Sri Lanka is known for its stunning nature. The amount of terrific sceneries throughout Sri Lanka is off the charts. If you are looking for impressive Instagram worthy shots, Sri Lanka is the place to be.
But you need a way to upload those cool photos and videos to social media. You would be better off getting a Sri Lankan SIM card instead of roaming with your provider in Sri Lanka because roaming can be expensive in many cases.
Moreover, mobile data rates are low in Sri Lanka compared to (South) Asian standards and the world's average.
With that said, you are interested in buying a SIM card in Sri Lanka and want to know what provider is the best. I had the same question, so I went to Colombo, Sri Lanka, and bought all Sri Lankan SIM cards, including Airtel Sri Lanka, besides Dialog, Mobitel, and Hutch, and tested them.
Let's see how my experience with Airtel Sri Lanka was, and how your experience could be when visiting Sri Lanka. Let's do this.
Original publication: 7th of May 2020. Last updated: 15th of January 2024.
Telecom Providers in Sri Lanka
Before I talk about Airtel Sri Lanka, I need to inform you about your options in Sri Lanka. If you have read my Buying a SIM Card in Sri Lanka Guide, then you know what Sri Lanka has 4 Telecom Providers: Dialog, Mobitel, Hutch, and Airtel Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has no Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs), which makes it easy to select a SIM card for your adventure in the country.
Airtel Sri Lanka, officially known as Airtel Lanka, but I will just say Airtel from now on, is the smallest operator in terms of subscribers. In some cases, being the smallest means you have the fastest network because it is not as crowded as the other players in the market. Additionally, the smallest operator is often also the cheapest and offers unique perks. At the same time, the smallest often has the worst coverage too
In the case of Airtel, they do have the worst coverage, do not have a 4G/LTE network, although they are planning on rolling out 4G/LTE in May 2020, and have slow speeds, even for 3G/3.75G standards. They are, however, the cheapest Sri Lankan operator.
Airtel primarily targets the Sri Lankan youth, which is probably done by being so cheap.
Although Airtel is starting with a few drawbacks, is Airtel any good, or should you avoid them at all costs? You will find out after reading this review.
How do I Buy an Airtel Prepaid SIM Card?
You can buy an Airtel SIM card in Airtel Stores, Brand Shops, something called Sewa Centers, and SIM Selling Outlets throughout Sri Lanka. You can also buy your Airtel SIM Card at Colombo Airport (Bandaranayake International Airport).
Normally, operators sell SIM cards at an inflated price at airports, or they only sell something called tourist SIM cards, which are still inflated compared to regular SIM cards. It is not often that I buy a SIM card at the airport, but I decided to do it with Airtel anyway.
Why? Because the airport prices were only slightly inflated compared to regular prices. Compared to all the other booths at the airport, the ones of Dialog, Mobitel, and Hutch, the packages Airtel offered were the best. Also, I knew my drive from the airport to my Airbnb would take about an hour, and I did not feel like being bored while in transit.
At the airport, Airtel offers 5 packages.
I decided to go for the 600 LKR plan that came with 2.9 GB and an undisclosed amount of airtime. 2.9 GB of data was more than enough for me because I would be testing Dialog, Mobitel, and Hutch as well. I knew Airtel would not be my primary SIM card because of their limited coverage and lack of 4G/LTE.
Once I decided which package I wanted, I had to fill in a form, and they took a scan of my passport. The whole process took about 10 minutes to finalize because the salesperson was dealing with multiple customers at the time, which was quite impressive.
The package you buy at the airport is not an official Airtel bundle. Instead, the salesperson purchases multiple packages to get to the data allowance you paid for. Unfortunately, I did not take a screenshot of what exactly the salesperson did before I reset my phone, but they were multiple. So it was interesting to see how the salesperson was dealing with multiple phones at a time to buy several packages.
While writing this review, I realized I took a photo of this deal.
It cost 600 LKR as well and comes with 20 GB instead of 2.9 GB. I do not recall why I did not choose that deal instead. Maybe because I took a photo of that deal, checked the offers of all the other operators, and then went back to Airtel because they had the best deals and forgot about the Tourist SIM deal. Or I was simply too tired from traveling for more than 16 hours. Who knows? :)
Do note that, officially, the tourist SIM has different rates than the one advertised that day. The following rates apply:
- Calls: 1.50 LKR/min (all networks)
- Data: 0.01 LKR/10 KB (or 1 LKR/MB and 1024 LKR/GB)
- SMS: 0.20 LKR/SMS
Those are not the most favorable rates out there, and they are still subject to government taxes, which is 12.24%.
Once the salesperson has processed your personal information and activated your bundle(s), they will give you your phone back, and you will get an SMS looking like this.
Additionally, you get your SIM card holder. It did not come in a cool package, unfortunately, but your SIM card will look like this.
How do I Activate my Airtel SIM Card?
An Airtel representative will activate your SIM card upon purchase and registration when buying your SIM card at the airport. This also applies to when purchasing a SIM card in official Airtel stores. Just remember to bring your passport with you if you decide to buy a SIM card in town.
How and Where Can I Top Up my Airtel SIM Card?
Airtel top-up cards are sold in many stores throughout Sri Lanka. In fact, there should be, on average, two stores per street selling Airtel recharge vouchers. Just look for the Airtel logo on the storefront.
I did not recharge my phone after buying my SIM card. However, I believe that the recharge procedure is that you tell the shop assistant how much you would like to reload, they will ask for the amount in LKR and your phone number. Then they will use the Airtel system to reload your phone.
Initially, I believed there was no Airtel Sri Lanka app because where I searched for Airtel or Airtel Sri Lanka on the Play Store, I only got results from Airtel India and Airtel in African nations. Apparently, the app is region-locked, which is why I was not able to find it.
You can also reload your SIM card online. First, head to the Airtel Recharge & Payments page and enter your phone number.
Here, select your reload amount of any of the featured packs.
Confirm that your reload amount of correct and press Pay Now.
Enter your payment information and press Submit.
You have successfully reloaded your Airtel SIM card online!
What Prepaid Packages does Airtel Offer, and How do I Activate One?
Unlike the other Sri Lankan operators, Airtel does not offer that many data packs. You have 3 combo, called Special Packs, 2 Downloader Range Packs, and 4 Anytime Packs.
The following 3 Airtel Special Packs can be purchased:
|49 LRK credit for calls
|reload 49 LKR
|Unlimited on-net calls
|dial *98# or reload 98 LKR
|350 MB or 700 MB*
|99 LKR credit for calls
|dial *99#, test D99 to 155, or reload 99 LKR
* If you purchase this Social Pack on the My Airtel app, then you get 700 MB. If not, you will only get 350 MB.
The standard outgoing call rate is 1.5 LKR/min and 0.03/sec. I assume that you will pay 1.5 LKR for the first minute, then 0.03 LRK per second, but I am not sure about that. Do note that these rates are subject to government taxes and levies, which is 12.24%.
There are 2 Downloader Range plans available. These plans consist of daytime data (7 AM – 1 AM), nighttime data (1 AM – 7 AM), and one plan comes with App Bonus with 8% tax benefit. The App Bonus data can be claimed through the My Airtel app. The other plan comes with bonus data because of the tax revision.
The following 2 Airtel Downloader Range plans are available:
|1011 MB (330 MB daytime, 475 MB nighttime, and 206 MB App bonus)
|dial *59#, text D59 to 59, or reload 59 LKR
|1.78 GB (660 MB daytime, 1.09 GB nighttime, and 53 MB bonus for tax revision)
|dial *119#, text D199 to 155, or reload 119 LKR
The following 4 Airtel Anytime Packs are available, which does not have dedicated daytime and nighttime data:
|1 GB and 332 MB App Bonus
|reload 118 LKR
|1.5 GB and 623 MB App Bonus
|dial *179# or reload 179 LKR
|5 GB and 1946 MB App Bonus
|reload 479 LKR
|12 GB and 983 MB additional bonus for tax revision
|reload 999 LKR
What about the airport plans? You have the following 5 Airtel airport/tourist plans:
|600 LKR ($3.50)
|2.9 GB anytime
|900 LKR ($5)
|10 GB (5.4 GB anytime and 4.8 GB nighttime)
|1500 LKR ($8.50)
|17.2 GB (12.4 GB anytime and 4.8 GB nighttime)
|2000 LKR ($11)
|30 GB anytime
|3500 LKR ($20)
|60 GB anytime
These plans also come with a local calling balance, but it is unknown how much airtime you get.
If you have US Dollars in cash, then you can pay in USD. I bought my Airtel SIM card with my Transferwise debit card and was charged in LKR.
What Speeds Will I Get with Airtel in Sri Lanka?
I did 4 speed tests when I was in Sri Lanka: 3 in Colombo itself and in an area near Colombo called Labugama, where I was enjoying a secret waterfall. In Colombo, I did a speed test at my Airbnb (Colombo 5), at a Bubble Tea place called Bubble Me Bubble Tea (Colombo 5), and Colombo International Airport.
However, my speed test in Labugama did not succeed. I had no coverage there, which was quite interesting, as I had coverage with all the other Sri Lankan operators and could do the speed test with them. In fact, I got the fastest speed with Dialog at that waterfall, which surprised me.
As a result, I have only 3 speed test results to show you, which were all in Colombo.
Remember, Airtel does not have a 4G/LTE network yet (coming in May 2020), so all these results are 3G speeds. This is important to remember if you want to compare Airtel’s speeds with Dialog, Mobitel, and Hutch.
These are not impressive results – at all. None of the results went over 20 Mbps, which I was actually expecting with Airtel. Airtel uses UMTS (3G), HSPA (3.5G), HSPA+ (3.5G), and DC-HSPA+ (3.75G) for their 3G network. It is not too relevant to know what they all mean, but 3G HSPA+ should allow for download speeds up to 42 Mbps download, whereas regular 3G should allow for speeds up to 7.2 Mbps download.
The Airtel coverage map does not mention the different technologies they use in a particular area, but I was hoping for faster speeds.
Moreover, the network switched to 2G more often that I would have liked, even though Airtel claims that all of Colombo city is covered by their 3G network. Let’s not even mention the disappointing upload speeds.
Even then, the speeds are good enough for simple web browsing. Streaming videos om HD speeds may result in buffering time to time, though.
Do I Recommend Airtel to Travelers Visiting Sri Lanka?
I would, to some extent, recommend Airtel to those visiting Sri Lanka. If you are planning on staying in big cities and not going to rural Sri Lanka nor visiting mountains or the beautiful Sri Lankan landscape, then Airtel can be the cheapest option out there. Even their airport plans are attractive for the perks you get for the money spend.
However, Airtel’s coverage is the worst in Sri Lanka, so are their speeds. As they had no 4G/LTE network at the time of writing this review, you will have to endure 3G speeds, which are, as shown in the speed section, quite slow.
Even when 4G/LTE gets launched in May 2020, it will most likely first start in Colombo and slowly get expended to the rest of Sri Lanka.
Dialog launched 4G/LTE in April 2013 and still does not have 4G/LTE all over Sri Lanka. Then again, a large part of Sri Lanka consists of forests and mountains, so I do not expect any Sri Lankan operator to cover all of Sri Lanka. Dialog does not mention how much of the population is covered with 4G/LTE, but it is probably the highest of al Sri Lankan operators. It will take a while Airtel will get to that level.
I was also disappointed with the lack of coverage in Labugama with Airtel, especially knowing all the other operators did well there. However, I was aware that Airtel’s coverage would be limited, so I did not have high expectations, especially when using Airtel from the airport to Colombo city – speeds were slow, and the network dropped to 2G often.
The thing I like about Airtel is that getting a SIM card is easy and straightforward. Their airport plans are competitive, especially compared to the other operators.
One thing that I dislike of the Sri Lankan operators is that they have anytime data, 4G/LTE data, daytime data, and nighttime data allowances. A plan may be advertised as 5 GB, but often a large chunk of that allowance can only be used at night.
Airtel, however, only has 2 plans, the Downloader Range, that come with more nighttime data than daytime data. Some of the airport plans come with anytime data, that can be used whenever you want, and those allowances are larger than the nighttime allowances. The Airtel Anytime Packs do not come with annoyance, which is a good thing.
Some bonuses are locked behind the My Airtel app. If you have an Android phone, you could download the APK somewhere, but be aware that the APK can be malicious. If you are in need of the app and do not want to change your Play Store region to Sri Lanka, make sure to get the APK from a reliable source.
In summary, Airtel’s coverage could, and should, be much better to attract travelers who are not staying in the cities or those living in rural places. Speeds often dropping to 2G is not fun, even when in Colombo. Airtel’s speeds are slow. Airtel is, however, cheap and can be good enough for those who are staying in cities.
Airtel does not have many data plans, compared to the other operators, which can be a good or bad thing depending on whether you like a lot of choices or not. The majority of these plans come with anytime data, and the plans that do come with separate allocations often come with more anytime or daytime data than nighttime data, which is appreciated when compared to other Sri Lankan operators.
As a result, I believe that a rating of 3.5 stars out of 5 is deserved. Airtel can be an excellent budget option for some travelers. Still, those who plan on going on adventurous journeys should avoid Airtel.