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.
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If you have a recent iPhone or other supported device, a prepaid eSIM is also a good alternative, often at surprisingly cheap rates.
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.
For Mobitel, current package information is available here (calls and texts) and here (data,) and you can dial *100# to check your remaining balance. For Dialog, the package prices are here and here.
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.
Thank-you for the info!
You’re more than welcome. 🙂
How much did you pay for a sim ?
As per the ‘costs’ section: “If you buy your SIM card and call/data plan separately, expect to pay around 150 rupees (a little over one dollar) for the SIM card, and a few hundred rupees for calls and data depending on your needs.”
Exactly the info I was looking for !
Thanks a lot 🙂
Any advice as to how I can find out for certain, before I leave home, that my phone will handle a Sri Lankan SIM card? I plan to leave my smartphone at home (it’s a locked iPhone, anyway) and just take a simple LG flip phone so I can make some local calls and SMS.
Well, there’s nothing special about a Sri Lankan SIM card vs any other, so if you can find someone at home who uses a different cell carrier but has the same type of SIM in their phone (normal, micro or nano size), you can put it in your LG phone and see if you can make a call. If so, you’re good to go.
If not, you’ll probably need to call whichever cell company you have (or used to have) service with on that phone, and find out whether it can be unlocked. If you’re from the US, you’ll find most phones are sold locked. If you’re not, there’s a better chance the phone was unlocked when you bought it.
When you get a SIM card, is it easy to use it as a wifi hotspot for your computer? Does that depend on the service provider or type of phone you have?
You’re correct, it depends on the phone and service provider. I’ve never had a problem using my Android phones (Samsung Galaxy S2 and Google Nexus 5) as a hotspot with any service provider, but Apple made iPhones easier to restrict in that way, so more service providers do so.
Thank you for your infomation!
Its worth remembering that you must ensure your phone is unlocked from your home network before you travel, otherwise a local sim will not work. This can take a few days, so do it well before your holiday!
There are different rules between mobile providers and it depends if you are on contract or PAYG, but most people can get this done for free.
For Vodafone in the UK, in my case: https://www.vodafone.co.uk/vodafone-uk/forms/unlock-code-request.
Yes, it’s very important that your phone be unlocked if you want to use local SIMs. We talk a lot more about that here (and in other articles), and there’s a link to a page with instructions on how to request it for the major operators in several countries. Definitely agree that you should do it well ahead of time, as it’s a lot easier to deal with when you’re not several thousand miles from home with a non-working or cost-prohibitive phone!
Question.. If I purchase an unlocked phone and do not get “service” on it in the US (I’m not planning on using it at all in the US, just for travel), will it work when I connect it to a Sri Lankan SIM? Or does it need to be connected to AT&T or T-Mobile first? When the SIM is input, can I use the phone to text/call American numbers?
Another question… I have a Verizon iPhone 6, will I be able to use this phone in India and Sri Lanka with my US SIM? I understand it costs a lot, but I am okay with that, as long as it will work. I did look this stuff up myself, but to me it is like reading Chinese…
Yes, an unlocked phone purchased in the US will work with a Sri Lankan SIM. You may not get LTE data speeds, but voice, calls, and 3G data should work fine. You can call/text any number you like, including US numbers, although you’ll likely pay quite a bit to do so. I’d personally use Skype to call phone numbers in the US, and WhatsApp or similar for texting, both of which cost much less or nothing.
You’ll need to check with Verizon as to where you can use your US SIM, and what restrictions might be in place regarding having a prepaid vs postpaid account, credit checks, and whatever other roadblocks they decide to put in your way. Assuming all that stuff is fine, there’s no technical reason why it shouldn’t work. Expect to pay a LOT for the pleasure of doing so, however.
So the prize for mobitel touridt packs are 499 and 999 indian or sri lanka rupees? Its make a difference for me. Can I pay it at airport for dollar or only with rupees?
Sri Lankan companies would be unlikely to list prices in Indian rupees. If you’re seeing ‘rupees’ listed in Sri Lanka without any other explanation, it’s Sri Lankan rupees (LKR). The cell companies at the airport might accept US dollars (at a bad exchange rate), but I didn’t ask.
As mentioned, there are ATMs and money changers in the arrivals hall at Colombo airport, so there’s no real reason not to have local currency on you.
Came across this in a search and just wanted to let you know that this was a realy helpful article/post. Thank you so much for outlining everything- also for being so considerate and answering everyone’s questions still many years later! I am now going to check out what else you have written about. Cheers
Hey, Sri lankan here, I’d like to provide some information since this is a four year old article. Most information is a bit outdated.
It’s best if you browse the career websites before leaving your home country because you might have a better chance finding out the perfect internet/call plans for you.
There are 5 mobile phone careers here, The best right now is either Dialog Axiata or Mobitel depending on if you need more talk time or data.
Here’s the package list for Dialog : https://www.dialog.lk/tourist-plans
And here’s for Mobitel : https://mobitel.lk/prepaid/tourist-pack
You could also check if your mobile phone supports the local bands through this website:
Happy travels 🙂
Hi, I must say that I have bad experiece of Mobitel in Sri lanka, my simcard is a swedish one with Comviq company, Evening time in Sri Lanka I did fill it up with my provider 250 swedish krona (abouth 4500 sri lanka rupees) and next morning I had a sms from my provider that my saldo was 0 !!! and I hadent even touch my mobil during the night, the roaming company is mobitel, if I understod the roaming provider has take al money that I filled up my account with, even tho I not been using the mobil. I DO NOT RECOMEND THIS SHIT MOBITEL COMPANY.. I strongly recomend any other provider than this thiefs.
Best regard Tim Larsson
You’re being charged by Comviq, not by Mobitel, so you’ll need to complain to them. Comviq will have a roaming agreement with Mobitel, but like all other mobile companies it sets its own roaming rates, which will almost certainly be quite a bit more than what they’re paying Mobitel for you to roam with them.
The apps on your phone can often use quite a bit of data in the background, even when you’re not actively using the device. If you’re paying expensive roaming rates, I’d suggest turning mobile data off when you’re not using it. The other alternative is buying a local SIM card, which is what this article is about. 🙂
I have also visited Sri Lanka. Many areas have 4G facilities. Even in rural areas.
Thank you for all the good advice offered here.
I just bought the Tourist Deal (1300 skr / 6usd for 6 Gb + some night time data, calls and sms, 30 days validity) from the Dialog kiosk at the airport. Passport + 3 minutes.
They also have an eSIM available, but the rep said that took maybe 5 hours to activate, while the regular SIM is instant.
There is also an Airtel kiosk that has 60Gb for 999skr.
Mobitel seems to have re-branded as STLmobitel, and also have a kiosk before immigration, as well as after.
There is free wifi at the airport.
Thanks for the update, Jake!