Hungary has grown more popular with tourists in recent years, attractive to both young backpackers and older visitors with a few more forint in their wallets. While tourism is picking up across the country, Budapest is still king, and is where most travellers spend most of their time.
A city of 1.7 million, the capital is both lively and beautiful, as famous for its ‘ruin pub’ nightlife as it is the sophisticated wine and cocktail scene.
When the sun comes up, Budapest has plenty to keep you busy, from hikes in the Buda hills, spa baths across the city, and a range of museums and historical sites. Besides the wealth of things to do, Hungary is just as popular for its prices, which are far lower than in Western European cities.
Picking up a SIM card is both simple and affordable, although it does require you bring official ID and complete some paperwork. Coverage and speeds are excellent in the major cities.
Here’s what you need to know about buying a SIM card in Hungary.
There are four cell networks in Hungary: the three established carriers operated by Telekom (formerly T-Mobile), Telenor, and Vodafone; and Digi, a market newcomer in 2017.
While there are several resellers as well, they require registration by phone, in Hungarian, and a follow-up letter to a Hungarian address. Therefore, the primary providers listed above are the most convenient choices for travellers.
Telekom has the largest market share in Hungary. While it has the best coverage on 2G and 4G networks, it has the worst 3G coverage, something that will mostly impact you outside Budapest.
Within the capital, Telekom and Telenor both have good 4G. While both theoretically offer LTE, my (Telenor) SIM rarely leaves 4G, and friends with pre-paid Telekom SIMs have reported the same.
Vodafone has the least coverage of the three main carriers; Digi uses the Telenor network for data.
I’ve used Vodafone on past visits to Budapest, but now use Telenor due to better coverage and value. Vodafone also has a reputation for being difficult for non-resident foreigners to deal with. I chose Telenor over Telekom because of the companies’ customer service reputation, and because the Telenor My Chat plan includes free social media use that’s not counted against the data allowance.
Vodafone is the only provider currently offering SIM purchase at Budapest airport. If you’d like to purchase a SIM from one of the other providers, you’ll need to do so when you reach the city.
Getting from the airport to the city without Internet is easy if you use the miniBud shuttle (which you can arrange on arrival in the arrivals hall) or public transport, which is fairly straightforward, but requires a transfer. There is a transportation desk at Budapest airport that can sell you tickets and offer instructions for getting to the city via public transport.
If you’re arriving in Budapest by train, the Arena Plaza shopping mall is about a 10-minute walk from Keleti pályaudvar train station, and has a Telenor, Telekom, and Vodafone shop, as well as a Media Markt electronics store, which also sells SIM cards.
If you’re arriving by air and decide to purchase your SIM in the city, I recommend going to WestEnd City Centre in Budapest, a large shopping mall attached to Nyugati pályaudvar train station and connected to public transport via metro and the 4/6 trams. WestEnd has Telekom, Vodafone and Telenor shops, as well as a Media Markt and Digi shop.
At all of these shops, there will likely be a staff member who speaks English and is able to help you. You’ll be able to pay with cash, a PIN-enabled card, and (often) contactless PayPass cards.
Purchasing a SIM card will take about 30 minutes due to the paperwork required. While it’s not at all difficult, recent anti-terrorism legislation has increased the information required to get a SIM, and so it takes slightly longer than before.
You will need to provide a photo ID, such as a passport or ID card, and sign a bit of paperwork. You may also be required to provide a Hungarian address, so be sure to note your hotel/apartment details before going to purchase the SIM.
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If you purchase your card at the airport, you’ll be limited to Vodafone. The Vodafone ‘Tuti’ tariff pre-paid plans aren’t designed for heavy data users; for that, you’ll need to purchase add-ons.
The Max L plan is HUF 3,858 (US $14), and includes 100 minutes or texts and 1GB of data, lasting for 30 days. You can purchase additional data at HUF 1393 (US $5) per GB. Vodafone outlines pre-paid options on the English version of its website, here. In general, Vodafone is considered a relatively expensive option in Hungary, and if you’re not in a rush, you’re better to wait.
Instead, I recommend the Telenor My Chat plan, with an optional data add-on if required. The My Chat plan costs HUF 1849 per month (US $6.70), and includes 1GB of data, and unlimited use of Viber, Facebook and Facebook Messenger, Twitter, and Instagram. Talk and text are charged at HUF 40 per minute/text (US $0.14), and are deducted from your pre-paid balance. The SIM costs HUF 490 (US $1.80), and serves as your starting balance for talk and text.
If you require more data, Telenor offers add-ons as follows: HUF 1390 for 1GB, HUF 2290 for 3GB, HUF 3250 for 5GB, or HUF 5570 for 10GB. Telenor’s plans can be found on the English version of their website, here.
Compared to Telenor, Telekom is slightly more expensive and offers somewhat less value. The Domino Surf talk and text plan is HUF 890 (US ~$3.25) and includes 150 MB of data. The add-on NetPlusz L data plan is HUF 2,490 (US ~$9) for 1GB of additional data.
Talk and text are charged at an additional HUF 29 to 39 per minute/text. Telekom has an English version of their website that outlines the current offerings.
Digi is new to the market, and offers discounted service with limits on upload and download speeds. 1GB of data, limited to 2.1 megabytes per second upload/download, costs HUF 1945 (US $7) per month for data only. Digi doesn’t offer an English version of its website and is still relatively unknown in the Hungarian market.
Topping up is very easy, and there are a number of options.
For many visitors, the easiest option for top-up is to simply return to the telecom shop where you purchased the SIM card, give them your phone number, and let them know how much you want to top-up.
Alternatively, all three major providers also offer online top-up options. While I can’t say the online top-up will work with all international credit cards, I’ve never had a problem paying bills online or completing top-ups online using one.
You can also purchase top-up cards at news kiosks (such as Relay), gas/petrol stations, and post offices, although the availability of English-speaking staff in these shops may be limited.
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Coverage and Data Speeds
Coverage is excellent in Budapest and every city we’ve visited outside of the capital. Data speeds are generally extremely fast.
Within Budapest, I get 4G/LTE speeds of 147Mbps download and 39Mbps upload. I’ve had similar coverage in Pest, in the south, and have heard from others that coverage is similar across other cities. I’ve experienced reduced coverage on train trips, including temporary black spots that haven’t lasted more than 15 minutes.
Rather than coverage, the problem you’re more likely to have is a reduced signal in some of the country’s old buildings, which have thick walls and stone cellars.