I had a heck of a time purchasing and subsequently using my Indian Airtel SIM card. I learned a lot in the process that might be useful to other travelers visiting India. The following are some of my experiences as well as a few suggestions.
Obtaining a SIM card from abroad:
This is perhaps the most confusing step in an entirely confusing process. I started by trying to purchase a card online. This is a complete non-starter. All of the links that I found point to sites that seem to have been set up prior to 26/11 (Mumbai’s Terrorist attacks). Subsequent to the attacks, India’s government set up a serious bureaucracy that seems to do little more than inconvenience legitimate customers.
Eventually I had someone in India purchase a card for me and mail it to me. This would have worked well except that my go-between didn’t buy a card in the state that I was visiting. This is the first important lesson Buy a SIM card in the state that you will be traveling in. If you are traveling through several states either pick the one you’ll be starting in or the one you’ll be spending the most time in. If you can manage to have someone ship you a SIM card, make sure they charge it for you prior to shipping. It is very difficult to charge a SIM card for the first time, outside of the state it was purchased for.
If you can’t find someone to buy it for you your best bet is to purchase it at a retailer. The good news is that you can’t go ten steps in any village, town, or city without running over a retailer’s booth, stand, or office. If for some inconcievable reason you cannot find an Airtel or Vodafone sign, just ask around. I found that shop owners of just about any variety could charge my card.
For purchasing the card I would recommend an office. They are often A/C and you’ll have to fill out some paperwork, so the chair is a welcome perk. I had the good luck to get my Karnataka SIM card at the Infosys Campus in Mysore, which was specifically set up to process visitors. Your millage may vary. The one thing that will really streamline the process is if you bring a copy of your passport with you. Make it color, and don’t scale it. They need your picture to be passport sized. The card is free (or nearly free), but comes uncharged.
Charging your SIM Card:
As I mentioned before, I used Airtel for my provider. Airtel’s tariff (pricing) structure is such that if you charge the exact amount you want, you will likely not have that amount fully credited to your account. However, if you choose a “Full Talk Time” amount (Rs 333 or 444) you will get the full amount credited to your account. In my case I wanted to charge with Rs 1000 so I did a Rs 333 charge 3 times. In many cases the retailer needs to wait between charges (sometimes 10 minutes). I had fine luck walking away after the first charge and waiting for the texts for the other two.
A note regarding Full Talk Time tariffs; make sure to say it like “Rupees 333. Full Talk Time.” For whatever reason, this created a huge efficiency of communication at some of the smaller vendors.
Traveling out of state:
I bought my (second) SIM card in Karnataka and later traveled to Kerala. I was very fortunate to be given this advice before I departed. Whatever your last in state recharge was, is what you’ll be allowed to recharge at when out of state. So if I charge my Airtel card at Rs 1000 in Karnataka and then travel to Kerala I will be stuck charging at Rs 1000 in Kerala unless I can find a shop that has a Karnataka phone (more on this later). Therefore I highly recommend charging at a full talk time rate. In some adjacent states (Kerala to Karnataka is a good example) you’ll probably be able to find a vendor with phones for both states, but there’s no apparent value in taking the chance.
The Charging Process:
This is worth a quick note, as it completely took me by surprise. Here’s how it goes.
You stop into a retail shop and order your recharge, “Rs 333, Full Talk Time.” After you hand over your money, the guy will reach down and pick up a cell phone and ask you for your number. He’ll type in a code, and your number, and another code (probably the amount) and a few seconds later you’ll receive a SMS confirming the charge. If you do multiple full talk time recharges, you can either stay until they send the other recharges, or confirm that they will do it in a given period of time, and depart. I always trusted them, and wasn’t disappointed.
I should note here that on my very first transaction, I made all sorts of mistakes. I had just arrived in India and hit the first stand I came across. He asked me which state I wanted to charge in and I confidently stated that it was a Karnataka SIM. As it turns out it was actually from Raj. The second mistake was assuming that they would know my phone. iPhones are still fairly rare, as are smart phones. I didn’t know to expect an SMS and they seemed tentative about the device in general. There was a bit of faltering on the vendors part as he conferred with his colleagues. This should have been a clear sign that it wasn’t going to work. These guys probably do a hundred plus transactions a day, any hesitation should be closely managed. I was tired and hungry and just wanted to charge my phone up, so I wasn’t paying very close attention. I also didn’t know about the full talk time loophole, and that added some confusion. In the end I plunked down a thousand rupee note and walked away after he showed me his text. I never got that recharge, and I didn’t have time to go back to clarify.
There is no voice mail to speak of, at least not on Airtel. It took quite a while to figure this out, as the very word voice mail is kind of foreign. I spent a long time going around in circles because they do have voice SMS (MMS) and they sometimes use that for voice mail. Much more common is to just text your message if you can’t get through. I was lucky enough to have this discussion with a vendor at Infosys’ Campus where language was not a real obstacle.
Unlocking Your Phone:
I’m not going to go into details here, as all phones are different. You do need to make sure your phone is unlocked before you go. If you don’t have a phone that you feel comfortable unlocking, you might as well leave it behind and purchase a phone in India. The prices seemed very reasonable. If you’re not sure if your phone is unlocked, find a friend that uses a different network and put their SIM card in your phone. If its unlocked, you’ll be able to make a call, otherwise you’ll get a visible error on the screen.
The Good News:
India’s telecoms have realized that marketing to the bottom of the pyramid is the shortest path to outrageous fortune. As a result you get quality service even in remote areas and it costs maximum Rs 6/min. Calling within the local state its Rs 1/min or less (Vodafone is 1p/sec). Make a long distance call and its Rs 6/min. Incoming calls are free.
More good news. Most of the country is serviced with Edge speed cellular internet. On my Airtel prepaid I could get a full 24 hours of internet for Rs 20 (48¢). This is a real treat on a train. I would have loved 3G but when I realized that the internet cafes provided throughput speeds that were roughly equivalent to my laptop tethered to my phone, I stopped being so anxious.
That’s all. If you have further questions or corrections, please leave a comment below and I will address them.