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Jammed between Europe and Asia, Turkey has a culture and a vibe all its own. Large and diverse, the country offers a huge amount to travelers no matter where their interests lie.
Whether you’re exploring the stunning Aya Sofya or Blue Mosque in Istanbul, flying over Cappadocia’s remarkable caves and rock formations in a hot-air balloon, or simply relaxing at one of the country’s many Mediterranean resorts, your biggest problem will be fitting in everything you want to see and do!
While Turkey isn’t a particularly expensive place to travel in, you can’t say the same about staying connected as a tourist. Getting set up with a Turkish prepaid SIM card often isn’t cheap, especially because few vendors are prepared to sell them at the “official” price to foreigners.
Once you are set up, at least, coverage is good and data speeds are reasonable, at least in the towns and cities. Here’s everything you need to know about buying a local prepaid SIM card as a tourist in Turkey.
There are three mobile operators in Turkey: Turkcell, Vodafone, and Türk Telekom.
Turkcell has the greatest coverage and most customers, and is the best option for most visitors to Turkey. It’s the company I chose to go with.
Vodafone sits in second place in terms of both coverage and subscribers. It’s a good alternative if you don’t need calls or texts but plan to use plenty of data, as it offers larger prepaid data package options than Turkcell.
Türk Telekom is the smallest operator, with the least coverage outside the major towns and cities. There’s no particular reason for travelers to go with it, unless you plan to only visit larger centres and happen to come across a particularly good price.
Note that all foreign phones will stop working 120 days after they are first used in Turkey, unless you visit a tax office and pay a significant fee to register them. This won’t affect the vast majority of short-term visitors, but is something to bear in mind if you plan to return with the same device in the future.
It’s technically the IMEI that gets blocked, which is allocated per SIM card slot. If you have a dual-SIM phone, you can get around the problem by switching your SIM to the other slot after 120 days. You’ll otherwise need to use a different phone, or buy and use an unlocked mobile hotspot, on your next trip.
All three operators have stores in the arrivals lounge at both of Istanbul’s airports (Atartürk and the more distant Sabiha Gocken,) so you don’t have to even set foot in the country without coverage.
This convenience doesn’t come for free, however, with operators charging higher prices at the airport than elsewhere. You’ll be pushed towards each company’s tourist SIM card packages, which cost much more than the standard local rates.
Even outside the airport, though, you may find vendors are unwilling to sell you any prepaid SIM packs except those aimed at tourists. Unless you speak Turkish, expect a fairly high registration fee to be tacked on as well.
You will need to show your passport to sign up for any plan. The salesperson (who is likely to speak decent English, as all the ones I chatted with did) will fill out the paperwork for you on the spot.
They’ll also install the SIM card in your phone for you if necessary. I definitely took them up on this, since I’ve been known to block my SIM card slot in the past. Ahem.
At Atatürk airport, Turkcell offered two tourist SIM options, one with 8GB of data, the other with 15GB. Both included 500 minutes of domestic airtime and 1,000 domestic texts, valid for 30 days. These should be enough for most visits to the country, even for moderately heavy users.
You’ll pay 190 TRY (~$35) for the 8GB plan, and 230 TRY (~$42) for the 15GB plan, including the SIM card. Note that the Turkcell booth in the airport is cash-only, so have some lira on hand.
If you don’t need to make calls or send texts and are in need of some serious data, Vodafone offers several large data-only packages at the airport. They’re expensive, however, starting with 17GB for 380 TRY (~$70) valid for 30 days, and going up from there.
As mentioned above, if you’re happy to wait, you’ll likely find cheaper rates in mobile stores outside the airport. Exactly how cheap, however, will depend a lot on where you go, your negotiation skills, and the whim of the vendor. Expect to try more than one store, and be prepared for some frustration!
Topping up is done via a voucher, purchased in supermarkets or at official provider stores all around the country. Plans keep renewing as long as there are funds in your account.
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Coverage and Data Speeds
Data speeds were very consistent throughout my stay, even in pretty terrible weather. 4G/LTE is present in all of Istanbul and surrounding areas, but becomes less consistent once you get into the rural regions of Turkey.
Both upload and download speeds were reasonable everywhere I tested them.
Images via Pedro Szekely (feature photo).