Buying Prepaid SIM Cards in South America Guide

When traveling to South America, you want to stay in touch with your loved ones and feel connected. As a traveler, remaining linked to the digital world is a real pleasure. Also, who does not like to share their adventure pictures on their social media? While traveling in South America, you will need to know the process of purchasing your SIM card in the many beautiful places you may find yourself!

The Best SIM Card options when traveling to South America will depend on the country you are visiting, the intention and purposes you use your mobile device for, and how long you will be there. The perk of purchasing a local SIM card that is linked to its country of origin is that you can simplify your phone bill and buy affordable SIMs along the way.

The last thing you want after coming home from stunning but undeniably expensive travels is to find an insanely high phone bill with roaming fees, connection charges, and who knows what else! You are not in the dark ages anymore, so this guide will be your ultimate how-to for traveling through South America the smart way and not making things harder for yourself in the long run!

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

A little introduction to SIM Cards

South America is full of so much culture, rich heritage, stunning national parks, and nearby islands like Galapagos. Take in the flavors, sights, and culture that makes South America such a rich continent for backpackers and luxurious traveler alike.

Before diving into an exploration that will give a detailed look country by country, I think the best place to start would be defining what a SIM card is for those who may be a bit more technologically challenged. We are all here to learn, so put on your learning cap because you are about to be an expert on the technological side of international travel!

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!

What is a SIM Card?

A SIM Card (Subscriber Identity Module) is a small chip that can be found in the back near the battery in smartphones and modems. It is essentially a driver’s license for your cell phone. The subscription linked in this little chip is what detects your unique presence on the worldwide network. It is your identifier and personal subscription holder.

Then those cards are an essential tool for someone who travels and needs to be connected to the internet at the same time.

The card slides into the back of your phone in a small metal casing that is like a little seat belt. It will click right into place and work immediately once being connected to the phone.

Once input, the SIM card will allow you to connect to the internet connection, receive calls, send messages, and all the other glorious things that a phone is capable of – thanks to the SIM card!

This is the ‘what’ part of the equation, but if you are still confused about the ‘how’ and process behind picking the best SIM card, do not fret. What you will need to know about your international SIM card is –

How to use the SIM Card in South America

The process of getting the most out of your SIM card will be finding a card that meets your criteria for use. The factors which may influence your decision may include:

  • Size – SIM’s come in three formats (Standard, Nano, and Micro)
  • Price – Many local and international SIM cards are very affordable since only for temporary use.
  • Data – How much connection power you need behind you will depend on if it is for business, pleasure, or how you utilize the connection storage.

When you purchase the SIM card, have the salesperson unlock it for you, so the device does not give you any trouble. If you do not realize this until you have left the store, there are always helplines and mobile operators that can assist you with this remotely.

An important quality of changing your SIM card to note is that you will receive a new phone number with the SIM card. When I traveled to France, I had a different phone number with their country code +33. When I moved on to the US, I purchased another new SIM card and therefore had a phone number starting with +1. The same goes for each country you move through in South America.

I will not cover this in-depth, but it is worth noting that there is an available option for Dual SIM cards, which allow you to hold two lines at once and consequently have two phone numbers. This is not the typical way of international travel, but it is available to you if that sounds appealing for your purposes.

Be aware that in many of the countries you will be purchasing the SIM card from, you may be required to show your passport to verify identification. Not all South American countries will ask this but have it handy just in case!

If you are still uncertain if this advice applies to you, the answer is that if you are any kind of international traveler – it does. What are the main payoffs to purchasing a SIM card before or during your travels?

Why Purchase a Local SIM Card? The Benefits!

Next, I will explore the best options for the 10 main South American countries. But first, I want to incentivize you to utilize the local SIM cards because of the many benefits it will have on your safety (and not to mention your wallet!)

The perks and benefits of purchasing a local SIM card instead of roaming include:

  • Roaming will be considerably more expensive. To roam means that if you are in Peru, then your local home company has to communicate with Peru’s communication company, and this is what can become very quickly expensive. But if you purchase the SIM card from Peru, they do not have to connect with America as a middleman. This is why it is so much cheaper.
  • You do not have to rely on Free WIFI = Security! Free WIFI is when you go to a café and ask for the WIFI password. It is excellent if you need to send a quick email or pay a bill, but these open WIFI networks are major magnets for cybercrime. It is easier for hackers to access your banking information or private details, so another perk to purchasing a country-specific SIM card is that you will be on a private data network. When I connect to WiFI hotspots, I always connect to my VPN (Virtual Private Network) – NordVPN, which helps me stay safe and anonymous when browsing the web. Get your NordVPN subscription today!
  • Package options and versatility of price. There is something for everyone, and if you are unsure where to start, discuss with the sales representative you are intended use and how much data you plan to use. If you are just posting pictures to Facebook or Instagram, you will need a different amount of data than if you are a photographer for National Geographic sending thousands of high-resolution photos.

Different packages will be based on data consumption and also how long until the chip expires/how long you will be in that country for (3 days, a weeklong SIM card, etc.). Know your intentions and understand that the SIM card answer may be different depending on your unique case.

Now let’s go country by country with the main places that wanderlust-souls love to travel to in South America! All the local prices are converted to US Dollars to make things easy for everyone (otherwise, I would have to list over 50 different currencies, which is not fun for you to read). We will go in alphabetical order, so if you can, guess it! First up on our list is –

Caminito in Buenos Aires, Argentina
A housing block in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Argentina SIM Cards

Besides the Argentinian wine (do not get me started!), there are so many reasons to enjoy this stunning country and be connected while visiting.

Argentina is one of the easiest countries to purchase your local SIM card through. Some of the most popular companies here include:

  • Claro Argentina
  • Tuenti Argentina
  • Movistar Argentina
  • Personal Argentina
  • Nextel

Note that in Argentina, they call the SIM card a, ‘chip,’ and it may be useful for you to download a Spanish translator app like Google Translate, which can be used offline if your signal is not working.

The offline option for the translation apps needs to be downloaded while you still do have a signal, so be sure to do this before leaving home. It will make communicating with the Spanish-speaking salesperson much easier if you have specific needs for your SIM card and are a bit rusty on your Spanish.

I do want to be the bearer of bad news that Argentina was reported to have quite a slow signal and is reported by users to be considerably slower than that of your home provider. Be patient with it, and do not expect the world for a $1 SIM card. The networks are still in developmental phases in many places, so Argentina is simply lagging a bit.

Movistar was awarded the best Cell Phone Operator in Argentina in 2017 while also being ranked highest in overall speed. Personal is another popular option with a weeklong program of unlimited data use for around $35. However, Claro is the country’s leading provider, which means you may see this storefront the most commonly.

RELATED: Want to learn more about SIM cards in Argentina? Check out my Argentina SIM card buying guide with up-to-date and detailed information regarding prices and packages.

Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia
Flags of numerous countries in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Bolivia SIM Cards

You are in Bolivia! Congratulations, and I am sure you are beyond excited to explore the Salar de Uyuni, Isla del Sol, Valley of the Moon, and so many other stunning cultural sites.

Bolivia’s main providers for SIM cards include:

  • Entel Bolivia
  • Tigo Bolivia
  • Viva

It will be as simple as finding any of these stores or kiosks and asking the clerk for a local SIM card. You can choose a 24-hour SIM, 1 week, 90 days, etc. and have the clerk activate it for you instore as there may be a code to text for activation.

The stop will take you around 10 minutes in total but keep your expectations low. Just as the signal is quite slow in Argentina, Bolivia is not the fastest or crème-de-la-crème of the crop either. It is an easy and affordable experience, but keep your outlook in check.

To give you an idea on pricing here, a 40 BOP costs about $5.80. You need to show your passport when buying a SIM Card.

RELATED: Want to learn more about SIM cards in Bolivia? Check out my Bolivia SIM card buying guide with up-to-date and detailed information regarding prices and packages.

Urca, Brazil
Urca, Brazil

Brazil SIM Cards

Whether you are dancing the days away at Rio’s Carnival or swimming along the coastline of the Fernando de Noronha, there is an endless amount of cultural marvels and splendors to be experienced. The top SIM card and cell providers which you can seek out in Brazil will include:

  • Vivo
  • TIM
  • Claro Brazil
  • IO

Vivo is the largest provider, with over 73 million users and options that cost around $10 for a month of data. They even have plans that are adapted specifically for WhatsApp use so you can make communication even more affordable with offline messaging applications. Be sure to purchase directly from the Vivo stores to avoid getting fakes.

Users from TripAdvisor claim that TIM is the most reliable provider, but this can be subjective. The best part about TIM is that they come pre-activated, so do not require a text code to initiate for usage. Claro is the third-largest here but also quite reliable.

Again, I want to mention the language app to be downloaded for offline-use before your travels, so you do not have to become an expert at Portuguese overnight! Some Brazilians will speak English, but I never count on this for anywhere I am traveling too. I am in their country, and I show my respect by learning a few phrases at the very least and attempting to speak on their terms (unless it is an Asian language – I cannot master those for some reason, unfortunately). It is a kind gesture to at least show you want to learn, even if you are not very skilled at it.

Brazil is a jam-packed country, so the lines will be long at the phone store, and you may want to consider arriving early in the morning or on a weekday.

RELATED: Want to learn more about SIM cards in Brazil? Check out my Brazil SIM card buying guide with up-to-date and detailed information regarding prices and packages.

Valle de la Luna, Chile
Valle de la Luna, Chile

Chile SIM Cards

I have never been to Chile, but when I someday go, I will be lost exploring the Valle de la Luna that looks like a Martian otherworldly planet. With hot springs, delicious cuisine, and amicable people, you are sure to have a wonderful time in this celestial destination. There are six main providers in Chile from whom you can purchase SIM cards, but the top two are considered the most reliable for signal strength.

  • Entel Chile
  • Movistar Chile
  • Virgin Mobile Chile
  • Movil Falabella
  • WOM
  • Claro Chile

OpenSignal reported just a couple years ago by popular vote that Movistar was voted as the user’s favorite performer in Chile. However, Entel tops our list as well for having the most supreme speed and 3G networks.

A neat feature of these two top recommendations is that they each come with the convenience of prepaid credit plans. This means that once you have the card, you can purchase credit almost anywhere, whenever you need to! You can buy or reload your phone at any pharmacy, market, and other locations, which can easily be found through either the provider's website and location tracker.

Pro Tip for Chile – you can use Skype-To-Go in this country and communicate through its digital app for more affordable options.

RELATED: Want to learn more about SIM cards in Chile? Check out my Chile SIM card buying guide with up-to-date and detailed information regarding prices and packages.

Bogota, Colombia
Bogota, Colombia

Colombia SIM Cards

Between the reality-shifting rainforests, islands, and beaches to snorkel around, archeological sites of ancient ruins and lost cities, there is an entire world to be found in the country of Colombia. An explorers dream with the same affordable SIM card options to be found in many of these nations.

The top providers for Colombia will include:

  • Claro Colombia
  • Movistar Colombia
  • Tigo Colombia

These are the top three providers and are trusted by locals and tourists alike. You can purchase any of these from shops, kiosks, or the El Dorado International Airport for convenience. You will need your passport to purchase in Colombia, so keep it handy in a safe deep pocket or belted to your waist to prevent pickpockets from being tempted.

Please be aware that there was a new tax law initiated in 2017 that made communication slightly more expensive. There is a 4% increase in sales tax, but considering how affordable these SIM cards are in the first place, this may not affect you at all.

Claro is the go-to top-dog of Colombia with 2G, 3G, and 4G LTE services. The same prepaid activations as many countries, but be careful that you only purchase directly from the storefronts or kiosks. There is a large black market in Colombia and people smart enough to rip off even an intelligent consumer.

RELATED: Want to learn more about SIM cards in Colombia? Check out my Colombia SIM card buying guide with up-to-date and detailed information regarding prices and packages.

Cotopaxi, Ecuador
Cotopaxi, Ecuador

Ecuador SIM Cards

You are heading to the land that holds larger-than-life volcanos like the Cotopaxi or Quilotoa, which is a lagoon, volcano, camping site with a lake! Backpacking through Ecuador is a right of passage for the most enamored travel-lovers and bucket-list champions!

It is easy to find 1G of data in Ecuador for around $3. The top providers to get affordable WIFI while in this country include:

  • Claro Ecuador
  • Movistar Ecuador
  • CNT

As you can see from this list, Claro and Movistar are trusted among many of the South American countries as being the top provider and best quality.

Coverage may suffer in some smaller cities, but this is to be expected in any small town you visit around the world. There are fewer cell towers, and therefore, fewer signal frequencies. If you are in a larger city like Quito, you should have no problem getting a clear signal at all.

CNT is the unique provider on this list, being Ecuador’s national provider with the smallest market in the nation. It may be worth researching if your phone will be a match or compatible with these SIM cards as sometimes, they are not a fit.

This happened to me in a small town in France, and there is nothing you can do if your cell phone type is not a fit for their SIM cards. I had to go for a week without a phone, but this was because I was not researched enough to know what to do in this case (which may or may not have inspired me to start this site).

If you are opting for an affordable but less-well-known company like CNT, check your phone’s compatibility before leaving. The sign you will be looking for to purchase from any of these providers, to activate, or to load your phone with more credit – will read, “Recarge Aqui,” meaning recharge here.

RELATED: Want to learn more about SIM cards in Ecuador? Check out my Ecuador SIM card buying guide with up-to-date and detailed information regarding prices and packages.

Guyana SIM Cards

Check out my article covering Guyana in detail.

Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu, Peru – We have got to acknowledge that curious lama too!

Peru SIM Cards

Where do I even begin with a country as spellbinding as Peru?! Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, Ruins from Inca, and deep canyons like the Colca will keep you captivated by nature the entire duration of your travels. This may mean you are not wanting to be connected to your phone the whole time because I know I would want to be off the grid here! But in case you are looking for a SIM card to maintain your lifeline, the top providers in Peru will include:

  • Movistar Peru
  • Claro Peru
  • Entel Peru
  • Bitel

Movistar is the top contender in Peru with the same prepaid options and 2G-4G versatility, depending on your data and connection speed needs. The best place to purchase will be at the airport for good deals and not to have the hassle of hunting down other locations.

For the prepaid SIM card, ask for, ‘el chip prepago,” and note that it may take a full 24 hours for your phone to actually be registered as active.

Bitel is the smaller provider in Peru but has incredible deals and similar quality. Peru is another country with a bad case of the black-market-blues. So do not under any circumstance purchase from street vendors. Look out for real logos, signage, and proper storefronts or kiosks. This is another reason why the airport is a safer bet than getting stuck with a fake SIM card or being ripped off.

RELATED: Want to learn more about SIM cards in Peru? Check out my Peru SIM card buying guide with up-to-date and detailed information regarding prices and packages.

A man with his Oxcard in Paraguay
A man with his Oxcard in Paraguay

Paraguay SIM Cards

Being one of the smaller countries on our list, Paraguay may have slower connection speed, and you will have to exercise a bit of patience. With stunning national Historical landmarks like the National Pantheon of the Heroes, a 45-meter waterfall called Monday’s Falls remains of a missionary from the 1700s, and so much more, you will fall into the immersion of this nation’s beautiful heritage.

Top providers to load up your local SIM card in Paraguay include:

  • Tigo Paraguay
  • Personal Paraguay
  • Claro Paraguay
  • VOX

Tigo will by far be the largest and arguably the most reliable, with over 50% of the country’s locals using this provider. This, however, means that it will be the most expensive option of the four.

VOX only has 5% of the market amongst competitors, so it may not be recommendable for your short stay.

I want to be honest that the land coverage is pretty bad in this nation. Because of this, many forum users even discuss many locals having two or three phones. Funny enough, these cards cannot make international calls, but you can receive them from anywhere. At least purchasing the SIM card will avoid roaming charges and make messaging an option.

RELATED: Want to learn more about SIM cards in Paraguay? Check out my Paraguay SIM card buying guide with up-to-date and detailed information regarding prices and packages.

Suriname SIM Cards

Check out my article covering Suriname in detail.

Montevideo, Uruguay
Montevideo, Uruguay

Uruguay SIM Cards

You may find yourself hunting for knickknacks and treasures at the Montevideo’s markets like Mercado del Puerto, or playing at the nude beach Playa Chihuahua, but you will also want to find yourself with cell signal. The top providers in the stunning country of Uruguay include:

  • Antel
  • Movistar Uruguay
  • Claro Uruguay

Antel is a state-owned provider, and coverage is reasonably good for each of these options. It is monopolized landlines here but has the two competitors for mobile lines. I personally would recommend Movistar as it is popular in so many South American countries and already proven to be reliable. Movistar makes up 34% of the market share here and is slightly cheaper than Antel.

Pro Tip: If you do opt for Antel, purchase in the airport for the safest distributor and peace of mind from scams. Also note if you are going to be there for a long duration, Whatsapp data usage and messaging will be free if you spend at least $140 in setup/topping off. This is unrelated to the application being free. 

RELATED: Want to learn more about SIM cards in Uruguay? Check out my Uruguay SIM card buying guide with up-to-date and detailed information regarding prices and packages.

Morro de Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela
Morro de Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela

Venezuela SIM Cards

Last but absolutely not least, Venezuela has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. Someday I want to swim through the reefs of Morrocoy National Park, hike up the Auyán-tepui and witness the highest waterfall on the entire planet, Angel Falls. There is a little bit for every kind of traveler in this exciting country, along with delicious food, which is perhaps the top reason I travel!

It can be a complicated process to purchase a SIM card in Venezuela, according to travelers, as there are different rules for foreigners. Because of this, the best option will be to bring your own SIM card and have it activated at any phone provider in the country.

The nation’s primary card will be called the Venezuela SIM card and can be purchased here.

It will be cheaper to purchase online beforehand, but if you like, you can wait until you are at the airport, and it will be more expensive. Be sure your phone is unlocked and talk to your local provider about traveling to Venezuela before you depart for your travels. This is a problematic country due to regulations, so you will want to be quite prepared beforehand.

Final Tips for Traveling to South America

Despite us being so flooded by technology these days, it can still be overwhelming even to the most tech-savvy. If you are uncertain about which SIM card to select for your purposes and current provider, call your local company to ask for some guidance. The support teams are happy to advise you and help you feel confident before departing for your big adventure.

  • Do not pay the $5 a minute or per GB of data usage, or else you will regret it the moment you open your phone bill back home. Avoid bankruptcy and opt for local SIM cards in all of your future international travels. It will make a world of difference to your overall experience and even improve your connection quality. However, you may want to check the roaming options of your home provider. It could be worth it (in some cases).
  • Use WhatsApp or other popular and free communication apps that allow you to message back home or all around the world at literally no cost besides the data needed to be online. This will save you on the per messaging rates, which can add up quick!
  • Remember to keep local currency with you at all times but not expose it and beware of pickpockets wherever you are traveling.
  • Set up FREE flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog and get notified when ticket prices to South America drop.
  • A wise man once said, ‘if you cannot afford travel insurance, then you cannot afford to travel!’ Be prepared with travel insurance for peace of mind, hiking boots for the natural sites, and a heart full of wonder. I have been using World Nomad for a while, and I am loving them. Get your quote today!

South America is a bucket list country for any seasoned traveler, so be grateful for the opportunity to travel at all and adiós mis amigos! Viajes felices!

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 South America

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 South America. If you are not ready to take off yet, set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog, and they will notify you once ticket prices to South America drop.

Book Your Accommodation for South America

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 South America. At least, that is how I see it. Moreover, Airbnb can often be much cheaper than staying in a South American hotel.

Get Your Travel Insurance for South America

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 South America, 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!

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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