If you’re looking to buy a local SIM card in Southeast Asia, this guide will help you choose a provider, a plan and get an idea of how much it will cost.
I always try to buy a local SIM card when I arrive in a new country, if I am staying for more than 2 weeks. Why? It’s not to make phone calls, though that capability comes in useful of course. It is primarily to get online, which is very cheap in Southeast Asia, and can be incredibly useful.
I use a GSM unlocked iPhone 4. I apologise if anything seems iPhone centric, but that is what I have and the only device I can test with. There should be virtually no difference doing any of this with an Android phone.
First and foremost ensure your phone is unlocked to all networks before you leave. In the UK this can usually be done by your network once your contract is up. Otherwise an independent shop at home or abroad will need to do it. In the old days this was a very quick cheap process but these days, with iPhones at least, it’s more complicated and expensive, but perfectly doable.
Also it goes without saying that you need a phone with a SIM card slot! If you don’t have one you will need a different phone. In Asia countless shops sell both smart and dumb phones already unlocked.
Most SIM cards still come in the full size variety, but some have pre cut segments so they can become a micro SIM for iPhone 4/4S. Others can be cut with a cutter in the shop, or in some cases I have (carefully!) cut them down myself. Nano SIMs for iPhone 5/s don’t seem to be readily available in convenience stores, so probably best to try a shop run by the phone network in that case.
In most cases I researched which network would be best in advance.
In every country, I went for the plan that offered me the most data at the best price for the time I was there, since 3G is far more useful when abroad to me than calls or texts. There are undoubtably much cheaper plans for calls and texts but I was always after data.
One final tip – when setting up a new SIM and activating a data package, make sure your 3G is turned OFF – otherwise background services on your phone may start using 3G at the much higher standard charge, wasting your credit. Also, after activating a package, you usually need to restart your phone to get access.
Network Used: Mobifone
Cost of SIM card: 80,000VND (I may have overpaid for this)
Data Plan Chosen: MIU
Included Data: Unlimited, but only 600Mb at full 3G speed, anything after at 128Kbps
Cost of Plan: 70,000 VND
Valid for: 30 days
Vietnam was the only country where the phone shop assistant set things up for me, and as I have restored my phone since then, I don’t have precise details of what they needed to text to activate it .
To activate the data package itself, I just text DK MIU to 999. The 600Mb ran out fairly quickly but this was because I wasn’t aware of the limitations of this ‘unlimited’ package (and was getting used to the novelty of having 3G after 2 months without it). After this the 128Kbps speed was slow, but usable.
Network Used: SMART
Cost of SIM card: 15PHP (£0.20) – I think this was the cost but it does seem a tad low!
Data Plan Chosen: Always On 499 (Text ON 499 to 2200)
Included Data: 1000MB/1GB
Cost of Plan: 499PHP
Valid for: 30 days
SMART also offer a plan for 995 which offers 2GB but as it’s still only valid for a month and offers no cost saving, it didn’t seem worth it to me.
Topping up can be done at virtually any shop in the country. SMART seems to be by far the most popular network. Look out for ‘Load na dito’ signs which just mean ‘Load here’. Filipinos always use the word ‘load’, saying ‘top-up’ just gets you confused glances.
3g signal was good almost everywhere we went, signal was weak at times but speeds were better than hardwired internet on some of the islands.
Cost of SIM Card: 299 baht but should be 49 baht (see below)
Data plan chosen: 1.5Gb Internet
Included data: 1.5Gb, strangely enough.
Cost of plan: 349THB (excludes 7% VAT – this caught me out!)
Valid for: 30 days
The 7/11 I went to massively ripped me off for the SIM card. There are 2 options for tourist SIM cards, the 49 baht one has 15 baht of calls and 100Mb 3G for 7 days, and the 299 one has 100 baht of calls and 1.5Gb of data for 7 days. The 299 one does not seem worth it to me, but this is all the 7/11 said they had at the time. It was only when I got back to the hotel that I realised they had sold me the 49 baht one for 299 baht. And I didn’t have the receipt. So watch out!
Nothing needed to be done to activate the SIM, everything came through as soon as I put it in. Once topped up, I just dialled *104*254*9# and quickly got a confirmation. Most messages were in English but some were in Thai – Google translate soon solves that problem though.
Topping up can be done at any of the 6 million 7/11’s in Thailand. Signal was very good everywhere I went.
Network Used: Cellcard
Cost of SIM card: $3 (should be $2 from a network owned shop)
Data plan chosen: INET 3 (Text INET3 to 6767)
Included data: 3.5GB (yes, this is a lot!)
Cost of plan: $5
Valid for: 1 month
You are supposed to need to show your passport to purchase a SIM card in Cambodia, however the shop I used (a money changer/jewellery/phone shop in Siem Reap) didn’t ask for any ID.
This is the only time so far where I had to set the APN (On the iPhone it is in Settings>Cellular>Cellular Data Network). The APN name was just cellcard and username and password left blank.
Topping up can be done at most stores. Small cardboard slips with a scratch off number can be purchased with the smallest being $1.
The 3g signal is fine in towns but drops quite quickly to EDGE. However the EDGE connection was still usable for light browsing, unlike some countries where it is useless. I used it all over rural Cambodia on buses, right up to the Laos border.
Network Used: Unitel
Cost of SIM: 10,000 kip (72p) including 5,000 kip credit
Data plan chosen: MI40
Included data: 1Gb
Cost of plan: 40,000 kip
Valid for: 1 month
I believe you are supposed to register the SIM card with your name and passport number by sending a text but I haven’t done this and so far, 3G is working fine. Perhaps the registration is required for calls.
Package is activated by dialling *40# then press call.
Coverage was fairly good though did drop to EDGE quite regularly.
We didn’t actually get a SIM in Myanmar since we were staying for just 2 weeks, but we easily could have. Over the last few months, Ooredoo have started operating in the country, finally bringing phone and data access down to comparable levels for the rest of the region.
You can buy SIM cards absolutely everywhere, for little over $1. A month of 3G data (1GB) is 12,000 kyat (around $12). I can’t comment on speed or coverage but I would imagine it is decent in the main tourist areas and will likely keep improving.
After experiencing the internet speed in Myanmar I do wish we had bought a SIM purely for alternative internet access!
Network Used:Maxis Hotlink
Cost of SIM: 39MYR inc 1GB data and 10MYR of credit
Data Plan Chosen: 1GB
Included Data: 1GB but unlimited data at 128Kbps after this is used
Valid For: 1 Month
This was incredibly easy as I walked into a Hotlink shop in the airport and asked for a SIM, 5 minutes later it had been installed in my phone and activated, ready to go.
Coverage in Kuala Lumpur is good. Outside it is hit and miss. Usually it is fine in large urban areas – Penang & Melacca for instance, but often the 3G signal has been non existent. A lot of time it drops back to GPRS, which is more or less unusable. Malaysia without a doubt, in my experience, has the worst data coverage so far, which really surprised me.
Network Used: Telkomcel (SimPati is the pre pay service)
Cost of SIM: 7000 IDR including 3000 IDR credit
Data Plan Chosen: SocialMax
Included Data: 2GB (I think!)
Cost: 75,000 IDR (£3.84)
Valid For: 30 days
This probably involved the most hassle out of all the countries so far. The hardest part was actually buying a SIM card! For hours I walked into 7/11’s and various Indonesian convenience stores only to be told they didn’t have any cards. It was confusing, it seemed to be impossible to buy one. I eventually got one from a street vendor on the pedestrian bridge by Harmoni busway!
However there were phone shops at Jakarta airport which I really should have used – do this and save yourself the hassle!
My SIM was a large sized one but I easily cut it down to a micro size for my iPhone 4.
The SIM needs to be registered before it can be used but when inserted into my iPhone I simply got the message ‘Fixed Number Dialling Active’ and nothing else. From Googling it seems this is a problem iPhones have with the registration system they use – so I put the SIM in Katy’s old Nokia and the registration began correctly. You are prompted to enter your name, address, passport number and DOB. A few minutes after completing this the SIM will be active and can be put back into the iPhone.
The next step is to text ‘3g’ to 3636 to switch on 3G.
After topping up, I added the SocialMac package. Dial *999# to see a menu. Choose option 1, SocialMax. On the next screen choose option 1 again – Bulanan (monthly). On the next one choose option 2 – Aktifkan paket (activate packet), than at the next one Beli (buy). I think there is one more confirmation menu where you need to pick ‘Beli’ again and finally it is done and you’ll receive a few texts to confirm.
At this point it still wasn’t working but it turned out the APN needed to be set – simply to ‘internet’ with no username and password.