Mobile Connection

Buying and Using a SIM Card in India

Using the international roaming services of your service provider can work out quite expensive. A cheaper option would be to buy a prepaid SIM in India.

By planning ahead of your arrival into India, you can come armed with the right type of mobile device and the necessary documentation that will help you easily get a prepaid SIM card.

Phone specifications

In most western countries, mobile phones are locked to the frequency of a single mobile services provider. If you have a dual, tri band or quad band phone that works on 900 MHz or 1800 MHz, all you need to do is get it unlocked, so that it will work in India.

It’s useful to have a dual SIM phone, as then, all you have to do is insert the new prepaid Indian SIM into the additional slot. Most service providers in India don’t offer micro SIM cards, so if your phone comes with only that option, it might be better to get another unlocked phone with the regular SIM.

If you are going to use a mobile phone in India only for voice calls and messaging, without accessing the Internet, then buying a phone in India is another option as a range of affordable GSM phones is available (prices starting from $30). However, make sure that you buy it from the mobile phone services company or an authorized seller. Avoid buying a phone from a street hawker (irrespective of how cheap it is) as it could be stolen property. In addition, it would have no warranty in case it stops working after a day or two.


With the Government of India tightening regulations on the sale of prepaid SIM cards to foreigners, you need to be prepared to submit the following documents to the vendor along with an application form.

  • 2 color passport photographs of yourself
  • A photocopy of the personal details page of your passport. You will also have to produce your passport for verification, after which it will be returned to you.
  • A photocopy of your Indian visa. Once again, you will have to show the original visa for verification.
  • A photocopy of the proof of your home address in your country of residence. This could be your passport, driver’s license or any other Government issued document. Remember to carry the original document along for verification.
  • Proof of where you will be staying in India. A letter from your hotel confirming that you are a guest will suffice.

Where to buy a SIM card

On arrival 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. The procedure for activation is similar with both options.

If you have the required documentation handy, all you have to do is fill up a form and submit it to the vendor. Once the documents are verified, you can purchase the SIM immediately (approximate costs Rs.550 or $10) 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.

Which service provider to use?

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.

How much will it cost?

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. A better option would be to access the Internet from an internet café or use the Wi-Fi in the coffee shops in the bigger cities.

How to call another phone?

Depending on the place to which you are calling, you might have to prefix a country code or area code when you dial from your cell phone.

  • For international calls dial country code + area code + phone number
  • Call to local fixed phone in India ‘City/area code’ followed by the number. For example, for dialing a phone with the number 25247291 in Delhi, dial ‘011’25247291
  • Call to local mobile Dial the 10-digit mobile number without prefixing ‘0’
  • Call to mobile in other state/service circle Dial ‘0’ followed by the 10-digit mobile number
    Tip: While calling other cell phones in India, prefixing ‘+91’ followed by the 10-digit mobile number is an easy option if you are unsure whether or not you need to prefix ‘0’.

Where to recharge or top up your SIM

If you run out of credit on your phone, you might continue to receive incoming calls, but will not be able to make calls or send messages. You can recharge the SIM from a kiosk of the service provider at any location in India.

Buying and using a SIM in India is easy, if you get past the bureaucracy of submitting the right documentation. If, by chance, you encounter any service-related problems with your SIM card or the mobile services, a visit to the kiosk or store of the service provider will help resolve the issue in no time.

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