From the traffic-clogged streets and golden temples of Kathmandu to the towering Himalayas, wandering water buffalos, and friendly locals happy to chat over an ever-present pot of masala tea, Nepal is a country that richly rewards its visitors.
When those visitors want to stay connected to the outside world, however, it’s a different story. Wi-Fi is often slower than an Annapurnian glacier, and power cuts plague the country for several hours every day.
Mobile internet, however, is surprisingly fast, especially in the major cities. As long as you keep your devices charged, it’ll keep working for a few hours when the power goes out. Prices are cheap, and getting set up isn’t particularly difficult.
In Nepal, more than most other countries, picking up a local SIM is a smart idea for the connected traveler. As always, you’ll need an unlocked phone, tablet, modem, or hotspot to be able to use a local SIM card.
Here’s what you need to know.
There are two main carriers in Nepal, Ncell and Nepal Telecom. From online reports and speaking with other travelers, the general consensus is that Nepal Telecom has slower speeds but greater coverage in the mountains, while Ncell is faster and easier to set up for foreigners. Given I wasn’t trekking on this trip, I opted for Ncell.
If you’re planning on spending significant time in the mountains and want better (although far from guaranteed) coverage, consider picking up a Nepal Telecom SIM card as well. They’re not quite as widely available as with Ncell, but still not too hard to find.
There is a third provider, Smart, but with similar pricing and more limited coverage, there’s no particular reason for travelers to choose it.
How to Buy a Prepaid SIM in Nepal
Kathmandu has the only international airport in the country, so international visitors to Nepal will usually start their trip there. It is possible to buy SIM cards from either of the two main vendors at the airport, although your options may be more expensive and/or limited than elsewhere in the country.
If you wait until you get into the city, many of the city’s guesthouses and hotels are in the Thamal area, where you can find clothing sellers, pushy taxi drivers, and many cell vendors who can help you out.
Just look for the Ncell logo on any small shopfront, and ask if they sell SIM cards (not all do). Many people speak English in tourist areas in Nepal, which helps with the process.
To buy the card, you will need to provide one passport-sized photo and your physical passport. The vendor will take a photocopy of your passport identity page and Nepalese visa, and provide you with a form to fill out. It may be in Nepali, but you’ll be shown where to write your name and other details.
Once you’ve completed the process and verified that the card is working, just ask the vendor to add as much credit as you need. You’ll get a confirmation text immediately, and can then dial *17123# and follow the prompts to activate the package you’re after.
Prepaid SIM Costs
By global standards, prices are low for most day-to-day needs in Nepal, and local SIM cards are no exception. Expect to pay 100-150 rupees (~$1) for the SIM card, and a few hundred rupees for calls and data depending on your needs.
Package information can be found here. As an example, you’re looking at 249 rupees (~$2) for 7GB of data valid for a month, with smaller and larger packages available.
Local calls and SMS are very cheap, at 1-2c/minute for calls, and 1c per SMS. International calls and SMS are also inexpensive, from as little as 2c/minute to the US and Canada, and 5-10c/SMS. Selected country rates can be found here.
The card will usually come with a small amount of credit on it, plus some bonus calls and SMS that will renew each month as long as you top up.
A travel SIM (called the Visit Nepal SIM) is also available, which costs 100 rupees and comes with 30 rupees of credit and 1GB of data, valid for three days. You can add various packages on top, which last from three days to a month and cost between 290 ($3) and 2888 rupees ($24). The more you pay, the more data, calls, and texts you receive, so just find a package that suits.
These SIMs are available at Kathmandu airport, and other Ncell stores around the country. You may not be able to get one at small roadside stalls, however.
Given the unreliable power and Wi-Fi in Nepal, you’ll probably find yourself using more mobile data than in other countries. It may be worth buying a larger data package than usual as a result.
Any store or street stall displaying the Ncell logo should be able to sell you top-up cards to give you the balance you need. Instructions are on the cards, or can be found here.
Dial *17123# and follow the instructions to enable whichever call/text/data package you need after adding your credit.
Coverage and Data Speeds
Coverage was good in the areas I visited although, as mentioned earlier, I wasn’t trekking in the mountains on this visit to Nepal. 4G/LTE has arrived in the major cities, but even 3G/HSPA+ data speeds were reasonably fast in the major cities. I had consistent high-speed access in both Kathmandu and Pokhara.
Dropping back to 2G speeds, however, as happened on bus journeys between cities, made most online tasks a chore.
Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.