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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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.