It is quite a challenge to get a visa for Turkmenistan. The country has a strict visa policy, which makes it a relatively unpopular travel destination. If you manage to get a visa, however, you will have to see the capital, Ashgabat where you can see the Wedding Palace. Mary has ancient ruins, and you can find nature reserves in Turkmenbashi.
There are not many providers that have a roaming agreement with telecom providers in Turkmenistan. If they do, then the roaming rates will be high. Roaming with your provider can be expensive in many cases, especially in Turkmenistan. Therefore, if you want to stay connected when exploring this country, you would want to buy a Turkman SIM card.
In this article, I will go over everything you need to know about buying a SIM card in Turkmenistan. Let's go.
Telecom Providers in Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan has 2 telecom providers: TM Cell by Altyn Asyr and Ay Nazar by ASTU. Ay Nazar runs on CMDA, which is incompatible with most phones in the world. Therefore, they will not be discussed any further in this article. The country used to have a third provider called MTS, but it discontinued for some reason. Other sites may still recommend MTS because they had good service. Unfortunately, they are not around anymore.
It is quite a challenge to get a SIM card in Turkmenistan. Just like in other Central Asian countries, you have to show your passport when buying a SIM card. However, it used to be almost impossible to get a SIM card as a visitor, just like how difficult it is to get a visa for Turkmenistan.
According to reports, the best place to get a Turkman SIM card is at the Altyn Asyr office in Ashgabat. You will be asked about your visa and proof of address when buying a SIM card. You can try other stores, but the chance of succeeding there is limited.
As a visitor, you can only have 2 SIM cards on your name. As there is currently only one useful operator in Turkmenistan, it should not be a problem. However, you used to be able to get 5 SIM cards when MTS was still operating.
Censorship is prevalent in Turkmenistan. The internet is heavily censored and regulated by the authorities. Moreover, the internet is not fully accessible to the Turkman population. Those who use the web are closely watched by the government.
Turkmenistan is not connected to the World Wide Web. Instead, the country uses Turkmenet, which is a censored version of the internet. Social media sites and most websites are blocked. They do not have a firewall like China – Turkmenistan has its own internet, like North Korea.
Because of the censorship, I would normally recommend getting a VPN to browse the web freely. However, that does not seem to be a good idea in Turkmenistan because using VPNs can have severe consequences. They can find you easily because your SIM card is registered to you and your address and because they use Turkmenet, which allows its users to connect to a handful of websites and IP addresses.
As soon as the service notices that you are trying to use Open VPN (the protocol most VPN providers use), your connection will be shut down… and you may get a visit from some “friendly” people wondering what you were doing.
Once your service has been shut down, you would need a new SIM card. I am not sure if you would get a new one after the operator has found out that you were trying to use a VPN, so I would not recommend trying it.
Typically, I would also recommend using WiFI connections if you can. In this case, WiFi is slow, expensive, and rare. The WiFi hotspots are also heavily censored. With all of that, they are not recommended to travelers.
With this in mind, you would think that roaming with your provider may be a good idea. However, as mentioned earlier, not many operators have a roaming agreement with TM Cell. If they do, the roaming rates are insanely high. The same counts for using an international SIM card. Surfroam allows you to data roam for €12/MB (or €12 288/GB), which is expensive. OneSimCard allows you to make calls and send SMS, but not use data. A handful of other international SIM card providers may cover Turkmenistan but be prepared to pay a hefty price for data.
If you plan on visiting Russia before going to Turkmenistan, then using MegaFon may be interesting. You will get 80 MB for 400 RUB ($7). It is not much, but it is something. Other Central Asian countries will charge you several dollars per MB, which is not worth it.
With all of that out of the way, let’s see what TM Cell has to offer.
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TM Cell is the sole operator in Turkmenistan. Their 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. SIM 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
As you can see, there is not much choice in Turkmenistan.
Other Ways to Stay Connected When Traveling in Turkmenistan
I have touched upon some of these alternatives in the long introduction, but I will elaborate on them now.
Roaming with Your Provider in Turkmenistan
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 MegaCom Kazakhstan, then you would be roaming with MegaCom Kazakhstan in Turkmenistan.
The thing with Turkmenistan, however, is that there are not that many foreign operators that have a roaming agreement with TM Cell. As a result, you may not be able to roam with your phone when traveling in Turkmenistan.
In the event that you may be able to roam with your provider in Turkmenistan, be sure that the roaming rates are not insanely expensive, because roaming in Turkmenistan can be expensive. Most operators put Turkmenistan in the most expensive roaming zone, which makes it an unattractive roaming destination.
No idea how roaming works? I made this comprehensive guide about what roaming is and how it works. It is worth the read – promised!
With MegaFon Russia, you can get a roaming package for 400 RUB ($7) that will get you 80 MB. That is probably the cheapest roaming pack you can get for Turkmenistan.
As a result, roaming in Turkmenistan may not be your most affordable option.
Using an International SIM Card in Turkmenistan
I often recommend international SIM cards to those who often travel for leisure or business and do not want to deal with multiple SIM cards and phone numbers. Business people want to be reachable easily, so switching SIM cards all the time would be a huge hassle.
In the case of Turkmenistan, I have not seen a provider that offers attractive rates in this country. With OneSimCard, you can call and text at relatively affordable prices in Turkmenistan, but you cannot use data. Surfroam will charge you €12 per MB, which is certainly not worth it.
Therefore, unless you only want to text or call in Turkmenistan, using an international SIM card will not be useful in this country.
Using Mobile Hotspot Devices in Turkmenistan
Mobile hotspots are portable routers that connect to the cellular antennas of local providers. This way, you have your own WIFI hotspot with you at all times. Some providers, like Skyroam, offer unlimited data for less than $10 per day, where others, like Vision Global, also has unlimited data in different tiers (throttled after using a certain amount of MB or GB).
As a result, using a mobile hotspot does not seem to be a good option in Turkmenistan.
Using Free WIFI Connections in Turkmenistan
Finally, we have free WIFI connections. Turkmenistan is not connected to the World Wide Web. Instead, they have Turkmenet. Social media and most popular sites are blocked. Moreover, authorities monitor all internet traffic in Turkmenistan.
Even using a VPN may not be a good idea because TM Cell will shut down your service when they notice you are trying to use a VPN. Once your SIM card has been deactivated, you may not be able to get a new working SIM card from TM Cell, which is why I do not recommend using a VPN in this country.
With all of this, using WIFI may not be a comprehensive strategy when visiting Turkmenistan.
The Best Way to Stay Connected When Traveling in Turkmenistan
Using a SIM card from TM Cell is probably your only option when visiting Turkmenistan. All other options are impractical, expensive, not accessible.
Visiting other places in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States)? Check out my CIS SIM card buying guide, covering the CIS with nations like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
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 Turkmenistan
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 Turkmenistan. If you are not ready to take off yet, set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog, and they will notify you once ticket prices to Turkmenistan drop.
Book Your Accommodation for Turkmenistan
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. Although there are not many Airbnb listings in Turkmenistan, the ones that are listed have great reviews. Airbnb can be a good alternative to Turkman ho(s)tels.
Get Your Travel Insurance for Turkmenistan
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 Turkmenistan, 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 currency of your destination 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!