Covering nearly half of South America, Brazil is an amazing country to visit. Home to 70% of the Amazon basin, it’s full of dense rainforests, world-class beaches, and some of the biggest metropolises on the planet. Whether you’re there for a few days or a few months, you’ll leave feeling as though there’s still so much more to see.
Brazil is one of the most developed countries in the region, but Wi-Fi is often still slow and unreliable. If you need decent internet, a local SIM card or travel eSIM is the way to go. I’ve used both in Brazil, and found buying them to be straightforward and good value for money.
It’s worth mentioning that WhatsApp is the go-to form of communication in Brazil. If you don’t already use it, you may wish to install it for your visit. I used it for booking accommodation, transport, and tours on numerous occasions.
Here’s what you need to know.
A CPF, Brazil’s national ID number, is used for many things including mobile phone contracts. As a non-Brazilian traveler without a CPF, many networks and SIM packages will therefore be unavailable to you.
There are four leading mobile phone networks in the country: Vivo, Claro, TIM, and Oi, but Claro & TIM were the only two I found willing to sell me a SIM card without a CPF. I ultimately chose to go with Claro, since at the time it offered a package that was better value for money and suited my needs.
LTE is available in Brazil across all states. While Vivo is the leader by market share, TIM has the largest 4G/LTE coverage in the country and Claro offers the most 3G coverage.
Travel eSIM for Brazil
Given the challenges around buying a good-value SIM without a CPF, and wanting to be connected at the airport so I could arrange transport and contact my accommodation, on my last trip to Brazil I went with a travel eSIM instead.
The best pricing at the time was with Airalo, who I’d used before and always been happy with. It worked well again on this visit, and I had no issues calling Ubers, WhatsApp’ing my host, or navigating my way around the city in Rio.
Like most travel eSIMs, it’s data-only: you don’t get a local number. I use apps for everything from communication to transport these days, so the lack of a local number very rarely matters to me, but you might have different needs.
If you’re new to eSIMs, they offer big benefits to travelers in terms of how quickly, easily, and (often) cheaply you can get connected when you arrive in a new country. Most recent phones support them, and you can read all about them here.
How to Buy a Prepaid SIM Card in Brazil
Purchasing a SIM card with Claro is straightforward: all you need is your passport. It took about 20 minutes, the staff set it up on my phone for me in-store, and it worked straight away.
Claro has a visible retail presence throughout the country, with a high street store in every city and town I visited. Official TIM stores were easy to find in large cities, but not so elsewhere: I don’t recall seeing any outside the main cities. None of the four airports I flew into in Brazil had an option to purchase a SIM card there.
A smaller TIM store in São Paulo said it wasn’t possible to purchase a SIM at that particular outlet without a CPF. This could cause problems if you’re buying away from the main cities or tourist areas.
My SIM stopped working a week after I bought it, because it hadn’t been registered at time of purchase. That should have been done by the store which sold it to me. The staff in the second store I visited were able to resolve this easily for me, though I needed to provide my passport again.
With Claro, if you speak Portuguese, you can call 1052 for customer service, check if the SIM has been registered, and do so yourself if required.
SIM cards are available from many corner stores, so you don’t need to buy at an official store if you don’t want to, but don’t expect much in the way of assistance if you buy elsewhere.
If you go for TIM, check out the comments below — a helpful reader has outlined the process for registering the SIM yourself (in English) via calling the company’s help line. Thanks Ravi!
Prepaid SIM and eSIM Costs
Packages are offered as weekly bundles. You select the package you’d like, and then pay upfront for the number of weeks you need. It then automatically renews each week until the prepaid value has been used up.
There are a number of different packages on offer, and the latest offers can be found here (link in Portuguese). I ultimately found it simpler to speak to someone in-store, as they were able to offer a package that met my needs more closely.
R$20 (approximately $4 USD) got me 10GB of data, unlimited calls and texts to all networks, and unlimited WhatsApp, valid for a month.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, WhatsApp is the go-to communication tool in Brazil. Because of this, most packages don’t count its usage against your data allowance. This includes WhatsApp voice and video calls, making it a really cost-effective way to call foreign numbers.
There is also a one-off R$10 ($2) cost for the SIM card, a standard amount for each provider.
Claro and TIM also offer tourist-specific packages. These were similar to those available to everyone, but with fewer options, it’s harder to find something that fits your specific needs. If you enter a store in a tourist area and don’t speak Portuguese, you’ll likely be offered these packages.
I was only in Brazil for a week or so on my last trip, so I didn’t need huge amounts of data to get me through. Airalo’s eSIM prices were the best I found for Brazil: having used them in several other countries in the past, I was happy to use them again.
I went with a 3GB plan, which was more than enough for my various Uber rides, WhatsApp conversations, Google Maps navigation, and whatever else I needed as I traveled around.
It wasn’t quite as cheap as the physical SIM card on my last visit, but I didn’t want to spend my limited time in the country wandering around trying to find someone to sell me a SIM. For the sake of a few bucks, convenience definitely won!
Airalo isn’t the only option, of course, and prices can and do change over time. We’ve compared many of the companies in the past, and here’s how the best ones stack up price-wise in Brazil.
Once your prepaid period is over, or if you use up your allowances, you’ll need to top up your balance.
A CPF is needed to top up your Claro balance directly via your phone or online. As a result, foreign travelers will need to visit a store to pay with cash or credit card in person, or buy top-up cards from street vendors, supermarkets, etc to load onto the phone themselves.
Topping up with Airalo (or any of the other travel eSIM companies) is done by logging into the website or app. You just select your Brazil eSIM, hit the top-up button, and buy the same package again.
The top-up packs have exactly the same pricing and duration as the original eSIMs: there’s little difference between topping up your current eSIM and buying a new one, other than not having to activate it.
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As we’ve mentioned in the past, Brazil’s telephone number convention can be confusing at first. Numbers take the following format: +55 (AA) 9 xxxx-xxxx
- +55 is Brazil’s country code.
- (AA) is the area code, including for mobile numbers.
- 9 represents a mobile number.
- xxxx-xxxx is the actual phone number.
The 9 is a somewhat recent addition to mobile numbers, and it seems some Brazilian numbers can get away without using it. Even so, if you’re calling or texting a mobile, check the 9 is there before the phone number if you want to be sure.
If you’ve not been given a number’s area code, you can Google the town you are contacting followed by “DDD”, e.g. São Paulo DDD”, to find it out.
Coverage and Data Speeds
As expected in a country the size of Brazil, coverage and speeds varied across the country.
I had coverage nearly everywhere I went during my trip. The only places I had no service at all were the Pantanal wetlands, Chapada Diamantina National Park, and the Amazon basin. None of those were a surprise, given their remoteness.
Similarly, the places where I had noticeably slower data speeds were also quite predictable: beaches away from towns, rural locations, and so on.
Other than that, I had strong coverage for my full two months. Data speeds were comparable with (and at times, felt like they exceeded) those back home in the UK.
My speeds in Rio with Airalo weren’t amazing, but were fast enough to get everything done that I needed to. It uses the Vivo network, which has the largest market share in Brazil. That’s not always a good thing in large cities like Rio: it often just means more people using each cell tower!
Check out our guides to SIM cards and eSIMs in 75+ other countries here.
Main image via eacuna