Using Cell Phones & SIM cards in India – A Tourists Perspective

Using Cell Phones & SIM cards in India – A Tourists Perspective
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Step-by-Step Guide to Using Cell Phones in India + How to Get a Local SIM Card

Quick facts:

a) India has recently surpassed 1 BILLION cell phones in use which is 40x the number of their landlines!

b) The cell phone coverage and reception is pretty darn good across most of the country (except for some remote rural areas) and the rates per minute are among the cheapest in the world.

Here’s the deal:

Follow these tips below to learn how to get a SIM card (without getting scammed), what the going rates are, how to recharge your plan and which phone you should use.

1) Firstly, why do you need a cell phone for India?

friends-traveling-in-indiaSome people say, “I don’t know anyone in India, so why do I need a cell phone?”

There are several good reasons, such as to:

  • Make a reservation at your next hotel in another state.
  • Communicate with a fellow traveler.
  • Call the authorities or an ambulance in an emergency.
  • Cross check something that a scamming taxi driver says.
  • Look up a Google Map or Wikipedia entry.
  • Call your new Indian friend or your family at home.
  • Send an email or text to anyone in the world.
  • Make a calculation at a shop to verify you’re not being ripped off!

There are of course a million other reasons that you could need a cell phone but you get the idea.

2) Make sure your phone is compatible with the GSM band

indian-man-using-cell-phoneThe GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) frequency band for India is the same as Europe and most parts of the world at GSM 900 and GSM 1800. The US and Americas GSM is different so your US mobile cell phone might not work in India (check to be sure).

Also, it is best to get a local SIM card so you will require an unlocked phone that can take new SIM cards. I’ve listed a few of my suggested phones below.

If you’re wondering, “what the heck is a SIM card?!” — it’s the little chip inside a phone that connects to your provider (pictured at the top of this page). In the US the service providers typically lock them into the phone so you can’t easily change carriers. As far as I know, almost all other countries have phones that are unlocked.

3) Bring a phone from home that you don’t mind losing

I have a phone I use specifically for my India trips because I’m not going to take my $900 iPhone. This brings me peace of mind and assurance that I’m not about to waste a ton of money if it gets lost or stolen. Although, that’s what travel insurance is for 🙂

Here are a few good (affordable) options that I recommend:

4) Bring copies of your passport/visa & passport sized photos

passport-copy-for-indiaTo buy a SIM card in India you will be required to provide a copy of your passport and visa as well as some passport sized photos of yourself.

Often times you’ll also need to show proof of your Indian address which can be a letter from your hotel manager. Additionally, you may be asked for proof of your home address which could be a copy of your driver’s license.

I know, this is pretty strict but they say it is to help curb terrorists using cell phones in India…

5) Where can you buy the actual SIM card and also where do you recharge your SIM minutes?

holy-man-in-front-of-airtel-shop-in-indiaI like to try to get a SIM card from the International airport that I arrived in India at. They are usually more organized and more likely to not cause any troubles when compared to getting one from a vendor on the street. Although, this means you likely will have to already have proof of address in hand before you arrive in India.

If you don’t manage to get one from the airport then the next best option is to go to an official office of one of the top service providers such as Airtel, Vodafone or Reliance. These can be found in every major city across India. If in doubt ask your hotel to help you organize it.

One thing to note is that it can take a while for them to verify your address and you should insist that they do because otherwise the SIM will “magically” be turned off after just a few weeks of service!

You can recharge your SIM card minutes or data at any participating vendor on the street that is displaying your service provider’s logo. Make sure you see that your phone actually recharges while you’re in the shop in order to avoid getting scammed.

6) How much should the SIM card cost?

vodafone-sign-in-indiaThe actual SIM card shouldn’t cost more than 150 to 200 rupees and the average costs for calls, texts and data are as follows (approx. 67 rupees to US$1):

  • Local calls = 1 rupee/ minute
  • Local texts = 1 rupee/ minute
  • International calls = around 7 rupees/ minute
  • International texts = around 5 rupees/ minute
  • 3G data with Airtel = approx. 300 rupees/ 1GB
  • 4G data with Airtel = approx. 650 rupees/ 1GB

The convenience of having 3G mobile Internet is pretty epic when you’re in outback India checking Facebook while on a train but it can get expensive fast if you’re doing a lot of work.

In this case, you may be better off to get a 3G Dongle that connects via USB to your laptop. The same documentation as above will be needed for getting your hands on one of those suckers.

7) Which is the best cell phone service provider to use in India?

working-in-india-mobile-internetThese are my favorite carriers in India:

I have had the best experience and coverage with Airtel and Vodafone. Although, all of them seem to have quite terrible customer service so be warned and be patient.

In the picture above you can see a couple of friends of mine when we set up an office in India for a working holiday there.

8) Lastly, beware that SIM cards have a limited life

Usually a Simcard will stop working after 3 months of inactivity. They claim this is to stop terrorism. It is a bit annoying if you plan to come back next year.

One way around it is to lend it to your friends who may be going to India within the 3 months after you get back.

Typically you should expect that you’ll need a new SIM card every time you go to India.

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  1. This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away free. I love seeing website that understands the value of providing a quality resource for free.



  2. I think your recommendation on phones was true a few years ago, but I believe that most smart phones currently sold in the US and the rest of the Americas can operate on multiple GSM bands. I am taking a Galaxy S4 and an iPhone 4S with me next week. I checked their specs and they both said they can use the 900 and 1800 bands. I hope that means they’ll work in India. I’ll find out!

        1. Nice article! Asher

          A small contribution to this post.

          Detailed steps to take a SIM card in India for tourists,

          You need to be prepared to submit the following documents to the vendor along with an application form.

          2 color passport photographs , photocopy of the personal details page of your passport, photocopy of your Indian visa, photocopy of the proof of your home address in your country of residence (passport, driver’s license or any other Government issued document) and a proof of where you will be staying in India.

          You can buy a SIM card at the international airport from the kiosks of mobile service providers such as Airtel or Reliance, which are located almost immediately after you clear customs. Alternatively, you can also buy the SIM card from the stores of the cell phone vendors in the downtown areas, including shopping malls.

          Once the documents are verified, you can purchase the SIM immediately and will get a 10-digit mobile number. Usually, the SIM is activated within 24 hours, after a confirmation call is made to your mobile phone for verifying the details provided in your application.

          If you plan on traveling to several locations in India, be sure to get roaming activated on your SIM. Otherwise, you will have to buy separate SIM cards at every new place that you visit.

          As per new regulations, a SIM is valid only for a three-month period after which it will have to be reactivated.

          The most popular mobile service providers in India are Airtel, Vodafone, Reliance, Idea, Aircel and MTNL/BSNL (the latter is government run). In terms of costs, the rates and packages are similar. You should choose a provider based on the areas where you plan to travel. For the major cities, Airtel or Vodafone are good options, whereas BSNL has the widest coverage throughout rural areas too.

          Most prepaid SIMs come with packages that include free incoming calls and messages. The package price includes the cost of the card (Rs.50). So, if you buy a card worth Rs.250, in effect, you would only have Rs.200 towards calls and messages.

          The approximate call and messaging charges are:

          • International calls (US/Canada) Rs.7 per minute

          • International text messages Rs.5 per message

          • Calls to a cell phone in India Rs.1 per minute

          • Local text messages Rs.1 per message

          3G and 4G data plans are also available, but can work out expensive if you are roaming.

  3. Hi, Asher! Thanks for the great article. I was travelling around India recently and before going, stumbled upon your blog. It helped a lot in contacting my folks back home, without having to pay roaming fees. Instead of using the service of my phone network, I opted for one of those sites that offer to unlock your phone for free: It worked as well and saved me even more money! Thank you again. Happy travelling!

  4. Good article, Asher!

    I brought my (regrettably locked) iPhone last summer, and had to buy a new phone in Mumbai. Fortunately, I got a serviceable Lava smart phone for something like $80 (including SIM and initial charge). I used it directly, or tethered my iPhone or iPad to it, and it worked out fine.

    As you said, I had to provide a passport photo, local sponsor, and copies of my passport and visa.

    When I went back this year, I had my iPhone unlocked before I left. I went to a local phone provider in Rishikesh, and had a SIM card in ten minutes with zero paperwork — never even asked to see my passport. The only reason it took ten minutes was the he had to slowly shave the SIM card down with a pair of scissors to fit in my phone.

    My impression is that different providers are stronger in different areas, so it may be worth trying to check on that if you’re going be largely in one part of the country. Every day is an adventure — Edge, 3G, and sometimes 4G.

    Thanks for your invaluable info!

    1. Thanks for sharing your insights Greg!

      Yes, I agree that just like in the US or elsewhere different carriers have better coverage depending where you go. I’ve found Airtel to be the most reliable country wide.



  5. I believe vodafone and airtel mobile network and best is vodafone network because its call rate is cheaper than airtel. Airtel network is also good but its netpack is costly than vodafone.

  6. Waao, what a great job. 13 years since I last left India and couple of weeks to head there a gain. I was looking for information and you just gave all out; free.
    Thank you my brother!

  7. Hiya. I’m off to India early January and the info you’ve given about using my unlocked iPhone there will be very useful. When I return to the uk do I just put my own SIM card back in and it will carry on as normal? Thanks

    1. Hi Mary,

      Thanks for reading my blog 🙂

      Yes, you simply put your old SIM back in and it will work no problem as long as you still have an active account with the previous carrier.



  8. Thanks for the information. We will be arriving in Delhi but leaving the very next morning for Rishikesh. Would it be best to wait until we are in Rishikesh to get a sim card for my unlocked phone?

    1. Hi Deborah,

      I always try to get the SIM card at the first chance I can in case it’s not easy to get at my destination. Airports and bigger cities like Delhi are usually the best place to quickly get a SIM card as a tourist.

      Hope this helps and have a great trip!



  9. Thanks and thanks again-going back to India for the 4th time, since first trip in 1971. During the most recent trips I have always had phone troubles. This is great info.

    a quick question, I have a Blackberry Classic that says in the specs: Quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE (850/900/1800/1900 MHz)
    so I guess it will work in India. I am on US Verizon network. Do I need to get this phone unlocked here in the US prior to going to India. I will be getting a new phone prior to the trip, so the current Blackberry will not be activated in the US, and it is the one I will be taking.
    thanks for the help.

    1. Hi Greg,

      Yes, you will need to get it unlocked prior to going to India. Make sure it can accept a SIM card and see that you can access it yourself.



  10. Hi Asher,

    Thanks for the tips! I will be traveling to Kerala, India in September, and was recommended by my phone carrier, Verizon, that I have an unlocked phone ( Android Galaxy 5) and can get a sim card at the airport. Would you recommend Airtel or Vodafone for the datapack? I will using more apps such as What’s app or Messenger for communicating rather than texting or phone calls.

    My arrival is 10pm at night in Kochi, are these places usually open this late?

    1. Kochi simple vendors close by around 5pm max 6pm.andbest to use in Kerala is idea which has better coverage in terms of call connectivity and data.

  11. Asher,
    You are too polite when you say, “they say it is to stop terrorists from using cell phones…”.

    I am an Indian living in USA for almost 40 years. Every time I go there to get a cell phone, I get just plain angry at the bureaucratic mind set. Last time, I just used my T-mobile for 20 cents a minute even for local calls.

    1. hi Andy Kumar, How did you use your T-mobile phone for 20cents a minute for local calls? Did you have a local number for local calls? If not, how did your relatives call you locally on your T-mobile? The reason I ask is that we will also be going to India soon and just don’t want to go through the hassle of trying to get a local SIM. Last time we tried this we had such a horrible experience that we decided never to go through that again. Please advise….would really appreciate the useful advise…..Mahua

  12. You Rock !!! TY for all the Info ..I am in Australia ..going to India next Tuesday .. Usually I do my own IT and travel UK EU Canada & USA … This trip will be my first to India taking a tour .

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