I’ve heard about the wonders of an unlocked phone and decided to try it out during my recent trip to India. The idea was to get a cheap unlocked Android phone that I’d be able to use on this and future trips. I was able to get a relatively cheap Samsung phone but it took me a surprisingly long time to get a working SIM card. This post is a description of the steps I took as well as some advice for others trying to do the same.

First off, to get a SIM card as a foreigner in India, you need to have a copy of your passport and visa, a passport sized photo, and a local to act as a reference. After giving this information to vendor they will do the necessary paperwork, call the reference, and if everything goes well they will activate your SIM card within 24 hours after which you will need to call them to verify and start using the service.

My first attempt was in New Delhi where I went to an Airtel shop based the advice of my uncle. Unfortunately, I didn’t know I needed to have a passport sized photo but was referred to a nearby computer shop that was able to print them out at the cost of 10 rupees (~17 cents) a piece. I was able to buy a regular sized SIM for 300 rupees (~$5) but was told it would take around 24 hours to activate and would only be cut after that. Unfortunately, I had to leave Delhi for a wedding so didn’t get a chance to get it cut to a micro SIM until I had already arrived in Mumbai. By that point, I was in a different city and no longer able to activate a Delhi SIM card although it took me multiple days to figure that out.

After going back and forth to the Airtel shop in Mumbai a few times, and discovering a new hoop I had to jump through every time, I was about to give up until I shared my problem with someone at my hotel. He took me to a nearby stand which was able to take care of everything for me within a few hours. This went smoothly since I had a few of the passport photos left and he was willing to act as my local reference. Total cost was 600 rupees (~$10) and included 250 rupees of credit.

Now that I had a functional phone, it worked great. It took me a little bit of time to understand the prepaid model but once I did I actually preferred it more than the postpaid one I have in the US. You can go to the dozens of mobile vendors around cities which will glady load some money unto your account. You can then activate various services either by using these vendors, doing it online, or via text messaging. At any time you can text various numbers and codes in order to get the balance you have left on your plans as well as add new ones. With my 250 rupee balance (~$4) I was able to buy 150 MB of 3G for 44 rupees (~75 cents) and load the rest into a national dialing plan.

Having a phone that works wherever you go is immensely convenient. Traversing and exploring Mumbai became significantly easier and more fun when we were able to get the phone working. We were able to explore the city without having to worry about getting lost and were able to discover and research local gems. It wasn’t as serendipitous as just walking around but we hopefully struck the right balance.

The challenge was in getting the SIM card working and I’m sure the process will vary in every country. My advice is to do research on how to get a prepaid SIM card before travelling and come prepared with everything you need so you can get the process started soon after arriving. If you know you’ll only be spending time in a city for a single day it may not make sense to get the SIM card there since it may not be possible to activate it in another city - I’m not sure if this is due to my experience or just the way things are done in India but it’s something to be aware of. You can also try contacting the hotel you’re staying at since they should have had experience helping their guests get SIM cards.

T-Mobile recently launched a global plan and I’m sure more and more carriers will follow suit. Until then we’re stuck with SIM cards and the unique challenges of obtaining one in different countries.

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