Buying a SIM card in India

November 27, 2009

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.

Mail Order:

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.

Retail Store:

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.

Voice Mail:

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.


  1. Comment by Dad

    Dad November 28, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    Very helpful write-up from one who wondered what the heck was going on at all those Airtel vendors we visited.

  2. Comment by Tejas

    Tejas December 8, 2009 at 10:29 am


    Great article, it worked thru a lot of the questions I had.

    Early next year I will be traveling to India and it appears that my Blackberry 8900 will work in India (it has both 1800/600 GSM) once I get it unlocked.

    I do have one last one regarding cellular internet. What other options do you know of that are available? I would very much like to be able to access email and have the GPS option on my phone be able to download maps while I am undoubtedly getting lost.

    Thanks much,

    • Comment by Tucker Bradford

      Tucker Bradford December 8, 2009 at 10:56 am

      Thanks for the comment. GPS isn’t bound to your service provider, so that will work as long as you have map data. Sadly on my device (iPhone) the map data is downloaded JIT (Just in Time). This means that without internet, I just get a lonely blue throbbing dot on a blank-ish screen. The good news is that if you get an Airtel card (or probably any other India based SIM) you’ll be able to purchase an internet plan. Mine was ~Rs25/day, which is just dirt cheap. The Edge service it provided in most places was more than enough to load maps. With GPRS (available even in the most backwater places I went) I would just have to wait a bit.
      Hope this helps. Have a wonderful trip.

      BTW, any kind of upgrade (internet included) can be purchased by SMSing a code to a specific number
      For Airtel you get 1 day of unlimited internet by texting the code MO to 56123. I just noticed that there is a weekly unlimited as well if you SMS MO to 56123. These codes may be specific to Karnataka Airtel cards. Make sure to ask your vendor for region specific details.

  3. Comment by Tejas

    Tejas December 8, 2009 at 11:08 am

    Hello Tucker!

    Indeed, the biggest reason I would like to have internet service is so that my cell phone’s GS tracker can download maps (otherwise I wont really have any useful information 😉 ).

    So, in respect to the internet daily plan, what is the process for getting one’s phone to do that? Is it something really simple or is there more to it?


    • Comment by Tucker Bradford

      Tucker Bradford December 8, 2009 at 11:30 am

      Yup in my case it was a simple as SMSing MO to 56122. Then I got a message back that I had unlimited internet for 24 hours.

  4. Comment by Tejas

    Tejas December 8, 2009 at 11:40 am

    Awesome… Lets see if my luck runs as good as yours! I’ll post my “findings”!


  5. Comment by Dave

    Dave February 8, 2010 at 2:57 am

    I guess had you done a little more research, you would have discovered that there are many easier & quicker ways to recharge your SIM card in India. I hav an Indian SIM card and i am based out of dubai. I have been using this Airtel SIM for the last 2 years and i recharge it through internet – bank account or credit card account. Can’t believe that no one told you about this and you faced all these issues of recharging it at the place where you bought it. You can recharge any SIM card (Airtel/Vodafone) of India online so why so much of hassle.

    • Comment by Tucker Bradford

      Tucker Bradford February 8, 2010 at 6:01 am

      You must have an India issued credit/debit card, or else your last recharge was before the Mumbai attacks. Since then the government has really cracked down on security. I could find no way of remotely charging with my American credit/debit cards.

  6. Comment by bridgett

    bridgett February 26, 2010 at 9:42 am

    so, how bout i bring my little notebook and try to do wi fi. will i have problems if they have internet access. thanx.
    i thought of getting a sim card but looks too confusing. i’d rather just send a couple emails and use their phone system which was really cheap last time i went (last year) but there may be so many people at the Kumnha.

  7. Comment by Tucker Bradford

    Tucker Bradford February 26, 2010 at 10:19 am

    Hey Bridgett,
    If you have more time than money the WiFi option might be better for you. I would highly recommend one of the smaller shops. I went to a franchise in Bangalore and was appalled at the bureaucracy. They took copies of my passport and required address and other information all for a 15 minute connection. Then I was charged for a 5hr minimum.

    On the other hand, while I was in Varkala I went to several smaller shops where I just sat down and got started right away, paying for everything when I left. I also found wifi in coffee shops and some restaurants ($5/hr at ABBA in Varkala). My dad got a good deal at a Pizza place in Mysore.

    I wouldn’t trade the SIM card for WiFi, but I’m a junkie for connectivity. Good luck!

  8. Comment by abdulla

    abdulla June 24, 2011 at 8:52 am

    internet sim card for voice chat

  9. Comment by Kristal

    Kristal September 17, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    How difficult is it to buy a sim card as a foreigner at the Infosys Mysore campus? Do we need to have any special documentation?

    • Comment by Tucker Bradford

      Tucker Bradford September 17, 2012 at 11:36 pm

      The Mysore Infosys campus was the easiest place in India to get it. A passport is a good idea though they set me up with just a license when I went in. Keep in mind that this was in 2009 just after the Mumbai terrorist attack.

  10. Comment by Beth

    Beth June 19, 2013 at 3:56 am

    Hi Tucker,

    Thanks so much for writing this post – I’m off to India for 3 months to volunteer and I’m finding it hard to obtain decent information about how to get a sim card. I’m volunteering in Karnataka or Tamil Nadu (I don’t know until I arrive) and I’ll be in Mysore for 3 days at the start of my placement. Have you been since 2008 or do you think your advice is still relevant? I’ve heard you need proof of address and as I’m living in a homestay for my volunteering I wont have this. Also, if I buy a sim in Mysore, would it still work in Tamil Nadu? I doubt I’ll be able to get to the Infosys Campus in Mysore, so I will try and just find a phone shop to buy a sim. You’ve made it really clear how to top up a sim (thanks!) but when purchasing one for the first time is there anything particular to say to aid communication? Thanks again for your help.

    • Comment by Tucker Bradford

      Tucker Bradford June 19, 2013 at 4:46 pm

      I would make sure to bring your passport when you go to buy the sim card. I was there in ’09 and haven’t been back since, but I’ve traveled the South Pacific recently and done this dance in 7 different countries. It’s always the same drill. They want an address (I make one up or use the marina/hotel) and valid picture ID (passport), in order to check their boxes. They care much more about the sale than the bureaucracy so if you seem confident when you go in and say things like “no, I’m quite sure this is sufficient” if they push back, you’ll breeze through. Keep in mind that the folks in the homestay will have cell phones too (everyone does in India), so it’s not impossible. You’ll also find that there are kiosks in the most remote places you could imagine, so if all else fails you will probably be able to pick up a sim card in the field.

      If you buy your sim in one state you can sometimes use it in another but it’s insanely expensive. It’s better just to get a new one when you switch states. The places you’ll be going are amazing, and overwhelming, have a blast and let me know if you’ll be blogging.

  11. Comment by sk

    sk September 23, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    great information. coming from U.S do we need any documents to buy the sim card in India?

    • Comment by Tucker Bradford

      Tucker Bradford September 23, 2013 at 2:37 pm

      keep in mind that this article is from 2009, so much may have changed. When I was there it only required at passport.

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