SIM card

Buying SIM Cards in South East Asia

In Get Connected by Dave Dean41 Comments

Need to make a few calls and update your Facebook status on the move in South East Asia, but don’t want to pay those ridiculous international roaming rates? Good news if you have an unlocked phone: in much of the region, local SIM cards are cheap and easy to find.

Data speeds are variable but often much better than you’d expect, especially in the major towns and cities, and local calls and texts are usually very cheap.

Here we’ll cover the basics, based on real-world experience throughout the region. In each case, we recommend a major mobile carrier that we (or others who spend plenty of time in the country) use and recommend.

Note, of course, that prices and deals will change over time, so if you’re reading this in 2020, a little more research may be required.

Thailand

Lanterns, Mae Jo

Carrier

1-2-Call (the pre-pay brand of AIS)

Costs

50 baht ($1.70) for a Freedom 3G SIM. Various call and data packages are listed on the company’s site — as an example, 239 baht will buy 1.5GB of data valid for thirty days, but check for the latest offers.

How

Just walk into any 7-11 and ask for a 1-2-Call SIM – there will often be someone who speaks enough English to go through the basics with you, but if not, the instructions inside the packet are in both Thai and English. After topping up with enough credit, packages can be activated by typing a string of characters on your phone.

Topping Up

The easiest option by far is to go to a 7-11 or mobile phone store and top up via a printed voucher or scratch card.

Data Speeds

3G service is reasonably fast, and you’ll find it in most cities and reasonable-sized towns.

For more details, read our full write-up on buying a SIM card in Thailand.


Cambodia

Angkor Wat complex, Cambodia

Carrier

Cellcard

Costs

$0.50 for the card, $5 for 3.5Gb of data valid for one month. You’ll pay 5-8c/minute for national calls, and 3-5c/minute for national SMS, so an extra dollar or two should be enough to cover you for local calls and texts.

How

If you’re arriving into Phnom Penh airport, a Cellcard booth is in the terminal, on your right as you leave baggage reclaim. The person working there on the day I turned up spoke excellent English and set everything up for me in a few minutes at no extra charge.

If you are arriving elsewhere, Cellcard signs are everywhere, even in smaller towns. I purchased a card from the official store in Kampot, and it was a quick, simple affair. Your passport may be required.

Topping Up

Just find a shop displaying a Cellcard sign in the window.

Data Speeds

Fast 3G was common in towns of any size, and EDGE was available most (but not all) other places.

For more details, read our full write-up on buying a SIM card in Cambodia.


Laos

Buddha, Luang Prabang

Carrier

Unitel

Costs

The card will cost around five dollars, with some call credit included. 1Gb of data costs around the same (40,000 kip / $5). There are many call and data packages available, so just grab a brochure from any official Unitel store (in most medium-sized towns) for the details.

How

Just look for the Unitel signs in a shop window and ask for a SIM card. You may not need to provide a passport.

Topping Up

As with buying the SIM card, refills are available at any store showing a Unitel sign – which means, almost anywhere in Laos. Just buy a top-up card, scratch off the silver coating, and follow the (English) instructions.

Data Speeds

3G is available in most major towns and some smaller ones, EDGE is present almost everywhere else. 3G speed is often extremely fast.

(via Adam from Pergidulu.com)


Vietnam

Pho, Vietnam

Carrier

Vinaphone

Costs

You’ll pay a mere 100,000 dong ($5) at the airport for a SIM card with 5GB of data, valid for a month. To get a useful amount of calls and text, including some international credit, expect to pay roughly double that. Surprisingly, the rates at the airport are at least as good, and sometimes cheaper, than what you’ll find on the street.

How

There are several mobile phone stands outside the international arrivals hall at Ho Chi Minh City airport. The staff in the Vinaphone stall on the left hand side speak good English, and are very efficient.

Outside the airport, you can buy a SIM card on pretty much every corner, although you may find better luck in tourist areas if you need an English-speaking staff member. Note that some small shops only sell credit, not the SIM cards themselves. A passport may be required.

Topping Up

Any mobile phone shop will do – just look for the Vinaphone signs.

Data Speeds

3G is fast and available in major towns and cities, and slower speeds can be found pretty much everywhere else.

For more details, read our full write-up on buying a SIM card in Vietnam.


Burma / Myanmar

Fisherman on Inle Lake

Of all of the countries in South East Asia, this is the most rapidly-changing for telecommunications (and almost everything else). We dedicated an entire post to buying a SIM card in Myanmar, but here are the basics.

Carrier

Ooredoo

Costs

1500 kyat (~$1.50) will get you a SIM card ready for 3G data access. You’ll pay 25-35 kyat / min for calls, 15 kyat / msg for SMS and 10 kyat / MB for data. Packages are also available.

How

Any cellphone shop should be able to help, although English may not always be spoken.  A passport shouldn’t be required.

Topping Up

You’ll find Ooredoo signs everywhere, so it’s easy to top up at a local shop on the street.  Cards are available in 1000, 3000, 5000 and 10000 kyat denominations, and are good for 30 days.

Data Speeds

3G speeds vary widely depending on where in the country you are, and whether you’re inside a building or not. Oordeoo doesn’t cover the entire country, so check service areas closely before deciding whether to purchase.


Malaysia

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur

Carrier

Celcom

Costs

The SIM card costs 25RM ($8), with 40RM for a basic voice and data package for a month. Additional data costs between 28RM (300Mb) and 88RM (5Gb). Other plans are available if your primary usage is data rather than voice.

How

Branded Celcom stores and some 7-11’s. A passport will be required.

Topping Up

You can top up at Celcom stores, 7-11 or online.

Data Speeds

Fast 3G or 4G is available in much of the country, with EDGE/GPRS in more remote areas.

(via Colin from Our Travel Lifestyle)


Singapore

Singapore Flyer

Carrier

hi! Card (Singtel’s prepaid service)

Costs

A SIM card that is enabled for 3G, with around $20 SGD worth of credit, costs $12 USD.

How

As usual in the region, dropping into a 7-11 is probably the easiest option, although several other places (including the carrier’s mobile stores) will do it. Unsurprisingly for Singapore, you’ll need your passport.

Topping Up

No passport required, just go to anywhere that sells the SIM cards and away you go. Top-up amounts start at $18 SGD. If you’re a heavy data user, unlimited weekly plans cost $25 SGD.

Data speeds

Fast!

Indonesia

Bali rice field

Carrier

TelkomSel SimPATI

Costs

The SIM card should cost a dollar or less, although you may find all kinds of variations based on the amount of included credit – and how much the vendor thinks you’re prepared to pay. Local calls and SMS are cheap (eg. as low as 1c/text). You can buy 300Mb of internet (valid for 14 days) for $5, and faster/longer/larger allowance options are available starting at around $12.

How

Just look for a sign outside any mobile shop, or try asking in a Circle K if you can’t see one nearby. No passport is needed.

Topping Up

Again, just follow the signs – topping up is even easier than buying the SIM in the first place.

Data Speeds

As long as you enable it (via SMS to 3636), 3G is widely available, falling back to slower speeds in remote spots.


Philippines

Sunset on Boracay

Carrier

Smart

Costs

The cost of a Smart SIM card varies, depending on where you’re buying it. It should be around 30 to 120 pesos (70c to 3 USD). There are many types of prepaid plans, depending on how you plan to use your phone: unlimited text, unlimited calls, data plans, etc. Plans are generally cheap. If you’re data-hungry, an unlimited plan will set you back 1000 pesos ($23) for 30 days.

How

Convenience stores like 7-11 or Ministop or authorized retailers should be able to sell you Smart SIM cards. However, general merchandise stores (Filipino:sari-sari store) might serve you better outside of the major cities as they come on every street corner, even in small towns and villages. There is at least one in any given area.

Topping Up

Asking someone to “top up” your phone might cause some confusion. The local word for prepaid phone credits is “load” and in the Philippines, you “buy load.” Scratch cards are available at 100, 300, and 500-peso denominations. You can also buy load in sari-sari stores, in 10, 20, 30, 60, 115-peso denominations.

Data Speed

3G is fine in Metro Manila. Outside Metro Manila, it’s a hit and miss. It really depends. In some provinces, 3G works. In some, it is unbearably slow.

(via Paul from Walk Fly Pinoy)


So there you have it – the basics on buying a SIM card that works, for every country in SE Asia. Of course there are many other options available beyond the ones we recommend – if you have first-hand experience of them, feel free to share in the comments!

SIM image via MIKI Yoshihito

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

Looking to buy a local SIM card in South East Asia? Based on real-world experience, here are our recommendations and tips to make the process easier.
About the Author

Dave Dean

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Founder and editor of Too Many Adapters, Dave has been a wanderer for nearly 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. Thanks for this Dave, in Thailand I had mixed performance with 3G on the iPhone. True-H seems the most reliable for 3G and it simply does not work on all carriers. I am not sure about Happy, haven’t tried. For those with iPhone 3GS, understand that this is a model that did not sell a lot in SEA and some companies simply won’t support it.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the info, Andre. I actually used an iPhone 3G (not S) with a Happy SIM when I was in Thailand in 2010, and never saw the magic 3G symbol at all. It did work fine with Edge, however.

  2. I picked up my Happy Sim a few days ago in Thailand, and on my Galaxy S3 I got good 3G coverage and speeds in Bangkok. Not tried the rest of the country yet, will report back 🙂

    1. Author

      That’s really interesting, Laurence – did you need to do anything special to enable 3G, or did it just work out of the box? And which package did you buy?

    1. In Thailand (sorry to hijack this one Dave!), the guy at the place I bought my card from had a sim cutter, and he just cut my sim down to the micro sim format to fit my Galaxy s3 on the spot for no extra charge. Not sure what the deal is with the new nano sim format though.

    2. Author

      In many countries in SE Asia you can pick up a micro-SIM at the same place as you pick up standard SIMs (eg: 7-11). If not, the carrier’s mobile stores will almost certainly have them, and failing both of those options, someone will cut it down to size for you (or there are about a million videos and guides online on doing it yourself if necessary).

  3. I don’t think a 300 minute deal (Thailand) is a good choice these days, now we are always online and with that SIM it will only last for half a day. You can get 1GB volume without time limit for 350 baht or unlimited volume for 799 baht per month as a prepaid SIM. There are some more volume bundles, but those two are the most interesting i think. To activate it you just a get a normal SIM at 7/11 and use a UUID code to pick a data plan, for example for 12Call (AIS) those codes are:

    1GB/350Baht: *133*22#
    2GB/550Baht: *133*23#
    Unlimited/799Baht: *133*24#

    you need to put credit on your phone first to activate those plans of course, so get a SIM and just buy some recharge cards right away, dial in the credits and then pick a plan. If you stay longer than a month you need to make sure that you have enough credit one (two, three, ..) month after activation, sop best is to set yourself a reminder. If you run out of volume before the month is over things can get a bit messy, i.e. you can end up with two subscriptions on the same number.

    If you pick the 550 baht one or above you also get free AIS wifi access for a month, which is nice if you like to sit in cafes with your laptop. The coverage of wifi hotsports is pretty extensive for Bangkok.

    Sometimes 3G isn’t activated and you need to dial *300

    Similar offer are available from DTAC and TRUE of course,

    There is a link with all details, but usually those stop working after a few month when they decide to redesign their website, those short codes are likely to work for a long time, prices might drop.

    http://www.ais.co.th/mobileinternet/en/internet-package/#2

  4. Thanks a lot, Dave! I was planning to do some research and do a blogpost on it, but that’s not needed anymore 🙂 You don’t happen to have some info on a philippines sim, do you?

    1. Author

      No problem! The Philippines info is coming – I actually meant to include it (oops!). I’ll update the post when I receive it. 🙂

    1. Author

      I can’t personally – anybody else with personal experience, please feel free to chime in!

  5. Such a helpful post! We just got a Vietnamese sim card the other day and will be traveling to all the other countries in this list so will be good to reference this post later on!

  6. lol – I’ve been living/wandering around SEA for the past two years now collecting SIMs wherever I land, and…

    I’m now thinking of selling SIM card EARRINGS on Etsy!

    Those little guys are a pain to keep track of, but would make interesting earring, no? 😉

    1. Author

      Totally agree! I’ve got a little plastic bag full of expired SIMs that I can donate to the cause. 😉

  7. Dave, I am a digital nomad in need of access to wifi via my computer. I currently have an iPhone that is locked to ATT but I will be unlocking it for the trip. Does this mean that I will be able to use my iphone as a mobile hotspot using one of these sim cards so that I can get into the backend of WordPress to do some basic membership adjustments on my site? Is there a better way to do this? Can I get some type of mifi and use one of these cheap cards to get online with my laptop, or should I even consider purchasing a Google Nexus tab and popping a sim into this? Sorry for the long questions but we will be traveling for one year and I run 2 membership sites and need to be able to login and just check things at least once daily. We will be traveling mostly in SEA.

    Thanks, I love your site BTW!

    1. Author

      Hi Stephen,

      To answer your questions — yep, if your iPhone is unlocked, you should be able to drop a local SIM card in it and use it as a mobile hotspot. It’ll use more battery to do so, but that’s about it. I’ve done the same thing many times with various smartphones (including an old iPhone) and it works well enough, depending on the speed of your data connection of course.

      You could also buy an unlocked mi-fi device to do the same thing, or a USB 3G modem that plugs into your laptop (and can then be shared with other devices using Connectify, if you’re running Windows). I cover quite a bit of this stuff here, as well as in much more detail in my tech guide for digital nomads.

      I wouldn’t buy a tablet just to use as a hotspot, although if you’ve got other reasons to want a tablet then it’s a nice side benefit.

      Hope that helps!

  8. I’m unsure why you need a passport in Vietnam to get a simcard. I’ve gone there on 10 occasions over the past 3 years and lived there, and I just get one for 100,000vnd at Tan Son Nhat airport, and not once been asked for ID. You also get 100,000vnd worth of data/sms/calls. This has been Mobifone, though. They’ll also have offers of topping up your SIM for free. You top it off for 50,000 they give you another 50,000. Buy 100,000 you get another 100,000.

    On two occasions I’ve had a stroke of luck and had free 3G. (until next time it’s updated)

    I don’t know if it should be noted, but if a SIM is unused for two months it’s disabled. Again, mobiphone.
    Haven’t been there in 6 months now, and can’t recall any other benefits that’s not already been mentioned.
    I hope this is of value.

    Dave

    1. Author

      Thanks for the useful advice, Dave, and that’s a valid point about the passport — I don’t think I was asked for it at the booth at Tan Son Nhat either, but I was asked at a travel agent on Pham Ngu Lao on a previous trip. I’ve updated the article to say “may be” instead of “will be” required. 🙂

  9. On the hunt for a sim that will work in all 3 of Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. In Vietnam now – where can I buy and what us available? Need an unlocked phone too as mine broke ( permanently, a long story)

    1. Author

      I’m not sure that such a thing exists, especially on prepaid. Given how easy it is to buy SIM cards in each of those countries, I’m not quite sure why you need it either? If you need a consistent number, that’s achievable in other ways (Skype Numbers, Google Voice etc) without having to use the same SIM in each country.

  10. I am travelling to singapore and malaysia for 7days what will be the best option

    1)buying local sims at both the places / 2) buying world travel sim.

    in both the case please suggest best operator

    1. Author

      Suggested operators are in the post. There’s probably little difference between an international SIM and local SIMs for the short amount of time you’re talking about, unless you plan to use a lot of data (in which case local SIMs will be cheaper).

  11. Wow this list actually helps me a lot. But I will also go to China, Honkong, Taiwan, South-Korea and Japan, do you also have tips for those countries?

    1. Author

      Just follow the link at the bottom of the post (this one) to see all of our SIM coverage. At time of writing, we’ve got a piece on Taiwan, but not the other places you list (although we do have an article on renting a Mifi device in Japan as an alternative option).

  12. Hi Dave,

    I’m going to be travelling through 7 different Asian countries, I’ll be in most for 3 weeks and then the last, India, for 7 weeks.
    I’ve been trying to find a travel sim that has a good price for calls, txts and data within country and to the UK and i’m having no luck at all!
    I’ve found Travelsim and Gosim and those kind of ones too expensive and then the idea of having to buy a sim card in each country is just annoying/costly/not convenient.
    Are you able to shed any advice for my situation please?

    1. Author

      For a trip of that length, I’ve found no travel/international SIMs offering what I would call reasonable rates, unless you plan to barely use your phone at all.

      Unless you’re from the US and are a customer of T-Mobile or Google’s Project Fi, roaming with your existing carrier is likely to be totally unaffordable.

      If you’re in each country for 3 weeks, buying a local SIM makes by far the most sense. You don’t say which countries you’re visiting other than India, but in SE Asia, at least, it’d be rare to be able to walk from your guesthouse to dinner without passing a vendor that could set you up with a SIM for around $10-$15 with enough data, calls and texts to last the duration of your stay. Things are a bit trickier in India (we’ll be posting an article about that soon), but still possible.

      I’ve never found the process annoying, costly or inconvenient in any of the countries listed in this article.

  13. Hi,

    Really helpful post, just had a few questions.

    Are you able to purchase Nano or Mirco simcards in these countries?

    I will be travelling across Asia for 8 months and the two phones I will be taking with me require either a mirco or a nano sim? (Nano is the one even smaller than Micro)

    Thanks!

    1. Author

      Yep, there’s no problem picking up micro or nano SIMs across Asia, since pretty much every phone sold there uses one of those two types. You’ll often get a card with cut-outs for each size, or the vendor will ask which type you need. Failing that, on the rare occasion you can’t get a (typically) nano SIM, the vendor will cut it down to size for you, usually for free.

      1. Perfect – that is what I had read but wanted to check!

        Thank you 🙂

  14. Smart and Globe tourist sims now being sold in Philippines at international airports. 5GB 14 days was 700 peso with Globe. 7 days or 30 day sim also available. Girls at booth will install for you. Speed was good 4G in many urban areas around Luzon. Good reception also.

    Previous experience with Smart was lots of dead spots with no signal, especially inside buildings. No 4G, speed was very slow like too many people trying to use and it took minutes to refresh Facebook feed or just time out.

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