Buying a Prepaid SIM Card in India Guide

There is so much to say about India that it warrants its own post. It's the second-most populous nation in the world. It has a lot of culture and heritage that you would need a lifetime to explore all of it.

The Taj Mahal is probably the most visited tourist attraction in India. Let's not forget about the Amber Palace and Hawa Mahal. Dehli, Mumbai, and Goa are must-see destinations. In fact, a lot of places are considered to be must-see, but as I said before, you need a lot of time to explore all of India.

As India can be a chaotic country in terms of driving and streets, you want to be connected so that you can navigate around. Roaming with your provider can be expensive, which is why many travelers buy an Indian SIM card when exploring India. The nation has one of the lowest mobile usage rates in the world, which you should certainly take advantage of. In this article, I will go over everything you need to know about buying a SIM card in India. Let's do this.

Telecom Providers in India

India has 4 telecom providers: Vodafone Idea, Jio, Airtel, and BSNL. Vodafone Idea, Jio, and Airtel are the most reliable providers in India, which is why BSNL will not be discussed any further.

In the past, India has many telecom providers because it uses a telecom circle system. A telecom circle, or officially telecom service area, typically refers to a state or zone where a call is treated as a local call. When the call is destined to reach another zone than where the caller is, the call will be treated as a long-distance call.

Long story short, each circle had its own operators. Multiply this by 23, the number of telecom circles now, and you get many operators. I wrote an article about national roaming in India. Although most operators offer free national roaming now, some charges still apply, which is why you need to know how the Indian roaming system works. Also, enable data roaming if you are traveling through India.

In recent years, a lot of operators have consolidated, which is why there are only 4 operators left. All operators, except for Jio, run 2G, 3G, and 4G/LTE networks. Jio is a 4G/LTE-only network, while Airtel is planning on shutting down its 3G network in 2020.

What SIM card should you buy when visiting India? If you want to buy a SIM card in India, I would recommend going with Jio because they are simply the best. If you cannot get ahold of a Jio SIM card, get one from Vodafone Idea.

Like most countries in South Asia, you have to register yourself when purchasing a SIM card. However, in India, you have to bring:

  • A copy of the name page of your passport
  • A copy of your Indian visa
  • Proof of where you are staying in India (hotel reservation or letter from your ho(s)tel/Airbnb – contact details of your host)
  • Passport-sized photo

It can take up to a day before your SIM card will be activated. SIM cards for foreign visitors will stay active for only 90 days.

SIM cards at international airports are 5 to 10 times more expensive than those bought from town. However, the registration process will be much quicker. Be sure that the SIM card has not been activated before they are handed over to you. Apparently, some vendors resell old SIM cards to unsuspected travelers, which is illegal. Additionally, you do not know when the card will be deactivated because of the imposed limited of 3 months. If you can use your SIM card immediately after putting it in your phone, give the card back and ask for a new one.

With that out of the way, let’s see what India has to offer to us.

Tip: Looking for cheap flights? Book with AirWander and add stopovers! Not in a hurry yet? Set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog and get notified when ticket prices for your preferred route(s) drop!

Vodafone Idea

Vodafone Idea Logo

Vodafone India and Idea Cellular merged into one company, Vodafone Idea, in 2018. Because of the merger, Vodafone Idea has become the largest telecom provider in India with around 450 million customers and the second-largest operator in the world after China Mobile. For now, the Vodafone and Idea brands will still be present in India, but I expect it to merge into one in the foreseeable future.

Vodafone Idea has extensive 2G, 3G, and 4G/LTE networks. However, because so many people are using their network, the network can be congested at times, rendering it useless. Either way, Vodafone Idea has the best coverage throughout the country.

Vodafone India

Vodafone Logo

Vodafone India, just Vodafone, SIM cards should cost around 100 INR ($1.4) in official Vodafone stores. However, if you buy a SIM card from a vendor, they can charge much higher (or lower, depending on your negotiation skills). Recharge cards are sold from 105 INR to 1000 INR, but you can also recharge online.

Vodafone, just like any other Indian provider, sells various types of data packages – 20 of them. I will mention a handful of them, the most popular ones, below, but do note that there are many more. Data packs are sold from 21 INR, getting you unlimited data for an hour, to 799 INR, 4.5 GB per day for 28 days. Remember, the prices for the packs can differ from telecom circle to telecom circle. The prices below are from the most populated circles:

  • 27 INR: 500 MB for 28 days
  • 46 INR: 1 GB for 28 days
  • 92 INR: 6 GB for 7 days
  • 209 INR: 1.5 GB per day for 28 days *
  • 255 INR: 2 GB per day for 28 days *
  • 349 INR: 3 GB per day for 28 days *
  • 479 INR: 1.5 GB per day for 84 days *
  • 529 INR: 1.5 GB per day for 90 days *
  • 549 INR: 3.5 GB per day for 28 days *
  • 799 INR: 4.5 GB per day for 28 days *

The plans marked with a * come with unlimited minutes and 100 SMS per day.

Idea

Idea Logo

Idea SIM cards are sold for 11 INR in official Idea stores. Vendors may charge you more. The following popular data packs can be added, which are the same in every telecom circle:

  • 28 INR: 500 MB for 28 days
  • 45 INR: 1 GB for 28 days
  • 98 INR: 3 GB for 28 days
  • 179 INR: 1 GB per day for 28 days *
  • 249 INR: 2 GB per day for 28 days *
  • 349 INR: 3 GB per day for 28 days *
  • 499 INR: 2 GB per day for 82 days *
  • 529 INR: 1.5 GB per day for 90 days *
  • 549 INR: 3.5 GB per day for 28 days *
  • 799 INR: 4.5 GB per day for 28 days *

The plans marked with a * come with unlimited minutes and 100 SMS per day.

Reliance Jio

Jio Logo

Reliance Jio, simply known as Jio, has been a market disrupter since it started in India. They launched in December 2015 and managed to become the second-largest operator, with more than 350 million customers, because of their aggressive pricing strategy. Jio is a 4G/LTE-only network covering 95% of the population in all telecom circles.

Although Jio claims they have the fastest network, a study done by Open Signal showed that Jio’s speeds are slower than those of Airtel and Vodafone Idea. Because Jio grew so quickly in such a short time and has no fallback to 2G or 3G, network congestion frequently happens with the operator, which is where the complaints come from.

There is supposed to be a voice roaming agreement between Jio and BSNL, it has yet to be implemented in all telecom circles. Furthermore, this agreement is for voice only and does not do anything for data usage. Nevertheless, Jio is the cheapest operator in India and forces its competitors to lower their prices.

It can be a challenge to find a Jio SIM card because they are in such high demand. If you can find them in an official store, expect to pay around 150 INR. I would not recommend buying a SIM card from a vendor because they will charge you a crazy premium due to the high demand.

Jio sells many packs, which all come with unlimited minutes and SMS and national roaming. You do have to pay for a Jio Prime membership to take advantage of these packs, which will cost you 99 INR per year – not too bad. All data packs come with throttled unlimited data, which gets reduced to 128 kbps – frustratingly slow for modern-day web browsing. Below are some of the popular packs. The prices are the same in each telecom circle:

  • 19 INR: 150 MB for 1 day
  • 52 INR: 150 MB per day up to 1.05 GB for 7 days
  • 98 INR: 2 GB for 28 days
  • 149 INR: 1.5 GB per day up to 42 GB for 28 days
  • 198 INR: 2 GB per day up to 58 GB for 28 days
  • 251 INR: 102 GB for 51 days
  • 299 INR: 3 GB per day up to 84 GB for 28 days
  • 329 INR: 1.5 GB per day up to 105 GB for 70 days
  • 448 INR: 2 GB per day up to 168 GB for 84 days

Packs go all the way up to 750 GB for 360 days for 9999 INR. As most travelers stay in India for less than a month, I will not list the packs lasting for 3 months or 6 months. However, those options are out there.

Airtel India

Airtel Logo

Airtel India, just Airtel or Bharti Airtel, used to be India’s largest operator until Jio disrupted the market and before Vodafone Idea existed. Now, they are the third-largest operator with more than 330 million subscribers – not small at all. Airtel has 2G, 3G, and 4G/LTE networks. 3G is expected to be shut down in 2020 and has already been shut down in several telecom circles. This is done so that Airtel can use the 3G frequency for its 4G/LTE network.

Airtel SIM cards are sold for 100 INR in official stores. Be sure to ask for a 4G SIM card if you want to use the 4G/LTE network (which you should – you can always fall back to the 3G network).

Airtel has special promotions for new customers. As these promotions change all the time, you will have to ask for them upon purchasing your SIM. Some salespeople may inform you about these promotions, some do not.

Below, some of the popular Airtel data packs are mentioned. The prices are almost the same in each telecom circle.

  • 9 INR: 100 MB for 1 day
  • 29 INR: 520 MB for 28 days
  • 48 INR: 1 GB for 28 days
  • 92 INR: 6 GB for 7 days
  • 98 INR: 3 GB for 28 days
  • 175 INR: 6 GB for 28 days
  • 199 INR: 1.4 GB per day for 28 days *
  • 245 INR: 2 GB per day for 28 days *
  • 349: 3 GB per day for 28 days *

The plans marked with a * come with unlimited minutes and 100 SMS per day.

Other Ways to Stay Connected When Traveling in India

I have discussed the relevant providers in India in this article because using an Indian SIM card would be much cheaper than roaming with your provider… in most cases. However, buying a local SIM card is not the only way to stay connected in India. You can buy an international SIM card, use a mobile hotspot, or use free WIFI connections. Below, I will discuss the alternative options to use your phone in India.

Roaming in India with Your Provider

Roaming is a term used in wireless telecommunication that indicates a mobile device is outside the range of its home network and has connected to a different, available cell network. Let’s say your provider is Movistar Costa Rica, then you would be roaming with Movistar Costa Rica in India.

The issue with roaming is that it can be expensive. There have been many horror stories where people had to pay thousands in roaming fees when coming back from their holidays, which is just a shame, in my opinion. However, roaming does not always have to be expensive, especially when visiting a neighboring country.

Many providers offer roaming plans. Some allow you to roam for free in India, while others would offer you a roaming bundle with a set number of minutes, SMS, and data. Finally, several operators let you use your plan’s allowance for a daily fee.

As you can see, there are many options out there, so be sure to explore the roaming options your provider has. Conveniently for you, I have reviewed the roaming options of many providers (and many more to come) and discussed everything you need to know about roaming with your provider. If you are lucky, you may not even have to buy a SIM card in India and can roam for free there.

No idea how roaming works? I made this comprehensive guide about what roaming is and how it works. It is worth the read – promised!

One thing I would not recommend doing is to Roam As You Go. Just like prepaid cards where you can buy bundles or Pay As You Go (as in, charged per minute, SMS, or MB), Roaming As You Go can be insanely expensive (that is how people get expensive roaming bills). So far, there are a handful of providers I have reviewed that offer affordable Roam As You Go rates. But generally, avoid it. Get a roaming plan if you can or buy a SIM in India.

Using an International SIM Card in India

International SIM cards are cards that have been made for travelers so that they do not have to deal with roaming costs.

The number of international SIM card providers is too many to count, but international SIM cards give you the same convenience as roaming with your provider. A few providers I know are OneSimCard, SimOptions, and Surfroam.

They allow people to call you at one number instead of five in case you are exploring multiple countries in one trip. Moreover, you do not have to deal with multiple SIM cards you will never use again. In short, international SIM cards have been made for the international traveler in mind.

Although this sounds fabulous, international SIM cards are much more expensive than local SIM cards in India. Some international SIM card providers charge ridiculous fees (sometimes, even more than roaming with your provider), while others offer awful service. It is, therefore, important to go with a reputable company so that you do not have to deal with surprised when traveling around the world.

On the other hand, international SIM cards are appealing to those who travel frequently or are visiting multiple destinations in one trip. Many countries in the South Asia require you to register before you can use a SIM card, which can be a hassle for some. Additionally, the language barrier may be off-putting to some travelers, which is why an international SIM card can be handy. You order it before you depart and can use it in various destinations.

My recommendation, however, is to get a local SIM card if you are only visiting one destination. If you are visiting multiple ones, an international SIM card could be handy. If you want to learn more about international SIM cards, check out my international SIM card comparison article, where I analyze 10 international SIM card providers so that you do not have to.

Using Portable Hotspots (Pocket WIFI) in India

Portable hotspots, also referred to mobile hotspots or pocket WIFI, are routers small enough to bring with you everywhere you go. They are portable, battery-powered wireless routers that allow you to connect your phone, laptop, or tablet without needing multiple SIM cards for those devices to be connected to the internet. They are compact and lightweight so that you take them along with you whenever you need internet access on the go.

Just like with the number of international SIM card providers, there are so many mobile hotspots out there that it is challenging to keep track of them all. Skyroam and Vision Global Wireless are reputable pocket WIFI providers. You can get a discount if you rent a router through Skyroam by using coupon code PHONETRAVELWIZ. Cellular access with Skyroam starts at $8 a day while using a Vision Global device starts at $2 a day. Both services cover more than 130 destinations around the world.

The first time I used a portable hotspot was when I was in Bangkok, Thailand, with my dad. He uses the Dutch telecom provider called KPN, which does not let you roam for free in Thailand. I was with 3 Denmark (3 Danmark), which also did not allow me to roam for free. The router was offered for free by our Airbnb host. Let me tell you how convenient that thing was!

I do not remember the exact brand router we used, but we could connect our phones to it, explore Bangkok, and upload highlights of our trip on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and WhatsApp without the need of connecting to unsecure and slow connections in Thailand.

That is why I often recommend those who are traveling in groups or with families to consider getting a pocket WIFI device so that each individual does not need to buy a local SIM card and data packages. In some countries, the cost of getting a local SIM card or packages is so low that it is not even worth getting a mobile hotspot. In others, it could save you money.

I recently wrote an article analyzing the 7 Best Mobile Hotspots for Travelers like yourself, which should be an interesting read if pocket WIFI is something you are considering. I do reviews of individual devices every now and then, so check out my mobile hotspot category to stay up to date.

Connecting to Free WIFI Networks in India

Finally, we have the most cost-effective way to stay connected in India which is using free WIFI networks.

Using WIFI networks should not cost you any money (unless you are connecting to premium hotspots), which is why it is a popular option for travelers. Go to a local café, buy a coffee, connect to their WIFI, and post your pictures to Facebook or Instagram. Straightforward, right? Well, let’s see if that is indeed the case.

First, you need to find hotspots. In some regions, they are readily available. In others, you cannot find any, require you to give your personal details (for commercial purposes), are restricted for those who are a subscriber of an operator’s, or are so slow that you wished you never connected to them.

In the case of India, you can find many hotspots in the big cities. Some of them are slow, while others are excellent.

Public WIFI hotspots are unsecure. They are a prime target for hackers to steal your data and use it for illicit purposes. That is I use, and would recommend you to start using, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) if you connect to a public hotspot. What a VPN does is creating an encrypted tunnel between your device and the hotspot so that your data will stay private. I use NordVPN, and you can get up to 70% off when you get a NordVPN subscription. Get your subscription now or learn more about NordVPN.

The Best Way to Stay Connected When Traveling in India

Getting a SIM card from Jio would do you well when considering an Indian SIM card. Be sure to explore the roaming options your provider offers you, as they may offer free or cheap roaming bundles.

You could also consider getting an international SIM card or using a portable hotspot. International SIM cards are attractive for those visiting multiple destinations at once or within a year. Portable hotspots will be useful when traveling with multiple people so that not each individual has to get a SIM card but can use the hotspot.

Visiting other countries in South Asia? Check out my South Asian SIM card buying guide, covering other South Asian countries, such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Going to other places around the world? Then you should also check out my sim card buying guides for other destinations around the world.

What is next?

Looking for the best companies and gadgets to enhance your travel experience? Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel! Save money on plane tickets, bus rides, cruises, and accommodation. Besides that, I also list services and items I use to make my life easier – and I believe they will help you too!

Book Your Flight for India

It is time to book your flight. Find cheap flights with AirWander so that you can add free or cheap stopovers in destinations you have not considered yet before going to India. If you are not ready to take off yet, set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog, and they will notify you once ticket prices to India drop.

Book Your Accommodation for India

I am a huge fan of Airbnb because it allows me to live with a local or get a local place for myself. Staying in someone’s house or apartment feels much different than being in a ho(s)tel, especially in India. At least, that is how I see it. Moreover, Airbnb can often be much cheaper than staying in an Indian hotel.

Get Your Travel Insurance for India

You will regret not having travel insurance once you actually need it and “forgot” to get it. Nowadays, travel insurance is cheap and comprehensive unlike back in the days. World Nomads is by far the best travel insurance for adventurous travelers like yourself. You can even get insured WHILE already traveling in India, which is not something many insurance companies allow you to do.

Get a Travel Debit Card

Travel Cheques are outdated. Paying with your credit card or debit card can be expensive because of all the exchange commissions banks charge you. TransferWise allows you to convert your main currency to Indian Rupee for a small fee (up to 8 times less than with your bank!) Getting a Transferwise Borderless account is FREE, so you will get an instant return on your investment.

Enjoy your trip!

Ernest Adu

Ernest Adu, going by just Adu, is the founder and editor at Phone Travel Wiz. He has been a traveler for 6 years. Although from Europe, the Netherlands, Adu's favorite region in Asia, in particular, East and Southeast Asia. He currently lives in Tainan, Taiwan, and plans on exploring Oceania and more of East and Southeast Asia.

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