Last updated: 21 February, 2016
Stunning beaches, great surfing, ancient ruins, dense jungle, incredible food, friendly locals. There are so many reasons to plan a trip in Mexico, it’s surprising even more people aren’t doing it.
With a very wallet-friendly cost of living, especially outside the tourist areas, there’s no need to rush — it’s best experienced over weeks or months, rather than days.
If you’d like to stay connected on your travels around this large country, the good news is that buying a local SIM card is a reasonably straightforward and inexpensive process. Here’s what you need to know.
There are three cell service providers in Mexico: Telcel, Movistar and AT&T Unidos. Telcel is most expensive, but has the most subscribers and widest coverage, so that’s the company I went with.
Movistar has a less-congested network and cheaper plans, but you won’t get coverage in as many places. AT&T (formed by the merger of three small providers) is a recent addition, with a very limited coverage area.
I’ve visited Mexico twice, and purchased a Telcel SIM each time.
From the Oxxo
On my first visit, I flew into Puerto Vallarta airport and didn’t notice anywhere selling SIM cards in the terminal. There may well have been, but in the end, it didn’t matter — I was able to do everything I needed in the Oxxo store a couple of blocks from my hotel.
Similar to the 7-11 convenience stores, there seems to be an Oxxo on every corner in Mexico, offering alcohol, snacks, groceries and – most importantly for me – phone services.
Unless you are able to speak a reasonable amount of Spanish, you’ll probably have the most success purchasing a new SIM card in tourist areas where English is more widely spoken.
It’s apparently possible to get the SIM card working yourself by calling the Telcel activations department, but since it took the guy behind the counter about ten minutes of rapid-fire Spanish, I was pretty happy I’d asked him to do it for me.
To buy the card, simply walk into the store with your phone and ask to buy a new SIM card. If you have an existing one, show it to the operator to make sure there’s no confusion about the size you need. You’re able to buy full-size, micro and nano SIMs in both official stores and at the Oxxo.
When the process was complete, a confirmation message arrived by SMS and I was good to go. No passport or other identification was required.
At the Airport
On my second visit, I arrived at Mexico City’s sprawling airport, and purchased my SIM from the Telcel store on the first floor of Terminal 1 as soon as it opened (it operates from 9am until 7pm).
If you’re looking for it yourself, head up the escalator between the international and domestic sections of the airport. The store is pretty big, with the company logo emblazoned all over it, so is easy to spot.
The process was a little confusing — telling one person what I needed, being served by a teller who did most of the set-up, paying a third person at a cashiers desk, then returning to the teller to be given the actual SIM — but it all worked smoothly enough, and I had a working service within fifteen minutes.
Not everyone spoke English, but a different staff member stepped in to translate whenever necessary.
I was asked for my passport, from which the teller copied my name and other details to use on the contract I needed to sign.
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The card (called a “chip” in Mexico) costs 150 pesos (around $12 USD), including 75 pesos worth of credit for calls and SMS. Telcel offers close to 20 different data packages, ranging in size from 10MB to 3GB and in validity from an hour to a month.
I opted for the 1 month/1GB plan, priced at 299 pesos – run this page through Google Translate to find the one that fits your needs.
If you’re buying from a Telcel store, they’ll likely activate the data package for you. If not, or you’re buying elsewhere, just send an SMS to 5050 with the code for the package you want, taken from the above page.
In my case, I texted bajo30 and, within a minute, received a confirmation text that it had worked successfully.
Either way, make sure cellular data is turned off on your phone until you’ve purchased a data package, as the casual usage rate is an eye-watering MX$0.10/kB.
Buying credit was a simple process, and even my kindergarten Spanish was enough to get the job done anywhere in Mexico. I topped up at an Oxxo with a little over 300 pesos each month, then sent the same SMS for another 1GB of data.
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Coverage and Data Speeds
If you have a reasonably-recent North American phone, you’ll get 4G/LTE where it’s available (check the unhelpful coverage map). If not, and in any other town or city of reasonable size, expect to get 3G signal, dropping back to EDGE in rural areas.
3G download speeds were good in Mexico City, less so (but still acceptable) in Oaxaca and other smaller cities. Upload speeds were pretty poor almost anywhere — you’ll be able to have an audio Skype call, for instance, but don’t expect much from video.
LTE upload speeds were much better, and download speeds were fine as well. You’ll have no problem with video calling if you’re using it.