Some countries make it difficult for foreigners to buy a SIM card, requiring visiting inconveniently-located mobile phone stores, registration with the government or even, in one memorable case, a trip to the nearest tax office.
Some countries, on the other hand, seem to go out of their way to make the process as painless as possible.
Sri Lanka is very much in the second camp. Buying a SIM card, much like finding a bus to your next destination or getting served a delicious curry, really couldn’t be easier in this island nation.
You may find that you don’t need data on your phone or tablet at all. Most tourist accommodation offers free Wi-Fi that’s reasonably fast and reliable, and it’s not unusual to find it in cafes and restaurants either.
Still, if you’re planning on spending hours out exploring the cities, sitting on the famously slow-but-scenic trains, or just Instagramming that perfect beach view in realtime, picking up a local SIM is both cheap and straightforward.
Here’s what you need to know.
There’s no shortage of cell companies in Sri Lanka, including Dialog, Mobitel, Airtel, and Hutch. Dialog and Mobitel have the largest networks and subscriber bases and are generally the best option for most travelers.
Prices were similar for either company at the time, and Mobitel had the shortest line at the airport, so that’s the company I opted for. Since then the tourist packages have changed, however, so you’ll likely find Dialog offers better value unless you’re a heavy data user.
4G/LTE is available in the cities and some rural areas, as long as your phone supports the frequencies used in Sri Lanka. You’ll drop back to lower data speeds elsewhere.
How to Buy a Prepaid SIM Card in Sri Lanka
If, like most visitors, you arrive into the country at Bandaranaike International Airport near Colombo, buying a SIM card will be extremely simple.
As you exit the baggage reclaim area, you’ll encounter a row of money changers. Behind them sits a row of cell company vendors, plus several ATMs that take international cards.
If you’ve got a few minutes, ask around at each vendor and see which one has the best rates at the time. Bear in mind these stalls only offer “tourist packages,” which are often more expensive than standard plans. If they fit your requirements, however, the price difference may be worth it for the convenience.
Given I was jumping straight onto a train to go to a city a few hours south, and wouldn’t be anywhere else I could buy a card until the end of the day, I was happy to pay the extra dollar or two.
After handing over my passport and confirming which type of SIM I needed, the process only took a couple of minutes. The staff member configured the APN settings for cellular data, activated the SIM using his own phone, and that was that.
All sizes of SIM card were available, without a need to cut them down to size. Expect to have your photo taken if you don’t have a physical passport photo of your own to provide.
If you do decide to buy your card somewhere other than the airport, English is widely spoken in Sri Lanka. You shouldn’t have any problem getting set up anywhere that sees even a small number of tourists, and will have access to the full range of call, text, and data packages. Just look for a corner store with a Mobitel or Dialog logo in the window.
Prepaid SIM Costs
Despite being one of the more expensive countries in the region, the cost of SIM cards and phone plans in Sri Lanka are low by Western standards. As mentioned earlier, tourist SIM packages have changed since my visit. Current pricing and information is given below.
Dialog’s tourist SIM package is straightforward: 1299 LKR (~$7) gives you the SIM card with 6GB of data, plus an extra 4GB to use between midnight and 8 am. You also get 600LKR worth of international call and text credit, and 350 LKR of domestic calls and texts. It’s all valid for 30 days.
Mobitel’s current offerings are less clear. There are 499 and 999 LKR (~$3/$6) options that include some amount of data, local and international calls and texts, and Mobitel Wi-Fi hotspot usage. In the past this has included a mere 500MB of data, but you’ll need to double-check exactly how much of everything is currently being offered.
There’s also a 1999 LKR (~$11) data-only option that gives 20GB of daytime data, and 20GB to use at night. Like the other packages, it’s valid for a month.
If none of those options work for you, it’s worth waiting until you get into town. When buying a SIM card and call/data plan separately, expect to pay around 200 rupees (about one dollar) for the SIM card, and a few hundred rupees for calls and data depending on your needs.
Any store or street stall displaying the Mobitel or Dialog logos should be able to sell you reload cards. Instructions are on the cards, or just ask the person behind the counter what you need to do.
Coverage and Data Speeds
Coverage was pretty good everywhere I went. I had at least 3G/HSPA+ in every city and town, even relatively small ones. There was coverage all along the coast, but it dropped out on buses and trains in the hill country. The speed wasn’t especially fast, but still fine for most purposes.
Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.