we kept getting lost on the country roads even with paper maps. Having GPS and access to the internet while we’re out and about stops that happening and it’s something we’ve already made a lot of use of since picking up our SIM card. Maps and directions can make navigating new places really easy.

      We also rent a lot of apartments and, unlike hotels, you have to make arrangements to get checked in. Yes, we could use (often disgusting) public payphones but having a phone in our pocket makes the process so much easier.

      And, what you call “social network addiction” is actually a big part of our business so being able to do that while we’re waiting in line or on the bus has saved us a lot of time and allowed us to be more active on those networks, which helps us make money.

      I’m finding I’m using some aspect of my newly-connected phone every day, so I make a lot of real use of it but if you don’t think you would, that’s cool too.

      • Jordan

        I am from NYC and have a home in playa del Carmen and my iPhone constantly switches to horrible Movistar or Lusacell with intermittent TelCel which is the best there. How do it get Tel Cel permanently? ATT just bought Lusacell so I’m afraid it won’t work with TelCel anymore. I need my phone to work for calls and it won’t work well without TelCel. I also want my phone number to appear if possible when calling to USA. Will a SIM card from TelCel make it work? Will that change how my number appears? Hope you have some advice. Thanks!

    • dylan

      Good luck finding a pay-phone just off the bus at 23:00 on the backstreets of anywhere in China for the hostel you’ve booked online three days ago. Yes, you NEED a cell phone on the road.

      • dylan

        OK, you don’t NEED one, but it will save you a LOT of hassle. Time you could be not stressing out. That does not mean you need a smart phone – a simple cheap-ass cell phone with a local sim card will do. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself for the purchase.

  2. Jason

    Why not just get a cutter so you can use any card? The size of the “chip” is the same, it’s just the amount of plastic around it. I even used an exacto knife to cut my last one.

  3. MexicoTravel

    Hello there
    i just read your article, just wondering if the TelCel’s prepaid sim card you mentioned in your article could be used on my unlocked iphone 4S? We will be travelling to Oaxaca, Guanajuato, Guadalajara and Mexico City so hoping to get one asap from TelCel when we get to Mexico City. Btw, your article has provided so many tips about getting a sim card in Mexico! thanks so much!

    • Dave Dean

      I’ve actually just come back from six months in Mexico, so I’ll chime in here. With an iPhone 4S, it’ll actually be even easier for you — they use micro SIMs rather than nano SIMs, so you should just be able to walk into any Oxxo store (like a Mexican 7-11) and pick one up, rather than having to go to a dedicated Telcel store.

      If you ask nicely (and speak enough Spanish, or the person behind the counter happens to speak English), they might even help you activate it — that’s what happened for me in Puerto Vallarta, at least. Once activated, load some credit onto the SIM (you can do this at the same time), and then run this page through Google Translate to buy a data package if you need one —

      • MexicoTravel

        Hi Dave dean,

        Thank you so much!!! really insightful!

  4. Merrill

    Do you have any insight/experience using an iPad abroad? I’m leaning towards buying the wifi+Cellular iPad and buying local SIM cards – for maps and such.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Dave Dean

      We published a piece about this time last year about taking your iPad to Africa, so it might be worth taking a look at that.

      From a tech point of view, a 3G/4G iPad is often easier to get working overseas than an iPhone, because all iPad models are sold with an unlocked SIM slot. Just buy a local SIM and as long as it physically fits, you should be fine.

      Depending on where you’re from in the world, whether you bought your phone with a contract and exactly which model you have, you may find that phones are locked to the carrier you bought them from, making it more difficult to use a local SIM card in them overseas.


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