Iceland waterfall

Buying a SIM Card and Using Your Phone in Iceland

In Get Connected by Anthony Secco13 Comments

It’s summer in the northern hemisphere, and many of us are busy planning overseas holidays.

For those considering heading all the way to Iceland for its natural beauty, we’ve put together a guide to keep you connected with the rest of the world in such a desolate place.

I’ve (somewhat) recently made my way to Iceland to make a lap around the infamous ring road. As per my normal travel procedure, I checked in at the hostel, performed some research regarding the local mobile providers and then promptly headed to the store to purchase my local SIM card.

Companies

  • We recommend Síminn for most travellers

For being a large volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic with a population of only 330,000 people, Iceland is a very well connected place. There are essentially three main providers: the incumbent, Síminn, Vodafone Iceland and Nova.

All three providers run on the old-fashioned GSM 900/1800/2100 network, so your unlocked quad-band phone will be just fine.

Siminn, being the incumbent provider with the most subscribers, has the most extensive 3G coverage on the island. Needless to say, this is the who I chose for my prepaid provider.

How

You’ll likely be in Reykjavik upon arrival. I headed into the big mall of Iceland known as Kringlan, where Siminn has their own boutique.

The folks were very nice, and I don’t recall ever having to flash my passport. It took all of about 10 minutes and I walked out the door with my phone on their network. You can buy your starter package at a Simmin store or at many kiosks, gas stations and grocery stores.

Costs

Their prepaid offering is called Frelsi or Freedom. The standard packages, named 50, 100 and 300, provide 50, 100 and 300 minutes, SMS and MBs respectively. That’s pretty straightforward, but if you’re like me, you’re heavy on the 3G data and pretty light on the voice and SMS usage on your phone.

For something more data-oriented, take a gander at the “i Frelsi” plan. You’ll have to purchase 990 ISK ($8.05 USD) of credit, which you’ll use when placing a call or an SMS, and then tack on one of these data plans:

  • 300MB – 590 ISK ($4.80)
  • 1GB – 1190 ISK ($9.69)
  • 5GB – 2190 ISK ($17.82)

I opted for the i Frelsi and, naturally, 5GB of data.

Safety

112 Iceland emergency appIf you’re going to be spending a significant amount of time in rural areas, plan to not have many opportunities to charge your phone. Bring an inverter for your car, pack a charging station or bring extra batteries.

While coverage is generally good along ring road, cities and popular tourist destinations, it gets spotty in the highlands and rural valleys.

Your phone will work extra hard by turning up the transmitter power as it tries to connect to nearby cell towers, draining your battery quicker.

Lastly, make sure you have enough credit to make a call. It may be a good idea to read the pamphlet so you know the ways you can top up your credit if need be while on the go.

Iceland is pretty serious about safety. It’s easy to have an accident when hiking or driving in such dramatic landscapes with such quickly-changing weather.

As such the government created an app for Android, Windows Phone and iOS called “112 Iceland” to help aid rescue workers in the event you have a problem.

If you’re ok with leaving digital breadcrumbs with emergency authorities, you can ‘check-in’ every so often on your journey. It sends an SMS with your GPS coordinates and user ID to authorities, and will be used in the event you come up missing.

There’s also an emergency button which sends an SMS with GPS coordinates and then dials the emergency number 112.

 

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Coverage and Data Speeds

There were very few places where I found myself without coverage, and speeds were generally good. I found HSPA+(3.5G) in Reykjavik, and HSPA(3G) and WCDMA(3G) in small towns and much of ring road.

Given that the airspace isn’t very congested, I was able to make an hour-long phone call using VoIP over 3G to my parents house while sitting in this cabin across a fjord from a small town.

Cabin in Iceland

It was only in very rural areas that I’d flick over to GPRS(2G). GPRS doesn’t lend itself to breaking speed records, coming in at 40-80Kbps on good day but it’s enough to tweet and send an email … maybe.

I found myself roaming on Vodafone’s network once near Dettifoss in Northeast Iceland, but generally Siminn is everywhere where service is available. I didn’t make my way up to the highlands as we only had a regular passenger car, but that would be where service is typically worst.

Siminn coverage map

Siminn coverage map

Conclusion

All in all your mobile phone is super-useful and pretty darned cheap to operate in Iceland. I used it at a guesthouse if the Wi-fi was slow or non-existent, placed phone calls to home using VoIP over 3G, read up on the tourists sites as I visited them, and it was comforting to have in the event of an emergency.

Google did tell me that GPS navigation was unavailable in my area, but we ended up just using the map view to get around by car without a problem.

As of this summer, however, Google navigation is supposed to be available. I do recommend pre-caching the map area for all of Iceland on your mobile phone before your journey, as it’ll help speed things up when connected to GPRS portions of the network.

Have a good trip… or rather Góða ferð!

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Useful Links

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

About the Author

Anthony Secco

A year after finishing university, Anthony hacked his way to Italian citizenship and went remote with his IT consulting job. He now travels the world exploring food, languages and the best road-trips. Be sure to check his blog or Twitter to follow along with his travels

Comments

  1. I’m leaving for Iceland in 9 days and was planning on spending part of the morning researching my options for cell phones. Glad I checked my news feed instead. Thanks for saving me some time!

  2. This is awesome! Planning a trip a year from now, so I definitely bookmarked this for safe-keeping. I know this isn’t necessarily the place for it, but I’d love to hear/see where you stayed, what you thought about car rentals, etc.

    JL

    1. Hi Jeff. Sure thing! Here some of my stories from Iceland:

  3. I’m spending most of the summer in Iceland, and this was EXACTLY the phone service information I was looking for. I’ll have to head to Kringlan when I’m killing time recovering from jetlag. Thanks so much for the helpful post! 🙂

  4. Very useful article, this is exactly what I was looking for. I’m heading off to Iceland for two weeks and I was already trembling at the extortionate rates of my mobile provider.
    I’ll go on and read also your other articles on Iceland.
    cheers!
    rick

  5. Thanks for the information, Anthony; it’s made my phone research for Iceland easy.

  6. This was perfect. Going in week for a two week tour of the Ring Rd.

    How are texts priced with this plan?

  7. Using my European (I am an EU citizen) iphone roaming SIM I sent various texts in UK, Norway and Iceland (Siminn) and was horrified to find that I was charged Offshore mobile charges for my Iceland texts although sent from central Reykjavik. Everywhere else I was charged EEA rates. Iceland is in the EEA and so it is a disgrace that Siminn charges offshore rates at 12 times as much as EEA rates. My local mobile provider corrected my bills and refunded the difference but, hey, I shouldn’t have to complain before my billing is corrected. Siminn claims to provide an Icelandic (EEA) 3G service as well as Offshore (Onshore) mobile services but they should organise themselves to comply with EU mobile telecommunications law.

    1. Not overly relevant to this article, since we’re talking about picking up local prepaid SIM cards rather than roaming, but thanks for the info.

  8. Hi thanks very much for your info! I’ll be heading to Iceland in a month’s time during winter in early February 16. Plan to do a self drive trip. Can I ask if I should buy the Siminn prepaid card on icelandair flight? Or should i buy in Keflavik airport? I only want to use data roam for google maps navigation and won’t be calling anybody since I don’t know anybody there. I also want to buy a 5gb data. Which one is better Choice?

  9. I was alerted today to an alternative for those who would prefer to get their SIM ahead of time, or at least without walking around town to buy it. A local tour operator sells Siminn SIMs at a markup, and will send them overseas or provide them on arrival if you’re on one of their tours. Sure, you’ll pay more for the convenience – shipping costs are surprisingly high – but it’s also less hassle if time is tight. More info here.

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