Slug Guide: how to get a SIM card in India

Getting a SIM card in India can be a painful and time consuming process.

Despite the possible hassle, we've found that an Indian SIM card has been invaluable for things like booking bus and train tickets (most providers won't call an international number) and staying connected to the internet. And it's sure as hell cheaper than roaming!

Here's our Slug Guide to getting yourself connected to the grid as easily as possible.

Find out if you are eligible for a free SIM card on arrival

Great news for some! As of 2017, the Indian government are providing free BSNL network SIM cards on arrival to tourists travelling on an e-visa who are arriving in one of the 16 participating international airports (although it looks like more spots are being added to this list constantly). These SIM cards are pre-activated (unlike other SIM cards in India), are valid for 30 days, and contain 50r of talk time, 50MB of data, and include a tollfree tourist helpline number with operators available who speak 12 languages! Apparently the coverage is pretty decent geographically, although the signal strength may be a little lacking in some areas.

Rumour has it that it can be difficult to find exactly where in the participating airports to get these, but there are usually flyers and posters in the passport control areas of eligible airports.

The reality is that this is an amazing scheme to help you to hit the ground running, but unless you're happy to be fairly reliant on wifi hotspots (which are certainly plentiful in India, although definitely of questionable reliability in our experience), you'll probably need to top up data, which can be done quite easily at plenty of shops. Depending on where you are, they should be able to help you with the top up process, as online top up is not yet available for foreign credit cards with BSNL.  

If you're ineligible for a free SIM card

As Zev and I aren't travelling on e-visas (which are only valid for 30 days), we weren't able to get a free SIM card, which makes things slightly more complicated...

Even if you aren't eligible for the free SIM cards, it's probably still a good idea to get your phone sorted while you're at the airport. The people there know you're a tourist, and they know what you need and can sort you out quickly and efficiently. Because we're idiots, and we didn't want to keep our driver waiting, Zev and I didn't do this, but we probably should have. Since we didn't, we had to resort to a lot of online research with crappy guesthouse WIFI, which was time consuming and frustrating (hence the creation of this Slug Guide).

Research the best provider

The general gist as far as we could tell was this:

  • Airtel: The most popular network in India with over 175 million users. Nationwide coverage, affordable plans, and fairly easy requirements for foreigners, with reasonably quick activation (within the day).
  • Vodafone: The second most popular network, but with poorer data coverage than Airtel
  • Idea: As with Vodafone, poorer data coverage than Airtel
  • There seem to be plenty of other smaller carriers, including some government run options, but we either couldn't find information on their coverage or connection process, or we found information that suggested that the connection process was prohibitively difficult for foreigners.

Armed with the intel above, we decided to go with Airtel. We'll be travelling over quite a bit of the country for up to 3 months (although our visa is valid for 6 months), but we're unlikely to be heading to any terribly remote areas, close to any borders, or near the Himalayas which is reportedly where the Airtel coverage is at its worst.

Gather the necessary documentation

First of all, make sure your phone is unlocked (although if you're already in India and your phone isn't unlocked, it might be a little late for that). If it's locked to your at home carrier, no amount of correct documentation will get it working.

Here is what we needed (which seems to be pretty standard across the networks) to process our applications:

  • A photocopy of the photo and visa pages of our passports (we were able to get this at the shop where we got our SIM card)
  • A passport photo (lots of websites list 2 passport photos as a requirement, but we only needed one)

That's it. On other websites, we found mention of the following documentation being needed:

  • Proof of address in India. We only had to provide the address of our guesthouse, but we read reports of people being asked for a letter from their guesthouse confirming that they're staying there.
  • Proof of their home address. Again, we only had to provide our home address, we didn't have to prove it. Many countries print addresses on their driver's licence, so assuming that your address is on there, a photocopy of your driver's licence should suffice. Failing that, a print out of a bank statement or bill could also work.
  • The phone number of an Indian referee or reference. It was unclear whether this is no longer needed, or whether the man at the Airtel shop who sold us our SIM cards put himself down as a reference. Apparently this was quite a stumbling block in the past, as the carrier would call your referee once, maybe twice, and if they didn't answer, your application was cancelled - that's it, no money back, start again. We read of people who had used their guesthouse owner as a reference, but as we'd already been and spoken to the Airtel guy and he'd told us we didn't need this, we didn't worry about it.

Our suggestion would definitely be to go to the shop in advance of applying, and ask them what documentation you'll need. There's nothing worse than turning up and expecting to walk out with a SIM card, only to find out that you're missing a crucial piece of information. We went to the shop on the way home from dinner, asked exactly what we'd need, and returned the following day to apply.

The process

For us, the process was pretty straightforward. After photocopying our passports and visas, and taking a passport photo from us, the nice man at the Airtel shop (directly opposite Santa Cruz Basilica in Fort Kochi) asked for our address in India, our address at home, our email addresses, and our contact numbers at home. After signing some forms, he asked us to pick a plan.

There were plenty to choose from, but we both chose a plan that lasts 82 days, and offers unlimited calling and texting within India, and 1GB of data per day. It set us back a whopping 448r (~$10NZD) for the whole 82 days. There was a small cost for the SIM card (150r), and that was it.

With all the documentation signed, we put our new SIM cards in our phones and were told to return to the shop that night after 8pm so that we could activate them. Our Sri Lankan SIM cards weren't working anyway, but otherwise I'm sure we could have left the working SIM cards in while we waited for the Indian ones to activate. 

Activation

Later that night, we started receiving notifications that our SIM cards were working (ie texts from the carrier etc). While we probably could have sorted out the activation ourselves, we thought it was safer to return to the awesome Airtel guy and have him sort it than to risk somehow stuffing it up.

He called a number that had been sent to our phones via text. and the activation instructions were in English (which was one of our concerns). Basically he just had to enter the last 4 digits of our new Indian mobile numbers, and the last 4 digits of our passports, and we were off! We tested our phones before leaving the shop (Zev had to turning on data roaming to get his mobile data to work - mine was already on so it worked first go), and they've worked great since. If you encounter issues with this step, turning your phone off and on again may be the solution, as we learned. Our 4G coverage is awesome, and in most instances, our phones are far faster than the wifi networks at our accommodation.

The only hiccup we've had is that our imessaging and Facetime aren't working. We haven't quite figured that out yet, but my suspicion is that Airtel charge to activate it, and our account balance is 0 because we only put on enough credit to buy the 448r prepaid plan. At some point I might top up a few rupees to see if I can get it working, but in the meantime we have free texts and calls to each other, and use Facebook messenger and email to stay in touch with home.

Roaming

The other thing we haven't quite figured out is roaming. We read online that sometimes, the carrier considers it roaming if you travel outside the state in which you brought your SIM card, so it may cost a little more to use your phone for some things. We asked the Airtel guy and he seemed pretty confident that it shouldn't be an issue for us - because we've paid the plan already, it should work nationwide and not cost any extra, so fingers crossed we don't have any issues there.

So that was our experience getting a SIM card in India! While we read some horror stories online about some people having to apply several times before making it work, and then having to wait days for their connection to activate, we ended up having a fairly straightforward experience. A huge part of that was down to the incredible guy at the Airtel shop though, so a massive thank you to him for all his help. If you find yourself in For Kochi looking for a SIM card, definitely go to the Airtel shop directly opposite Santa Cruz Basilica - they'll sort you out in no time!

Lots of love,
S & Z
xxx