If I’m in a country for more than a week I tend to buy a local SIM card for my phone. It’s not that I make many calls or send lots of texts, but data on the move can be invaluable in countries where free wi-fi is limited or non-existent.
I don’t always succeed in finding something that works – the USA, in particular, was a challenge – but usually it’s pretty easy to pick up a prepaid SIM, load a few dollars of credit and have everything sorted out in a couple of minutes.
Turkey, however? Well, things were a little harder.
I arrived in Istanbul in the middle of August, with the intention of exploring the city for a week or two then heading south to meet up with friends for a two week sailing holiday. After that plans were vague, but I knew I’d be flying out again in early October.
I would be Turkey for around eight weeks in total, with minimal internet access for at least two of them. I didn’t need much data, but the ability to check emails for anything urgent – plus make phone calls in the event of an emergency (which ended up happening, of course) – was important.
The Easy Part
Buying the card was fairly straightforward. I found a mobile store displaying a Turkcell sign then handed over my passport and 50 Turkish lira (~$27) for a prepay SIM with a bunch of call credit That price also covered registration of the SIM card (a requirement for all foreign phones), and an additional 1Gb/30 day data package cost 29 lira.
So far, so good – the phone started working almost immediately, although I did have to go back to the store the following day to ‘remind’ the guy to load my data package. I confirmed that the phone was registered, and as far as I knew, was all ready to go.
Not So Fast
While idly eating a kebab near (in)famous Istaklal Street a few days later, I received a text message from Turkcell with the following:
<number> IMEI no’lu cihaz kayit disi listesinde oldugu icin 31.08.2012 da kullanim disi birakilacaktir.Hattiniz acik kalacaktir.Bilgi icin 4440532
My Turkish is terrible, but thankfully a friend was able to translate and tell me what I had already guessed – my phone was going to stop working in 10 days.
Um … why?
He didn’t know, and neither did I, so after procrastinating for a week I went hunting for an answer in the little town of Çanakkale.
The Hard Part
I popped my head into the first store I found with a Turkcell sign, and showed the text message to the guy behind the counter. “Oooooh. No. <stream of Turkish and hand waving>. That way.”
Right, got it.
100 metres later, another mobile store.
“No, you need big Turkcell shop. Round corner, four streets, that way.”
Ok, now we’re getting somewhere. I needed the official carrier store to sort this out, not just any old mobile vendor.
Finally, ten minutes later, I found the right place and was ushered in. I again showed the offending text message, and after much debate and tapping on keys, the verdict was returned: it would cost me 100 lira ($56) to extend the life of the phone beyond the specified date.
Note that that is the life of the phone in Turkey, not just the SIM card. Apparently once the grace period expires (somewhere between a week and a month), unregistered foreign phones are blocked on all Turkish networks regardless of the SIM card they are using.
100 lira is a lot of money, and initially I wasn’t inclined to pay it. I didn’t need data that much. After agreeing to split the cost between my friends on the yacht trip, however, I headed back to the store the next day to grudgingly hand over the cash.
“Oh no, sorry. You can’t pay here. Have to go to vergi dairesi.”
The what now?
“vergi dairesi. Shop for tax. Tax shop.”
The Harder Part
With a hand-drawn map courtesy of the lovely woman at the Turkcell store, I wandered around Çanakkale for a while until I found the ugliest, squarest concrete building on the street. Now that just had to be the local government offices.
And sure enough it was. Motioned upstairs, I somehow found the one person who spoke enough English to understand what I was after. She pointed me towards the right window but, after deciding the chances of a successful transaction would be much higher if she was there to translate, soon came and joined me. Bless her heart.
After fifteen minutes of form filling, laughing and swapping our mutual three words of each other’s language, the cashier handed me a small printout in exchange for my 100 lira. That’s it? For the money, I was expecting something gold-rimmed…
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The Happy Part
Back to the store I went, the receipt clutched tightly in my hands. With a laugh (and some surprise that I had succeeded), the staff motioned me to a seat and plied me with hot tea while working through the various screens on their computer. Another reason to love Turkey, really – tea comes with everything including, apparently, getting your phone working.
And then, finally, I was done.
Two weeks, five trips to the store, one hundred dollars and a visit to the local government later, I had a working, registered phone and SIM card. It hadn’t been quite as simple as doing the same thing in South East Asia, let’s put it that way.
Now that it was properly registered, my phone would apparently stay working for a full six months.
What would I need to do to keep things working after that, I wondered? Nobody really quite seemed to know.
I really wasn’t inclined to try and find out.
Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.