Prior to leaving London I had spent many hours researching local 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.

Argentina

COMPANIES

  • We used Personal

Other options include Claro, Movistar and NEXTEL.

HOW

There are many Personal stores around 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.

COSTS

Please note that quoted prices 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.

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 dialing the access code.

To reduce costs I used Whatsapp,  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.

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.

COVERAGE AND DATA SPEEDS

Like US and European services, data speeds and network coverage vary. It is not unusual to have no signal or data capabilities if you are in remote or mountainous regions like Patagonia. Two-way or satellite radios are often the only form of communication.


Bolivia

COMPANIES

  • We used VIVA

Other options include Entel and Tigo.

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.

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.

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.

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.

 
Need travel insurance for your trip to South America? We use and recommend World Nomads. Get a quote in under a minute.
 

COVERAGE AND 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.


Peru

COMPANIES

  • We used Movistar

Other options include Claro and Nextel.

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.

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. For a one month stay, I'd recommended purchasing the Elige tu Supercarga de Internet for S/60, which provides 1GB of data that lasts for 30 days.

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.

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.

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.

COVERAGE AND 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.

GENERAL NOTES

It is important to note that my experiences have been with an iPhone 4 running iOS 6. Therefore, anyone owning an iPhone should be able to simply insert the SIM, register if required, and then have a working phone.

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.

A SIM card cutting tool could be useful -- 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!

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

14 Responses

  1. Sam

    Thanks for featuring Zab’s piece. I think he did a really good job of it, and hope it proves useful for anyone travelling in South America!

    Reply
  2. Flora @ Flora the Explorer

    Great article Zab – and very timely, as I’ve just started my two month stint in Bolivia! I don’t have a smart phone but I do have an iPad – do you reckon the same rules apply if I want to get a 3G SIM? I assume I’ll have to cut it down (which terrifies me only slightly…) and I’m guessing from this piece that you’d suggest Viva as the best carrier. Love to hear your thoughts on this!

    Reply
  3. Zab Scoon

    Hi! I know VIVA also provide SIM cards for iPads but that may require you to have a contract as opposed to a PAYG SIM card. Some of their contracts do allow you to cancel them before the minimum time period for a small fee, so worth checking out. If they only offer contracts with no possible opt out I would try a regular SIM with a little credit on and just see what happens – at worst you could lose around £5/US$7.50.

    Here are a few PDFs from the VIVA website about using 3G and 4G with your iPad.

    http://www.nuevatel.com/bundles/viva/pdfs/user_guide_ipad_viva.pdf
    http://www.nuevatel.com/bundles/viva/pdfs/viva_3g-user-manual-externo-18-ene.pdf

    I hope you are enjoying Bolivia! Any more questions, let me know.

    Reply
  4. Torsten

    So you want to buy a SIM card in Peru? Be prepared for a long
    bureaucratic process – it’s a ‘fun’ way to improve your Spanish 🙂

    Reply
  5. Katrina

    This is so useful – thanks so much. Got my Viva sim (in Bolivia) but now trying to work out the best mobile modem for my laptop. Any ideas?

    Reply
  6. Mikedefieslife

    Just bought a Personal SIM for Argentina. It’s rubbish. Their internal package allows you to use 10mb as full speed, then it drops to 64kbs, which of is super super slow.

    For those needing decent internet access I’d recommend trying Movistar or Claro.

    Hopefully I have better luck in Bolivia.

    Reply
  7. Michael Matthews

    I’ve been traveling Latin America since April 2015. I’ve run into various cell companies throughout. Claro in Guatemala has a special deal to call USA for ~$.04/min.; same with MasMovil Panama. Claro-Colombia has this rate but limited to 25min/mo. I’m currently in Peru and have a Movistar chip. Is anyone aware of other Latin American countries with special USA dialing rates? And if so how are they accessed?

    Reply
  8. Dan Gent

    A bit of an old article (in web terms) but great to find the answer to “what happens if i get a monthly package in Bolivia and also a daily package – which is used first?”

    Just to reply to the Gringos complaining about “why do I have to register my SIM card”

    Because people use anonymous SIM cards to do extorsion where they send hitman round if you don’t pay their money. This was used on even primary schools in SMP in Lima while I was there.

    Safe to say if they had to choose between inconveniences for Gringos and…..

    Well. you get me

    Reply
  9. ryan

    I’m planning a year long trip through South America in 2016. I currently work remotely and will continue to work while traveling. I’m concerned with the Internet connections in SA, specifically in the more remote areas. I’m planning on purchasing SIM cards in each country I enter and using my cell phone as a hotspot / tethering device when there is no Internet connection. I’m concerned that in these remote areas there will be NO Cell Phone Reception which will mean No Internet Connection. How often would you say you ran into no cell phone reception? And would you say its possible to continue to work remotely in SA by using my cell phone as a hotspot?

    Reply
    • Zab

      Hi Ryan,

      Firstly, sorry for the slow response. We have been on the road and getting over jet lag. It’s great you have the year to travel around South America. I’m a firm believer in travelling slowly especially if you work remotely like we all do.

      It really depends how remote you’re talking about. The most difficult time for internet connection was in El Chaltén in southern Argentina. It was painfully slow, though I have heard that much has been improved. I would suggest asking a hostel or hotel in this large village if you are planning on visiting. Also when travelling, as in on buses, and it is very remote, we most certainly didn’t get internet and on occasions no phone signal.

      It’s been two years since we were in that part of the world. It’s important for folks to realise that many of these countries rely heavily on mobile internet systems (GSM masts/satellites). Installing cables around the country is just neither feasible nor cost effective.

      So the upshot is we never went several days without internet and having your own sim card and using your phone as a hotspot is a good idea. I would suggest a couple of things for you. Have a spare battery pack and if you don’t have an iPhone make sure you are fully versed in how to set up the phones network and data settings. We met several people who had a lot of hassle or just didn’t get the system to work with their phones.  Things may have changed but with their android OS they had to request the mobile network send a profile to the device.

      Any further questions let me know.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *