Prior to leaving London I had spent many hours researching SIM cards in South America. I looked through the various blogs and forums and just got the impression that if we wanted to use a mobile for other than phone calls and text messages it was going to cost us a small fortune!
After several months travelling in South America, I’m pleased to report that that is not necessarily the case. Here’s how we organised phone, SMS and data usage in Argentina, Bolivia and Peru in 2013.
Based on: iPhone 4 (Unlocked European version with mini-SIM) running iOS 6. See general notes at the end of the article regarding SIM card sizes and various non-Apple smartphones.
Carriers: Claro, Movistar, NEXTEL, Personal
Costs: AR$17 ($3) for the SIM and AR$50 ($10) PAYG credit. Calls cost AR3.25 ($0.60) for local calls but prices rise by 20% on average when long distance calls are made. If you top up AR$40 you receive 200 national text messages.
To use 3G internet a daily add-on costing AR$1 ($0.18) is available for unlimited data. Honestly it’s quite a bargain! You purchase this add-on via menus that appear on the screen after dialling the access code.
Adjust the amount of credit you purchase according to the length of your stay.
How: There are many Personal stores around the Buenos Aires and other large towns and cities in the country, although English may not always be spoken. No passport is required for a PAYG SIM. Do remember that depending on your device you may have to cut your the SIM card to fit your smartphone as they are a standard SIM size. See general notes below.
Topping up: You will find most kiosks as well as the Personal stores will be able to top-up your credit, but kiosks will sell you a card for either 10, 20 or 30 pesos. Follow the instructions on the reverse of the card and you will receive a text message confirming your top-up amount. You can also check your balance directly from your phone. Use google translate if you are having difficulty understanding the instructions.
Data speeds: Like US and European services data speeds and network coverage vary. It is not unusual if you are in remote or mountainous regions (Patagonia) to have no signal or data capabilities. Two-way or satellite radios are often the only form of communication.
Notes and useful links: Please note that prices providers currently quote are for the region your SIM card was purchased. For example, a SIM purchased in Buenos Aires will have a Buenos Aires number. When travelling outside city limits call costs are slightly more expensive.
To reduce costs I would use an application called Whatsapp (http://www.whatsapp.com/) which is very popular in South America – if of course you have data facilities. One call can easily cost many times more than the 1 peso for a day’s 3G service.
Carriers: Entel, Tigo, VIVA
Costs: Bs 10 ($1.50) for the SIM, Bs 50 ($6.50) PAYG credit. Calls cost Bs 1.55 ($0.24) if made between 7am to 9pm and Bs 0.68 (($0.10) at other times. A SMS costs Bs 0.20 ($0.03) for national texts and Bs 1 ($0.15) for international texts
To use 3G you have the option of hourly, daily, weekly or monthly add-ons. DO NOT choose the hourly bundle as it’s a waste of money. I would recommended purchasing the following for a one month stay:
1. A bundle called BOLSA VOLUMEN PRE-PAGO Móvil 500 MBx50Bs 30 días (days) on your first day for Bs 50 ($7.50).
2. On subsequent days purchase the Móvil Diario 7MBx1Bs 1 Bs. 1 día (day) bundle for Bs 1 (US$0.15).
If you are intending to stay in Bolivia for only one or two weeks you can purchase less than 500MB.
NOTE: The VIVA system uses the 7MB first as it’s only valid until midnight on the day of purchase. Your unused 500MB balance rolls forward for 30 days if you purchase internet each day. So for the equivalent of 710MB for 30 days would cost Bs 80 (£8 or US$12). If you wish to purchase a larger bundle, the options are listed here.
How: You are required to register your PAYG SIM in Bolivia. I would recommend doing the initial purchase and registration of the SIM card and device in a VIVA store, not forgetting to take along your passport. These stores seem to be only in cities or large towns, eg: Tarija, Sucre, Santa Cruz and La Paz. SIM cards are only currently available in standard size. See general notes below.
Topping up: You will find many kiosks as well as VIVA stores where you will be able to top-up your credit, but note that the kioks will sell you a card for either 10, 20, 30 or 50 bolivianos. Follow the instructions on the reverse of the card and you will receive a text message confirming your top-up amount. You can also check your balance directly from your phone. Use Google Translate if you have difficulty understanding the instructions.
Data speeds: Data speeds and network coverage varied more in Bolivia more than other South American countries we have visited. Again, it is not unusual if you are in remote or mountainous region to have no signal or data capabilities. The infrastructure in Bolivia seems to be mostly based on wireless communications as opposed to the US and European cable systems. It is not uncommon in a hotel or hostel to find a dongle plugged into the back of a wireless router and on occasions, in more remote areas, it only functions for a set number of hours a day.
Notes and useful links: Unlike in Argentina, Bolivian mobile providers charge the same call and text rate wherever you are in the country. To reduce costs I would still recommend using text messages or an application like Whatsapp or Skype, even though calls and texts are far cheaper in Bolivia.
Carriers: Claro, Nextel, Movistar
Costs: S/8 ($3) for the SIM and S/70 ($27) PAYG credit. National calls cost S/0.49 ($0.18) and text messages cost S/0.10 ($0.04). International texts cost S/0.25 ($0.09).
To use 3G you have the option of a daily, weekly or monthly bundle. I would recommended purchasing the following for a 1 month stay:
1. A bundle called Elige tu Supercarga de Internet S/60 x 1GB 30 días (days) on your first day for S/60 ($22.50).
NOTE: This bundle is a one-off monthly payment and does not require you to purchase internet services each day. There are other data cap options if required – if you’re only staying for 1 or 2 weeks, for instance, you can purchase less than 1GB.. See pricing here.
How: Like Bolivia you are required to register your PAYG SIM – you will not be able to add an internet bundle to your account if you have not registered the SIM card and device. Your passport or driving licence is required along with a fingerprint.
I would strongly recommend doing the initial purchase and registration of the SIM card and device in a Movistar store, again mostly found in cities or large towns like Puno, Arequipa, Cusco and Lima. Do remember that depending on your device you may have to cut your SIM card to fit – see general notes below.
Topping up: You will find many corner shops as well as the Movistar stores will be able to top-up your credit, though in Peru corner shops are more sophisticated. You ask for a top-up of however many soles you require. They either contact Movistar by phone or computer. You receive a text message confirming the amount of your top-up, pay and get a receipt.
As in Argentina and Bolivia you can also check your balance directly from your phone. Use Google Translate if you are having difficulty understanding the instructions. The menus across the networks and countries are very similar, so once you have mastered one the others become far simpler.
Data speeds: Data speeds and network coverage vary less then other South American countries we have visited. Again it is not unusual if you are in remote or mountainous region to have no signal or data capabilities.
Notes and useful links: Like Bolivia calls and texts are not particularly expensive for PAYG SIMs. Remember to keep costs down I would still recommend using text an application like Whatsapp or Skype to make international calls and texts, especially if you have already purchased a data package.
It is important to note that my experiences have been with an iPhone 4 running iOS 6. Therefore, anyone owning an iPhone 3GS, 4, 4S or 5 should be able to simply insert the SIM, register if required, and then have a working phone1.
I’m aware that it can be a slightly tricky process in some cases if you own an older non-Apple smartphone, as they can require manual configuration of APN settings in order to use the various SIM cards – although often this process can be achieved by sending a message to your device from the network provider.
I would strongly recommend that both Apple and Android smartphone users purchase and where necessary register their SIM and device, in a dedicated store for that network provider, as they often have technical support in-house or can easily phone support from their store.
1A SIM card cutting tool could be useful for iPhone 4, 4S and 5 and a number of other smartphones. You will be need to trim the SIM to fit, as all PAYG SIMs we found were the standard size, not micro or nano. Currently, we use a penknife and an old micro SIM as a template to cut the new SIM to size. But I suggest you don’t add credit to your account before cutting the SIM to size yourself – you don’t want to lose your money!