Tangalle beach

Buying a SIM Card in Sri Lanka

In Get Connected by Dave Dean17 Comments


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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 Instagraming that perfect beach view in realtime, picking up a local SIM is both cheap and straightforward.

Here’s what you need to know.

Companies


  • We recommend Mobitel for most travellers

There’s no shortage of cell companies in Sri Lanka — Dialog, Mobitel, Etisalat, Airtel, and Hutch — but for most visitors it probably won’t make all that much difference which one they choose. Mobitel is generally regarded as having good coverage at reasonable rates, and that’s the company I opted for.

4G/LTE is available if your phone supports the frequencies used in Sri Lanka, with 3G/HSPA+ for everyone else.

How


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 followed by a row of cell company vendors, as well as several ATMs that will 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 that you’ll probably pay a little more at these stalls – they only offer ‘tourist packages,’ which are more expensive than standard plans.

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, the convenience was worth the extra few dollars.

After handing over my passport and telling the vendor I needed a micro SIM, the process only took a couple of minutes. He configured the APN settings for cellular data, activated the SIM using his own phone and that was that. All types of SIM card were available, without a need to cut them down to size.

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.

 

Can't be bothered with the hassle of buying a local SIM in Sri Lanka? OneSIM topped our international SIM card comparison.

It offers phones and SIM cards that work in 200 countries, have free incoming calls, save up to 85% on roaming fees, and can be sent out ahead of time to let you hit the ground running. Find out more here.


 

Costs


Despite being one of the more expensive countries in the region, SIM cards and phone plans in Sri Lanka are low by Western standards.

The tourist packages ran around 1200 LKR (~$10) for the SIM card with 2GB of data and more local and international calls and SMS than I’d ever use.

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.

Current package information is available here, and you can dial *100# to check your remaining balance.

Topping Up


Any store or street stall displaying the Mobitel logo should be able to sell you reload cards to give you the balance you need. Instructions are on the cards and online — or just ask the person behind the counter what you need to do.

 

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Coverage and Data Speeds


Coverage was pretty good everywhere I went. I had 3G in every city and town, even relatively small ones. Along the coast, I had signal of some sort everywhere, but it dropped out on buses and trains in the hill country. The speed wasn’t especially fast, but it was fine for most purposes.

As usual, 2G/EDGE is very slow – you’ll be able to eventually check your email with it, but probably wish you hadn’t bothered.

Mobitel 3G speeds in Sri Lanka

Mobitel 3G speeds in Sri Lanka

Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.

About the Author

Dave Dean

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Founder and editor of Too Many Adapters, Dave has been a traveler for 20 years, and a geek for even longer. When he's not playing with the latest tech toy or working out how to keep his phone charged for just a few more minutes, he can probably be found sitting in a broken-down bus in some obscure corner of the planet.

Comments

      1. Author

        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.”

  1. 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.

    1. Author

      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.

  2. 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?

    1. Author

      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.

  3. 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.

    1. Author

      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!

  4. 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…

    1. Author

      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.

  5. 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?

    1. Author

      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.

  6. Hi DaveDean
    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

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