When traveling to Central and South Asia, you want to stay connected with your family and friends to tell them all about the beautiful countries you are visiting. You could also be on a business trip and need to report back to headquarters. Whatever the reason for your trip, knowing which SIM card to buy is essential, so here are the best SIM cards for Central & South Asia.
The best SIM card really depends on which country you are visiting in Central and South Asia, whether you need data, and how much coverage you need. Each destination has its own brands of SIM cards, with some overlapping from region to region, as well as various regulations for visitors who need to buy a SIM.
In this article, I am going to touch on 12 countries in the region and what the best SIM card options are in each. The countries that will be discussed are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in alphabetical order. I will look at coverage and data, where to buy the cards, as well as different laws and regulations that may make it difficult for tourists and travelers to purchase SIMs. Read on to find out the specific SIM you should buy in the country you are visiting.
A Quick Introduction to SIM Cards in Central and South Asia
Before I go into the specific countries and the SIMs you should look into, let’s do a quick background on what SIM cards are. This may be helpful to anyone who finds technology a bit challenging.
What is a SIM Card?
SIM cards, or Subscriber Identity Module cards, are tiny chips that vary in size, depending on the phone you have. They are placed either inside your phone in a small cut-out on the side or behind your battery pack.
As the name may suggest, it is pretty much an ID for your phone. The tiny chip identifies your specific card in the worldwide network and allows you to make calls or purchase and use data.
When you purchase a new SIM card, it is a whole new identity subscription for your phone, which might give you some insight into why a few of these countries on the list have some strict laws regarding purchasing SIMs.
How to Use SIM Cards in Central and South Asia
When it comes to purchasing a SIM card, you want to look for a few things before committing to a brand or card:
- Price: one of the most important aspects of any purchase. Most local and international SIMs are very affordable, but there can be hidden or added fees once you start using them, so make sure you look for those.
- Coverage: depending on where you are traveling, some areas and regions will have better coverage than others. You likely will not get good coverage in the mountains or on certain islands, so you want to ask your provider where the coverage is most optimal and make sure you get a card that handles your region well.
- Data: data is essential, especially since you can make calls on WhatsApp, Viber, or Messenger, so you might not even need a coverage plan as long as you have a reliable data plan. Data is also relevant for travelers because you might need to find a restaurant or get back to your friends or hotel.
- Size: this may not seem like something you would necessarily have to consider, but some countries sell SIMs based on a specific size, and each phone differs. Generally, the newer phones require smaller SIM cards with sizes ranging from standard to nano and micro. Usually, the card will allow you to click out the size you need, but that is not possible with all of them. Be sure to know the SIM card size of your device so that you do not buy one that does not fit.
Make sure you have an unlocked phone. Your phone is either sold fixed to a particular SIM provider of a specific country or unlocked, allowing you to purchase any SIM card you like. Unlocked phones are slightly more expensive, but if you travel a lot, it is well worth the money. I would rather pay a bit more upfront and not get confronted with a massive phone and roaming bill when I get home from a well-deserved vacation.
After you purchase the SIM card, place it in your phone in the store or airport near the salesperson just so you can make sure it works. If it does not work, just ask the salesperson to help you unlock it, this is something they should do anyway. Most of the time you will get a confirmation text.
As a general note, take your passport with you when you go out to purchase a SIM. I always leave my passport in a secure spot at the place I am staying in because I do not want it stolen. Still, many countries require photo ID when purchasing a SIM card. Tip: take a photo of your passport (the page with your details on it and the page with the visa label or stamp if you got one) in case it gets stolen (hopefully not). It is much easier to confirm your identity with it than without it.
Benefits of Purchasing a Local SIM
One last thing before I get into the countries and the specific SIMs you should look into.
I understand if you want to get lost in a foreign country and just forget about work, but you should still get a local SIM card.
First of all, you need a SIM card in general just so you can quickly communicate with someone, whether it is for an emergency or to tell your mom about a great piece of local cake you just had.
Plus, you want data because it lets you stay connected with everyone, and free WIFI is not available everywhere. Sometimes your hotel will not even have WIFI or it may be so slow that it is useless.
More importantly, local SIMs are almost always much cheaper than using your SIM and roaming. You could probably get away with a day or two, but for longer trips around a week or month-long, you definitely need to get a local SIM.
No idea how roaming works? I made this comprehensive guide about what roaming is and how it works. It is worth the read – promised!
Luckily there are many options to chose from, and each company has a long list of packages and deals you can choose from. That being said, let’s get into it!
What Are The Best SIM Cards for Central & South Asia?
If you are lucky enough to be visiting any of the countries on this list, you are in for a world of surprise. Many of the countries in Central and South Asia are undiscovered treasures of the world. Unlike most European countries, these are not top tourist destinations, so you will get a unique glimpse into the lives of locals.
These countries may be grouped together in popular culture, but they could not be more different. Some were in the Soviet Union, others have white sandy beaches, and all of them are beautiful!
Step into this diverse and colorful cultural hub of the world.
As a reminder, the 12 countries we are going to look into are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Looking for SIM card buying guides for other Asian countries? Worry not, I probably have covered them already in other articles.
Trust me when I say you are going to want to call back home or post on social about the decadent dishes you had in India, your hiking trip in the mountains of Kazakhstan, or your visit to the beaches of Maldives. Let’s get started.
Afghanistan SIM Cards
In the last two decades, Afghanistan has gotten a bad reputation because of the ongoing conflict, political unrest, and other local challenges. However, Afghanistan should still be a top destination for travelers in Central and South Asia. The country is home to a diverse landscape with lakes, rivers, valleys, and mountains perfect for the more active travelers. Here are the top SIM cards in Afghanistan.
Despite the dark notions you may have about the nation, the local mobile market is flourishing, in part due to the lack of fixed-lines.
MTN and Roshan are the biggest mobile operators in Afghanistan and are very reliable. Prices used to be extremely high mostly because of the conflict, but they have since dropped dramatically, and this goes for most of the providers.
Afghan Wireless and Etisalat are the mid-sized companies that also provide solid SIMs. For the most part, you can get a good 3G data plan, but 4G/LTE rolled out in 2017, and the entire country is not covered, especially the more rural areas.
It is super easy to buy SIM cards at stores or outlets, just have your passport with you. As an important note, make sure you are buying directly from the supplier because there is a large black market for illegal SIM cards and a lot of bogus sellers.
Bangladesh SIM Cards
- Grameenphone – largest
- Robi-Airtel – merger
- Teletalk – state-owned and smallest operator
Robi-Airtel is a merger that will solidify the company as the second-largest mobile operator in Bangladesh. They have been aggressively attacking growth and expansion into more quality coverage. Until the merger is complete, however, Banglalink remains the second-largest provider. Unfortunately, their SIMs do not come with data so you will have to purchase a separate package
I would go with Grameenphone, which is the largest operator in the country and has the best coverage overall. They also launched 4G/LTE in 2017, which has quickly gained a large subscription base, perfect for any traveler.
Teletalk is a state-owned provider with the worst reputation. It is unreliable and has a bad reputation. Needless to say, not recommended for travelers.
Again, you can find SIM’s at their individual retail stores.
Bhutan SIM Cards
Bhutan is out of this world, no seriously! The nation is a Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas with beautiful monasteries, including the famous Tiger’s Nest, built right into the mountains. I did a report on Bhutan in middle school and trusted me when I tell you, this place is unbelievable. Here are the top SIM cards in Bhutan.
- B-Mobile – state-owned
- TashiCell – much cheaper
B-Mobile is a state-owned provider and the largest operator. It has reliable coverage across the country and a good data plan. Unfortunately, 3G and 4G/LTE are only available in select cities, including Thimphu, Punakha, Wangdue, Paro, and Phuentsholing.
You can get a “Tourist” or prepaid SIM card, which both include the same amount of credit, but the prepaid has a much more comprehensive data plan. Do not go with the tourist plan if you are going to stay in Bhutan for more than a month. I recommend going with this mobile operator.
TashiCell is a privately-owned company, but it has a smaller coverage area and slower data. Although 4G/LTE is only available in the cities of Phuntsholing, Thimphu, Paro, Wangdue, and Punakha, TashiCell comes at a more competitive price.
They also have excellent customer service and allow you to transfer your balance from one plan to the other for an upgrade.
India SIM Cards
India has one of the most diverse cultures in the world. It has long-established traditions and is a colorful nation with a fascinating history, delicious cuisine, and wonderful people. Here are the top SIM cards in India.
- Vodafone Idea – the largest provider
- Airtel – great for rural India
Prices in India are generally cheap, which goes for most of the countries on this list. Compared to Canada and some European countries, you are getting a great deal. For the most part, when you are visiting India, go with a Vodafone SIM card.
This is the leading mobile operator in the country. It is a union of Vodafone India and Idea Cellular with almost 400 million active subscribers! This provider has the best internet speed in the country with 4G/LTE. It also has excellent coverage in urban and rural areas. Still, coverage may be spotty and remote areas. There are different plans to choose from, with prices ranging from $7 to $9.
Jio is similar to Vodafone, but the quality is slightly compromised, but you can find cheaper options. If you are going to be in rural areas, then you might want to go with Airtel. They have excellent customer service and a robust data plan, it can be a bit pricey, but you always stay connected in the remote regions.
It really depends on the type of trip you are going on, how long you are going to stay, and what you are willing to spend on a prepaid SIM card. You can find SIM cards almost everywhere. Just to be safe, I recommend only buying them at the airport or from individual retailers.
Kazakhstan SIM Cards
Kazakhstan is a former Soviet republic, but that should not stop you from visiting – that would be silly. This is a culturally rich country with a proud group of people. Kazakhstan is an oil-rich nation making it the largest economy in Central Asia. Here are the top SIM cards in Kazakhstan.
- Kcell – the largest operator
- Beeline Kazakhstan – International brand
- Tele2 Kazakhstan – fast internet
- Altel – worst option
I almost sound like a broken record player, but the truth is, the largest mobile operators are almost always more reliable. They are pricey but safe. Kcell and Beeline are the two largest providers and the ones I would go to within Kazakhstan. Both have high-speed data and comprehensive coverage.
Like most countries on the list, you need to show your passport, and while you can purchase a SIM card from anywhere, you still need to get it properly set up at an official Beeline or Kcell store.
Tele2 is also an acceptable option with relatively stable data services, but coverage can be spotty and annoying at times especially if you travel to more remote locations. The worst on the list is Altel. It is the smallest operator in the country and has slow internet and lousy coverage unless you stay in the main cities and towns, good luck!
Kyrgyzstan SIM Cards
I have trouble pronouncing this one, but Kyrgyzstan is still a great country you should visit. It is a mountainous country with beautiful lakes rivers and a unique cultural tradition. Here are the top SIM cards in Kyrgyzstan.
- Beeline Kyrgyzstan – a reliable international brand
- MegaCom Kyrgyzstan – the best coverage in cities
- O! – by Nur Telecom
Kyrgyzstan is also a former Soviet republic, so it also has the Russian operator Beeline, like Kazakhstan. Beeline and MegaCom have almost the same amount of market share and are both great and reliable providers. MegaCom is owned by JSC Alpha Telecom and has superb data coverage, especially in cities and towns, not so much in remote areas.
Both have several plans to choose from.
Before you ask, yes, that is the operator’s name. O! is the smallest provider of the three. It offers some solid plans so you should go with which one makes more sense to you from a price-point, but if it were up to me, I would go with the large reliable companies.
Maldives SIM Cards
Ah yes… The Maldives. Located in the Arabian Ocean near India and Sri Lanka, this small island is in one word – heaven. Crystal clear water, white sandy beaches, tropical weather… what could be better? Here are the top SIM cards in the Maldives.
- Ooredoo Maldives
The islands are mostly resort-based and for the more luxury traveler. I recommend you get a SIM card from the capital city Male just because you do not know the next time you will be near a seller.
Both SIM options are the same price, go figure, and offer pretty much the same benefits. As far as I can tell, for a more extended trip, around 30 days, go with Ooredoo. Otherwise, Dhiraagu works just as well. Data has gotten cheaper on the islands in recent years, but make sure you track how much you are using daily.
I would avoid buying a card ta the airport. It is going to be extremely pricey. Stick to official stores at Male or Hulhumale.
Nepal SIM Cards
Nepal is an incredibly mountainous country located between India and Tibet. Nepal is known for its magnificent temples and the towering Himalayan mountains, in fact, extreme travelers who want to conquer Everest can do so in Nepal. The locals are kind and peaceful people with a rich and relatively diverse culture and religion. Here are the top SIM cards in Nepal.
- Ncell – great choice if you do not go into the mountains
- Namaste – also knows as Nepal Telecom/NTC
Nepal is a small country and recently reached a million yearly tourists, something the country has been trying to achieve since 2011. It has two leading mobile operators, so let’s look at each.
Namaste is a great provider, specifically for the mountains. While there is more to see in Nepal than its magnificent mountain range, if you do go up there, you should probably go with a Namaste SIM card. You can refill the SIM at their store or by downloading their App. The SIM plans are reasonably cheap, but it appears you can only buy data on a day to day basis.
Ncell is definitely the way to go as long as you do not plan on climbing the Himalayas. It is a reliable SIM with great coverage and reliable data. The card should only cost around $15, anything more than that and you are in the wrong place.
Ncell is excellent, especially if you are going to be moving around the country a lot, but after a few days in the mountains, you are going to lose coverage.
Either card can be purchased around the nearest tourist locations. For some reason, Namaste is harder to find because they go by NTC or Nepal Telecom instead.
Pakistan SIM Cards
Pakistan and India are not exactly friends, but I like to think that travelers welcome differences in people and cultures. Pakistan is a beautiful country known for its towering and impressive mountain range. It is a predominantly Muslim country that offers a different experience for many others on this list.
Here are the top SIM cards in Pakistan:
- Zong – owned by China’s Mobile Pakistan
- Jazz – used to be Mobilink
- Telenor Pakistan – limited to cities
- Ufone – smallest provider
Unfortunately, Pakistan is a bit problematic when it comes to data coverage. It only recently started gaining 4G subscribers, and the 3G is lagging.
The first three will provide fairly adequate cell coverage with Zong having the largest market share. Jazz is better for data and has solid 4G coverage. If you are going with Telenor, make sure your specific city is covered, and you do not leave the region because most rural areas are not supported by the SIM.
Ufone is the smallest of the group, and it does not have 4G coverage.
For the most part, Pakistan’s SIM’s are not as developed as other countries, especially when you compare them to the developed world, but going with a Telenor or Jazz SIM is overall the best option. You want to stick with the large companies owned by other parent brands just to be safe, sure it is a bit more pricy, but at least you know you are covered for the most part.
You can get a SIM from the airport or at one of the retail locations of the individual operators. Just have your passport with you.
Sri Lanka SIM Cards
Sri Lanka is proof that the Central and South Asian region could not host more different nations. This small island near India is a bio-diverse and beautiful area covered in lush forestry and surrounded by an incredible coast. Here are the top SIM cards in Sri Lanka.
For the most part, I recommend getting a SIM card from Dialog or Mobitel. These are the two main players in the market and provide the best coverage by far. You can choose between the two based on price alone. As a word of caution, whatever provider you get, it is going to be spotty in the thick jungle or on top of mountains, so do not expect much, other than that these two are the best.
The other providers are ok, but they can be pricey, problematic, and only work in certain regions. My recommended mobile operators have great 30-day traveler packages for prepaid SIMs that average out at around $5.
You will have to reload your SIM card after you use the initial amount. No worries, this part is kind of fun. You can get scratch cards at “Communication Centers.” Just follow the instruction scratch off where the code is and reload your SIM. You can also get a salesperson to help.
Tajikistan SIM Cards
- Babilon Mobile
- MegaFon Tajikistan
For a long time, visitors could only get hold of SIM cards illegally. Recently this has changed, and more and more tourists can purchase SIMs legally. Tajikistan has one of the strictest rules and regulations for the purchase of cards. You cannot really blame them because up until 2016, around 70% of the population had purchased SIMs without the proper papers or identification.
I will not go into the policies or what the government is doing. All I can say is that if you go to Tajikistan, have a guide that can help you get a SIM card. Some laws prohibit you from getting more than one SIM from the same provider, and there are also frequent Internet bans so be respectful and do your research before you go.
In any case, I would go with Tcell as its the largest provider and has great 4G/LTE coverage in most of the major cities, including Dushanbe and Ghafurov, Chkalovsk, Khujand and Kayrakkum, even the Russian MegFon does not get to all of these cities.
Of course, in remote or rural areas, you are pretty much on your own.
Turkmenistan SIM Cards
Turkmenistan is a difficult country for getting a tourist visa. If you manage to get one, then you can see a lot of Turkman history and beautiful nature.
If you hate choice, then you will love Turkmenistan. The country has only one telecom provider, TM Cell, that most people can use. There is also another provider, but they have a CMDA network, which is not compatible with most phones in the world.
TM Cell's 2G and 3G coverage is extensive throughout the country, while 4G/LTE is still being expended.
Unlike other countries where you can buy SIM cards from vendors, you can only buy a TM Cell SIM card from official TM Cell offices. Remember, bring your passport and proof of address (hotel) with you. TM Cell SIM cards are sold for 10 TMT ($2.80) and come with 5 TMT in credit. The following monthly data packs can be added:
- 3 TMT: 50 MB
- 55 TMT: 1 GB
- 160 TMT: 4 GB
- 350 TMT: 10 GB
Uzbekistan SIM Cards
Last but not least, Uzbekistan. The country is another former Soviet Republic with beautiful Islamic architecture decorating the entire country. Here are the top SIM cards in Uzbekistan:
- Ucell – owned by Swedish Telia Group
- Beeline Uzbekistan
To buy a SIM, you need to have a passport but also your hotel registration and booking. This is just an added security measure, not as extreme as Tajikistan, of course. There are a lot of sellers that look legitimate who are actually trying to sell you a SIM registered to someone else.
Ucell has the best coverage by far, but it is also the most expensive. As far as I am concerned, when you are in Central or South Asia, high-quality and costly is the way to go. The provider has reliable coverage and good data reach in the following cities Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Navoi, Zarafshan, and Jizzakh.
Rounding it up
There you have it! The best SIM cards for 12 countries in Central and South Asia. This is a region that the media does not often cover, and it is not tourist-heavy, but it a diverse region with both geographic and cultural gems. Just make sure you have a working cell with robust data so you can show and tell everyone about your trip!
If buying a local SIM card sounds like a hassle to you, then you could consider roaming with your provider, although that can be expensive, or you could buy an international SIM card. Either way, using a local SIM would be way more cost-effective than the other two options – just letting you know!
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