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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 mi-fi 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.
How to Buy a Prepaid SIM
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.
Be sure to ask for the type of SIM card you need for your device — full size, micro, or nano. I needed a micro SIM, and the vendor used a SIM cutter to chop the card down to size. Some stores may charge a few rupees for this service, but not the one I chose.
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
Prices are relatively 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 449 rupees (~$4) for 5GB of data valid for a month, with smaller and larger packages available.
Local calls and SMS are very cheap, at around 2c/minute or less 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 come with around 50 rupees of credit on it, plus some bonus calls and SMS that will renew each month as long as you top up.
A Travellers SIM is also available, which costs 110 rupees and comes with 30 rupees of credit and 300MB of data, valid for three days. You can add various packages to that, the smallest of which costs 490 rupees (~4) and has 7GB of data and 20 minutes of local calls, valid for a week.
If you’re staying longer in the country, the pricing model is simple: every additional 490 rupees you spend gives an extra week of validity, 7GB of data, and ten minutes of local calls.
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. I had consistent high-speed access in both Kathmandu and Pokhara.
Dropping back to 2G/EDGE 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.