Last updated on August 2nd, 2018.
India is one of the countries where I wouldn’t recommend activating very expensive roaming from your country. The local SIM Card in India gets you an entry to important services in the country: shopping, ordering taxis, food delivery, maps, internet – you name it. Secondly, the connectivity is really good in India. Thirdly, mobile data has become affordable in the recent years due to the tough competition.
To give you an idea about the prices, back in 2013 I used to rip from my heart 230 INR (4.5 USD back then) to buy 1 GB of a 3G mobile internet that was transforming often into 2G outside of big cities. I used to block YouTube and other social media so the data can last longer. It was expensive for Indian standards and people mainly used internet for WhatsApp chatting.
Nowadays, in 199 INR (2.90 USD) you can get 1 GB of 4G speed network per day plus unlimited calls and SMS (if someone uses them). As you can see, India is progressing really fast! In this post, I’m going to share with you how to get a Sim Card in India and what to consider while buying it. Here are some of the questions that I will cover:
- From which local provider to buy a SIM Card in India?
- Where to get a SIM Card in India?
- Roaming in India
- SIM Card for Jammu & Kashmir
- Documents required to get a SIM Card in India
- Other useful information about SIM Card
From which local provider to buy a SIM Card in India?
There are three main connection providers in India: Airtel, Vodafone and Reliance Jio. The choice totally depends on your India itinerary. If you are choosing one of the popular routes – Golden Triangle, Kerala, Goa, Rajasthan, etc – there is a vast coverage of all companies.
I had long experience with Airtel and Vodafone, but for the past few years, I have been with Airtel, mainly because of their offerings and plans. Plus I tested the network connectivity from North to South, East to West and was happy with the coverage except some mountain areas. If you go to smaller towns in Himalaya, surprisingly Jio has a much better connection there.
In some remote areas of Jammu & Kashmir (Nubra Valley), Himalaya (Spiti Valley, Tirthan Valley, etc.) and Uttarakhand (Valley of Flowers) there is still only BSNL (a state-owned telecom company) connectivity present and no internet. In the rest of the country, you are going to be fine with Airtel or Vodafone.
Where to get a SIM Card in India?
For security purpose, getting a SIM card is not always a straightforward affair. For an Indian citizen, the SIM Card is just the matter of bringing an Aadhar (a type of local ID card) to the provider and instantly getting a number. It is a bit more complicated for a foreigner, though there are a few ways you can go about it:
Indian SIM Card at the airport
This is the easiest way. Once you land in T3 IGI Delhi or Chhatrapati Shivaji Mumbai, Dabolim Goa head to the provider of Airtel or Vodafone in arrival section and take the SIM Card. You just need your passport, visa and a photograph to get a sim card at the airport.
In Airtel, the basic cost is 400 INR for foreigners, but it already includes talk-time, daily internet, and SMS for a month. From the second month, you can upgrade to one of the packages available online. The SIM is activated within 2-3 hours. Check-up both Vodafone and Airtel deals when you arrive and choose which suits you better.
The only downside of this method, that it is costlier than you can get in the city. In the end, you have to choose between cost and bureaucracy.
SIM Card Black Market in India
India is a country where you will find a solution to almost any problem. Sim card can become one of them if you are a foreigner arriving not by air, but through one of the land borders.
Story-time: Once I was coming to India from Nepal via Karkarbhitta. My port of entry was Siliguri (it’s not a tourist city). I visited different phone provider offices to find out that I can get a card only if I provide 3 local contacts in Siliguri.
Well, I’ve lived in India so I have contacts, but what about foreigners who come here for the first time? In any case, the office people rejected my contacts from Delhi. One man overheard my conversation with customer service and he was kind enough to provide his phone number as a reference on the form.
I thought I’m sorted, though next day my card again didn’t work. I called the office and they requested my ID card. While I told that my passport represents my identity abroad, the customer care still insisted on local ID. I sent a scan of my ID card which by chance was on my computer. The officer told they can’t accept it since it’s not in English. (Daah, not all the world is English-speaking, our bad…).
This story wouldn’t take place in a touristy city in India. Due to these struggles of foreigners, there is a growing black market where you have to pay roughly 10 USD extra and you get your SIM Card sorted. Personally, I don’t support this way of doing things… Such thinking led me to 3 weeks in India without any connection and mind you, sometimes I go to the villages and offbeat destinations (so good my parents don’t read this blog). Still, I think, it’s better to do things in the right way from the very beginning.
Your Indian friends SIM Card
If you have Indian friends and you do start exploring India from a less touristy city, ask them to help you get a number. It will save you from unnecessary hassle and stress. Nevertheless, I suggest asking only close people whom you know well to do that.
Traveling to India for the first time? Read my detailed backpacking India guide.
Roaming and mobile internet in India
India is bigger than it seems to be on the map. It has 29 states, each state has its own language or dialect, government, and connectivity. Every time, you cross the state border, the national “roaming” turns on.
How does it work? Internet packages are not subject to roaming charges in India. Incoming calls or outgoing calls within the same network (e.g. all Airtel users) don’t include extra charges too, as a rule. If back in early 2010 it was easy to identify the operator by the first three digits, now you can switch the provider without changing the number, thus it became hard to say which network someone is using.
If you need a SIM card only for data, don’t bother with this. But if you plan to call a lot, consider purchasing a SIM card in the state, where you intend to spend most of your time. Alternatively, there are packages that include some talk time in whole India.
SIM Card for Jammu & Kashmir
Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is a state in the North of India, where only postpaid connection works. This measure was introduced for security purpose. If you are an Indian, I recommend getting a postpaid SIM Card from your base city in advance rather than from J&K. Verification of home address and other check-ups can last up to two days. You don’t want to waste time on talks with network providers during your travel.
As of now, foreigner tourists can’t get a postpaid SIM Card. Well, because post-paid connection presumes you have a permanent address of stay in India, which tourists can’t have. You can try getting a SIM Card through the travel agent. Some agents do provide this service. I recommend taking services from J&K agents as there is a better chance to clarify potential issues on spot rather than remotely on phone. Alternatively, try asking your hotel on spot.
There is also a black market for purchase/rental of SIM cards in J&K, but I do not recommend using it. Post-paid connections are registered on some local name and it’s hard to identify a genuine source of the card. The problems occur rarely (according to local sources and forums), but they do occur. Surprisingly, I received this advice from SIM Card seller himself when I was doing research for this post :D.
Documents required to get a SIM Card in India
Beyond my struggles in several smaller cities of India, I went to several offices in Delhi, Mumbai, as well as asked in big airports. If you are a foreigner, you need to have the following documents to buy a SIM card in India:
- Original Passport
- Photocopy of passport and visa (big offices usually do it on spot by themselves)
- Passport picture (2-inch x 2-inch)
Sometimes you can be also asked for:
- Local reference number (take care to inform a person whose number you specify in the form. He/she will receive a call from the service provider)
- Address proof in your country of residence (utility bill, ID Card, driver’s license)
In some towns, they ask up to three contacts. If you are a foreigner, explain you just arrived in the town. In most cases, common sense arguments work with them. Take a contact number from your hotel/guesthouse or a friend. The contact should be from the same city, where you are applying. I wasn’t asked for any in Delhi in CP or at the airport.
Note: In smaller towns, you need to insist that passport is your identity card abroad. Most of the European passports are biometric, so all the addresses and personal data is within the chip, not on the main page of the passport. In the end, an ID card is an internal document and it comes in the local language of the country, which is mostly not in English. It might take an extra effort to explain.
If you are an Indian citizen, you just need your Aadhar card, local reference number, and a picture.
Take all these documents to the office of the provider. Then you will need to fill in the form on spot. It takes minimum two hours and maximum of 24 hours to activate an Indian SIM Card.
If you are a foreigner, you will get the SIM card for the whole validity of your visa (if you get the sim card in a proper way). Once the visa expires, the SIM Card will be blocked.
Other useful information about SIM Card in India
- Once you cross the border of any Indian state, your roaming will be on. The internet is not subjected to roaming charges, calling is.
- You can top up your credit or purchase any package from official shop or ask local shops in the local markets. There are shops selling phone covers and accessories which can also activate a package for you. Indian citizens can do it online from the website of a provider.
- If you are a foreigner, your SIM will be deactivated once your visa validity is over.
- Note: when you top up your credit, communicate exactly to the seller what you need. If you pay cash without comments, it will automatically transform into your talk time. In case you need certain data option, ask the seller to activate it.
- If you have a new phone, you need to activate 4G on your phone. It doesn’t happen automatically, thus I was using a basic network for the first two weeks till I found it out.
- Personally, I recommend getting a SIM Card if you plan to stay more than 10 days or you highly depend on internet connectivity even during the short stay.
Though requirements slightly change every year, I hope this post will help you get a SIM Card in India in a better way. If you have other tips on the topic, feel free to share! I will be happy to add them.