When I was growing up, I imagined India as an exotic land filled with tigers, elephants, and monkeys.

When I finally got there I didn’t see any tigers… but I saw plenty of monkeys, cows and pigs instead, along with incredible architecture like the Taj Mahal and Vijayanagara ruins, and the beautiful beaches of Goa.

India is by far the cheapest country I have ever traveled in, but its also one of the toughest. This goes for the SIM card market as well. Prices are cheap, but to get one involves an awful lot of bureaucracy.



COMPANIES

  • Consider Vodafone, Airtel and !dea, but the best cell provider depends on where in the country you're going.

There are 11 major service providers in India, but not all of them offer high speed data. There are no service resellers. Six companies offer 4G, LTE, or HSPA+ speeds but not all of those have good coverage across the entire country, The top 3 for market share and network coverage are:

  • Vodafone – 19% market share
  • Airtel – 24% market share
  • !dea – 18% market share

The market is the second-largest in the world based on the number of cell devices in operation. The country is divided up into “circles”. Each circle roughly covers each state. Local and long distance service, run both privately and by the government, operate independently within each circle.

There is immense competition, and prices for calls in India are some of the lowest in the world. It also means there are literally thousands of possible combinations of service and costs.

Location will determine which provider is best. Everyone I met was using one of the three networks above. I ended up using both Airtel and !dea as I traveled across the north, middle, and south of the country.

I had two very different experiences buying each of my SIM cards, and very different network speeds based on my location. To help decide which provider may be best, Sensorly uses crowd-sourced data to display connection speed and availability.

All listed networks offer both prepaid and postpaid, and none do contracts. Prepaid is best unless you have an extended stay. A tourist SIM is only valid for three months, and the postpaid plans require a three month commitment to start with.

Postpaid is slightly cheaper than prepaid, but in the real world, the savings are insignificant. Companies offer free calls within their own network and area code. So if you have friends in India within your area code, it may be a good idea to purchase a SIM from the same network as them.

Standard SIM cards are disabled after three months of inactivity, but cards for tourists expire after three months regardless.

HOW

Before I came to India, I heard it was difficult to get a SIM card. All I can add to that is: it was even harder than I imagined. I ended up buying cards from two of the major networks, Airtel and !dea, and had very different experiences with each purchase. It had more to do with where I bought the card, and not so much about which network I chose.

Neither cards nor top ups are sold at Indian airports. I passed through eight of them, and none sold SIM cards. I did find a Samsung store in Mumbai airport that sold phones, but even they couldn’t sell SIM cards with them. Instead, you can buy from official carrier stores, or one of the many smaller shops licensed to sell the network’s products.

For the Airtel SIM, I went to one of the larger branded stores. The sales person who talked to me flatly refused to sell me a card, saying I needed to have a local resident buy it for me. Fortunately I was staying in Vadodara with a local Indian friend who was willing to help out. He had to provide his passport, an extra passport photo, proof of local address, his current valid phone number, and his father’s name.

To activate the card, the provider sent a pin code by SMS to my phone. My friend had to use his phone with the number he provided previously to call back and give them the pin code and confirm his address and father’s name. From this point the SIM was active with data in 30 minutes.

Buying the !dea SIM was much easier, although slightly more expensive. In Goa I went to a local licensed store that sold cards and top-ups, acted as a travel agent, and sold gasoline out of 1 litre water bottles. Now that’s a market niche.

SIM store in Goa

The store in Goa where I purchased my !dea SIM. Gasoline in water bottles not shown.

I had to supply my passport, an extra passport sized photo and the name of the hostel where I was staying. I waited 48 hours for the SIM to be active. Once the waiting period was up I returned to the store, they called a number using their phone, and within 20 minutes my card was active on their network.

One thing to watch for with smaller stores is being sold a SIM that is already active. This means it’s used, and you’ll have no idea when the three month tourist limit will be up. I heard of people buying cards like these, and within a week it expired. They were unable to retrieve any of their credit.

COSTS

SIMs cost anywhere from free to 250 rupees, depending on the network. This basic price may include absolutely nothing, or varying amounts of data, SMS and voice credit. It all depends on which offers are current, the network you’re using, and where you buy it. My Airtel card cost cost 225 rupees (~$3.50), which gave 1GB of national data, but no texts or calls.

My !dea SIM cost 250 rupees, with no data, voice, or SMS credits. I returned to the store once the SIM was activated, and bought a 1GB data pack for 400 rupees (~$6), good for 30 days. I also added 250 rupees for voice and SMS.

There are three tiers of charges for voice calls — local calls to a different network, national and international. On my Airtel plan, voice and text rates were as follows:

  • Incoming calls – Free
  • Outgoing local calls – 0.80Rs /min
  • Outgoing national calls – 1.15 Rs/min
  • Outgoing international calls – 4.5 Rs/min
  • National SMS – 1.5 Rs
  • International SMS – 5Rs

Whether you’re calling a landline or cell number affects the charges. Roaming elsewhere in the country also incurs charges, depending on the network you are roaming on. To make things more confusing, you can also buy top-up packages that eliminate roaming charges, and also lower the normal calling rates.

With both Airtel and !dea, I would receive a message saying how much credit had been used after each call or SMS, as well as each time I used 10MB of data. The message also gave a current balance of the account, which was super-handy given the complicated charging system.

TOPPING UP

As a tourist, topping up is best done by finding one of the many little shops that sell credit packages in cash transactions. These packages are priced by the networks, so shop owners can’t really rip you off.

That said, it’s always a good idea to check your balance after you buy the top-up, and while still in the presence of the vendor. Each provider has a code for checking your balance — with Airtel, dialing *123*11# returns a message showing your remaining data, voice, and SMS credit.

That said, it’s always a good idea to check your balance after you buy the top-up, and while still in the presence of the vendor. Each provider has a code for checking your balance — with Airtel, dialing *123*11# returns a message showing your remaining data, voice, and SMS credit.

Most options for topping up your credit online required a local credit card. The only one I found that allowed me to use a foreign card was Xoom.com. It’s owned by Paypal, and I was charged $0.99 USD to top up my voice and SMS credit.

While I couldn’t top up on any of the network provider’s sites, I could still check current prices — Airtel packages are listed here.

Data top-ups are separate from voice/SMS, and provide a certain amount of data to be used within a given timeframe. I typically topped up with 1GB of data good for 30 days.

Each network sent promotions and offers by text. Any time I used my Airtel data connection after midnight, I got a message from Airtel offering 50% cash back on all data used between midnight and 6am. Obviously it made sense to accept this offer, which I did by replying to the text.

Be prepared to get many offers like this, for cheaper calls or SMS with certain restrictions based on the time of day, or day of week.

 

Can't be bothered with the hassle of buying a local SIM in India? KnowRoaming topped our international SIM card comparison.

The company's SIM cards, stickers and hotspots can be sent out ahead of time, so you'll hit the ground running in 200 countries, and save up to 85% on roaming fees while you're there. Unlike other companies, using WhatsApp for texts and calls anywhere in the world is absolutely free.

Find out more here.


 

COVERAGE AND DATA SPEEDS

The original data package on my Airtel SIM card I bought provided 4G. The company only provides 4G service in major cities, however, so don’t pay the extra if you’re not available where you are. Service drops to 3G outside those cities, or even 2G if in a remote area.

As I traveled around the country, I switched between Airtel and !dea depending on which was faster, as speeds varied widely across the country.

India Network Speeds
Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.
Want more? Grab our free 5000 word guide
Plus regular tips, discounts and the best travel tech advice.
Subscribe
No spam, ever.
 

24 Responses

  1. skg

    one reason traveling to India is such a pain. i don’t know why they make it so difficult. what is a tourist sim card? never heard of it. why is it hard to get a tourist sim card as a tourist if that is what they are designed for?

    Reply
    • Dave Dean

      Yep, it’s a far cry from buying tourist SIMs (or for that matter, normal SIMs) in most other countries, that’s for sure.

      Reply
    • Keir Briscoe

      They call it a tourist sim card because it expires in three months. Normal sim cards will only expire if the user does not keep them valid through regular use. As for you question on why it’s hard to get a tourist sim card? The only answer I have is welcome to India.

      Reply
  2. Riken

    India faces what no other country has faced with till date. Terrorism!

    Getting all these details to ensure that if that number is used by someone for any unlawful activity, they know who it was.

    This complicated/extra vigilant process is for safety of travelers and citizens alike. It most likely began after terrorists attacked their parliament house!

    Having said that, I am dreading traveling to India next month and the exercise I’ve to go through to get a sim card.

    Reply
    • Keir Briscoe

      I never got any confirmation but my thought on the complications of getting a sim was because of terrorism. That being said it was super easy to get one in Anjuna, though I did have to wait 48 hours to activate it.

      Reply
  3. Boris

    sim card problem is disaster its a bloody big problem to get it so many things you have to follow up, you need to have local address or an indian residence must be your withness so it will take 2 days to get it on air, sometimes youget crazy it takes a week, its nonsense stupid prosedures lots of paper you need to sign and give them 1 passport copy and photo fill up the locL and home addresses …

    Reply
    • Keir Briscoe

      Yes it is a hassle to get a sim card there. As an alternative I found that most places have free wifi. All you have to do is ask for the password, and be willing to a accept relatively slow connection.

      Reply
  4. Josh

    Yikes! This all seems super complicated. Will be traveling to Goa and Kerala soon. Any recommendations on what sim card to get?

    Also do you have any experience with rental services like http://www.trabug.com ?

    Reply
    • Keir Briscoe

      Josh. When I was in Goa I got my !dea sim fairly easy. There was a 48. Hour wait before it activated though. Sorry I’m not familliar with the site you posted.

      Reply
  5. Martin

    As far as I know, your positive experience in Goa has to do with the fact that you bought the SIM card in this state. No matter which carrier you decide to use, buying the cards in Goa just seems to be so much easier than anywhere else in the country. The only logic I can see behind that is that Goa basically lives of tourism.

    In Delhi or Mumbai it’s still pretty much impossible to get a SIM card without a local sponsor, as far as I know.

    Reply
    • Keir Briscoe

      I agree with your reasoning that Goa is so easy because of the tourism. And you are correct. I went for the !dea card only because in my particular area that one seemed to have a better connection. People I talked to using other carriers in Goa also had fairly a simple signup experience.

      Reply
  6. Lynda Fox

    Thank you Keir; I am travelling to Delhi in a few weeks just for a short time so I really don’t want all the hassle of trying to get a sim. Your posts have clarified a lot and made up my mind for me that I will for the first time in my life take a roaming package from Australia for this trip. Probably by the time I did get the sim over there and get it up and running it would be time to come home!

    Reply
  7. Adrian

    Hi Keir

    Do you know anything about purchasing an international sim for use in India? We’re going in December and spending time in both Rajastan and Kerala.

    Reply
  8. Keir Briscoe

    Hi Adrian. Sorry I’m not familiar with using an international sim in India. However I was using my T-Mobile sim card from the US while I was in India and it worked fairly good. My T-Mobile plan gives me free data and text in many countries. I did find that the service was typically at 2g speeds when using that card but it worked.

    Reply
    • Dave Dean

      I don’t know of any reputable companies sending Indian SIM cards overseas, sorry. If you don’t want to deal with the paperwork in-country or roam with your provider from home, maybe look at international SIM cards instead. They’re more expensive, but less hassle. You can find our recommendations here.

      Reply
    • Keir Briscoe

      I didn’t look for any sim cards that way. However I already had a T-Mobile sim card from the US. The plan I have through them gives me unlimited international data and text. This sim worked if there was signal available but it was slow. Around 2G speeds.

      Reply
  9. Emily

    Hey Keir – did you ever look into getting a wifi dongle as an alternate to a SIM? If I’m just looking for data/a wifi connection, would it be easier to get one of those rather than go through the SIM process?

    Reply
    • Keir Briscoe

      Hi Emily. Yes I did look into the wifi dongle option. They are available on flipcart.com (Indian Amazon like site), and in stores. However, the purchase of a sim is still required. The sim can then be inserted into the dongle or a phone. I opted to just get the sim card for the phone. Then if I needed internet on my computer I turned on the phone’s hot spot.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

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