Mongolia is a landlocked country between China and Russia. With about 1.7 people per km2, Mongolia has the lowest population density in the world. This, however, allows travelers to experience a true nomadic feeling when visiting Mongolia, as there will be many times where you will be alone for a while.
Ulaanbaatar is the capital of Mongolia and has Buddist ruined. Gorkhi-Tereji National Park is a wild park with hot springs. Khuvsgul is a beautiful lake. As you can see, Mongolia has many things to experience.
What you should not experience, however, is experiencing bill shock after coming home to an expensive roaming bill. Roaming with your provider is, generally, expensive, especially in Mongolia for some reason. As a result, you would be better off getting a Mongolian SIM card when visiting Mongolia. In this article, I will go over everything you need to know about buying a SIM card in Mongolia. Let's do this.
Telecom Providers in Mongolia
Mongolia has 4 telecom providers: MobiCom, Unitel, Skytel, and G-Mobile. Skytel and G-Mobile use CDMA. Almost every smartphone around the world uses GSM, which is why these two providers will not be discussed in this article.
MobiCom and Unitel have similar subscriber numbers. In 2014, MobiCom had 115000 subscribers more than Unitel. I believe the numbers have changed by now, but I was unable to find a source to confirm this.
What SIM card should you buy when visiting Mongolia? If you want to buy a SIM card in Mongolia, I would recommend going with Unitel. They have better signal and speed than MobiCom with lower prices, even though coverage is almost the same with both providers.
Mongolia is a large country but not densely populated. According to some, it is the least densely populated country in the world. Most of the population can be found in Mongolia’s population, Ulaanbaatar, meaning you will have the best coverage and speeds there. Luckily, coverage can be found in other provincial capitals, but do not expect much when traveling in smaller towns or just on the road.
Just like most East Asian countries, you need your passport or any other form of ID to buy a SIM card.
With that out of the way, let’s see what MobiCom and Unitel have to offer to us.
Unitel, or United telecommunications, was founded together with South Korea in 2015. Since 2010, it became fully Mongolian because the Mongolian shareholders bought the Korean shares. Unitel covers almost 90% of the population. Remember, most of the Mongolian population live around the capital or provincial capitals, so coverage may be non-existent when staying in towns and villages. 4G can be found in Ulaanbaatar, Darkhan City, Erdenet, Dalanzadgad, and Tsogttsetsii.
Unitel SIM cards are sold for 3000 MNT ($0.36) and come with 1000 MNT preloaded credit. Unitel sells several pay-as-you-go prepaid plans, which are:
- Smart Data: 70 MNT per minute, 20 MNT per SMS, and free data
- Smart Time: 70 MNT per minute, 20 MNT per SMS, and 0.09 MNT per MB
- Smart Talk: 35 MNT per minute, 20 MNT per SMS, and 0.09 MNT per MB
The following Unitel data packages are available:
- 1500 MNT: 1 GB for 24 hours
- 4000 MNT: 512 MB per day for 3 days
- 4000 MNT: 500 MB for 7 days
- 8000 MNT: 512 MB per day for 7 days
- 10 000 MNT: 1 GB for 30 days
- 20 000 MNT: 3 GB for 30 days
- 25 000 MNT: 512 MB per day for 30 days
MobiCom started as a Mongolian-Japanese venture and became the first telecom provider in Mongolia back in 1996. It covers 95% of the population and is the more expensive option when traveling in Mongolia. Their prepaid SIM card is called MobiCard and is sold for 5000 MNT without credit, or 10000 MNT with 5000 MNT in credit, and can be bought at MobiCom stores.
The following data packs are available, which all come with the same amount of data for 4G/LTE. For example, the 3500 MNT plan comes with 1.5 GB regular data and 1.5 GB 4G/LTE data for 3 days. If you go over your quota, your speed will be reduced to 128 kbps, which is annoyingly slow:
- 1500 MNT: 600 MB for 1 day
- 2000 MNT: 1 GB for 2 days
- 3500 MNT: 1.5 GB for 3 days
- 7000 MNT: 3 GB for 7 days
- 11 500 MNT: 5 GB for 15 days
- 16 500 MNT: 3 GB for 30 days
MobiCom also sells tourist combo bundles. They are expensive but come with lower international call rates. The following plans are available:
- 20 000 MNT: 600 MB and 5000 MNT credit valid for 15 days
- 35 000 MNT: 1.1 GB and 10 000 MNT credit valid for 30 days
- 60 000 MNT: 5 GB and 15 000 MNT credit valid for 30 days
Extra data can be added with the regular MobiCom data packs. The tourist SIM cards are only valid for max. 90 days.
Other Ways to Stay Connected When Traveling in Mongolia
Besides getting a Mongolian SIM card, there are different ways of staying connected when exploring Mongolia, such as using an international SIM card, roaming with your provider, using pocket WIFI, or WIFI networks.
International SIM Cards
You can consider purchasing an international SIM card. International SIM cards are SIM cards that can be used internationally without the roaming charges.
There are many international SIM cards out there, such as OneSimCard and SIM cards from SimOptions. These SIM cards with the same as roaming with your provider, but the charges are often way less than actually roaming because they have been set up for international travel.
International SIM cards give you the same convenience as roaming with your provider. As in, not having to get numerous SIM cards, you will not use again, and being reachable on one number instead of multiple. In most cases, you can use your international SIM when back home, but their rates will be high compared to using your carrier.
Do note that using an international SIM card is often more expensive than using a local SIM card but cheaper than roaming with your provider. International SIM cards are appealing for those who travel frequently and cannot be bothered with the hassle of purchasing a SIM card each time they arrive at a new destination. Additionally, constantly having to switch SIM cards and using different phone numbers may discourage seasoned travelers from buying local SIM cards.
If you are visiting only one destination for a short period, get a local SIM card (or roam with your provider if they have attractive roaming rates or plans). If you travel often and want to be able to be contacted on one phone number when visiting multiple destinations, international SIM cards could be attractive. Check out my international SIM card comparison article, where I analyzed the top 10 leading international SIM cards out there.
Roaming 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. If you use your phone in Mongolia without changing SIM cards, you would be roaming in Mongolia.
You have probably read numerous horror stories of travelers who went abroad for a while and came back home to a phone bill in the thousands because they were roaming. An example of such a story is this individual who received a bill of £8,348.41 for data roaming for 40 minutes. I also found the reason why roaming is so expensive.
No idea how roaming works? I made this comprehensive guide about what roaming is and how it works. It is worth the read – promised!
Roaming can be convenient because you do not have to wait in line to get a local SIM card, go through the whole SIM card registration process, and can easily be reached when friends and family who are in your home country want to call or text you.
However, this convenience comes at a cost – a high cost if you do not watch out. But this does not always have to be the case.
Some carriers allow you to roam for free in select countries, such as Three. Three operates in multiple countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, and a few others. They have a program called Roam Like Home or a slight variation of that depending on where you are from.
Three Denmark includes free roaming in more than 60 destinations around the world, excluding Mongolia. Let's say they Three customers could roam for free in Mongolia, it would mean that Three customers can use their plan's data, voice, and text allowance in Mongolia at no additional cost, although certain restrictions apply (such as the hard cap of a maximum of 20 GB of roaming data regardless of whether you have a higher data cap in your plan or not).
Other carriers allow you to use your plan's allowance if you pay a fixed daily fee. For example, Koodo, a Canadian provider, allows you to use your plan's allowance with their program called Koodo Easy Roam International for $12 a day, which can be used in Mongolia as well. This means that if you get 10 GB a month, you can use those 10 GB in Mongolia as well.
However, you should take caution with such plans. They are convenient and inexpensive when done for a few days, but not when going abroad for a week or more. I often argue that one can use these plans if you are staying abroad for a maximum of three days. If longer, than you are better off with a local SIM card, which will give you more bang for your buck. Check out my articles to see if your provider offers roaming bundles.
Finally, you can roam on Pay As You Go roaming rates. With standard roaming rates, you get charged per action on the go. In other words, you get charged per minute, SMS, or KB/MB. Often, Pay As You Go roaming rates are insanely high (which leads to those stories where people got charged into the thousands), and should be avoided in most cases. However, some providers do have reasonable standard roaming rates, especially to neighboring countries.
In general, I would discourage you from roaming on Pay As You Go roaming rates when visiting Mongolia, but it is still an option to explore. If you want to see what your carrier would charge you, check out my roaming with your provider articles with my analysis and verdicts.
If you do not want to get a local SIM card or an international SIM card and do not feel like roaming either, then you can get pocket WIFI. A portable hotspot is a device that acts as your personal router that you can take with you. This hotspot connects to the cellular networks of your destination – just like your phone would do but without the roaming costs.
There are many portable hotspots out there. Two reputable pocket WIFI companies I know are Skyroam (use coupon code PHONETRAVELWIZ) and Vision Global Wireless. WIFI access with Skyroam starts at $8 a day. Using a Vision Global device starts at $2 a day. Both services cover more than 130 destinations around the world.
A pocket WIFI device is ideal for those who are traveling with families or multiple individuals. This way, everyone can connect to the device and enjoy the WIFI network on the go. Some companies will charge you per GB while others will give you unlimited data. Be aware of the data restrictions of your device so that you will not receive a high bill after your travels.
Using Free WIFI Connections
If you do not want to pay anything extra for staying connected while in Mongolia, then you can choose to connect to WIFI networks instead of cellular networks.
Although using WIFI hotspots may save you money, it may not be convenient as using a SIM card. First, you would have to find WIFI hotspots. You will barely find any, except for in the capital.
Additionally, public WIFI hotspots are unsecure. I would recommend using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) if you connect to an unfamiliar network. The VPN will encrypt your data and will keep your data private. I use NordVPN, and you can get up to 70% off when you get a NordVPN subscription. Get yours today or find out more about NordVPN.
The Best Way to Stay Connected When Traveling in Mongolia
Getting a SIM card from Unitel would do you well when considering a Mongolian 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 East Asia? Check out my East Asian SIM card buying guide, covering other East Asia countries, such as China, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, South Korea, and Taiwan. 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 Mongolia
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 Mongolia. If you are not ready to take off yet, set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog, and they will notify you once ticket prices to Mongolia drop.
Book Your Accommodation for Mongolia
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 Mongolia. At least, that is how I see it. Moreover, Airbnb can often be much cheaper than staying in a Mongolian hotel.
Get Your Travel Insurance for Mongolia
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 Mongolia, 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 the local currency 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!