Buying a SIM Card in India

Growing up, India was an exotic place filled with elephants, tigers and monkeys. I saw no tigers when I finally arrived in India, but there were plenty of cows, camels, monkeys, and camels. There was also amazing architecture, delicious food, and friendly people.

India is the most affordable country I’ve ever visited, but it’s also the most difficult. The SIM card market is also affected. Although prices are low, getting one can be quite complicated.

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  • Vodafone-Idea and Airtel are our top recommendations, but the best service will vary depending on where you are in the country.

After a series of mergers and acquisitions that have changed the Indian market over the past few years, there are now four major service providers. All of them offer 4G/LTE but not all provide good coverage throughout the country. Vodafone-Idea is the market leader in both network coverage and market share, while Airtel is the top choice for most travellers.

While Idea and Vodafone merged in 2018, both brands are still being used. In the end, all networks will be combined. This has already happened in about a third of the country.

India has a lot of competition and the prices for data and calls are among the most affordable in the world. The best provider will depend on where you live. Airtel is often regarded as the most reliable network. However, this wasn’t always true in my testing.

All of the above mentioned networks were used by every traveller I encountered. Both Airtel and Idea were used in the south, north, and middle of the country.

There will likely be a wide range of purchasing experiences depending on where your SIM card is purchased. You may also experience very different speeds depending on where and when you purchase it.

Both networks offer prepaid and postpaid options. Contracts are not available on either network. Prepaid is the best option unless you are planning to stay for a long time. Postpaid plans require a three month commitment. Although postpaid is slightly more expensive than prepaid, the savings in real life are negligible.

After three months of inactivity, standard SIM cards will be disabled. However, cards for tourists expire at the end of three months. You can expect to receive promotional texts every day from any provider, offering discounts on services that you are unlikely to use.

How to buy a prepaid SIM card in India

 Like many other things in India, buying a SIM card is quite an experience. It all depends on where you purchase it and how the seller handles it. The process can be quick and painless or it may take a long time and prove difficult.

At the Airport, you can purchase a SIM Card from India

You’ll find SIM card kiosks in international airports. Our most recent flight to New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport was at the end of 2019 and we found an Airtel kiosk right near one exit door.

My partner purchased a SIM card from the kiosk in the interest of this article. I waited until we got into the city to purchase the SIM. Although the process was quick and easy, there was a small surcharge to facilitate the transaction.

The rude staff member requested a copy of my passport and a photograph of my partner using a webcam. She then asked for her signature on a few pieces of paper and sent us off with the assurance that the SIM would be working by 11pm that evening (around twelve hours later).

This didn’t happen. However, even if it does, you shouldn’t expect your SIM card to work immediately. You will need an alternate solution for the first few hours if you need data to call Uber, or to navigate to your hotel. This was done with a surf roam data SIM.

Although the Airtel kiosk in New Delhi airport seems to be reliable, it didn’t work for us. It didn’t work that night or the next day. It took three calls from our guesthouse owner and the kiosk at the airport to get it working.

If you experience the same problem and your Airtel SIM stops working after 24 hours you will need to call the store or return it to get things resolved. You won’t find any other stores that can help, even official ones.

You will need to give your name and the number of your receipt. You should include all details on your receipt. However, if you require their phone number, it is 99586 41785.

After the line has been activated and signal is received, you will need to call 59059 in order to activate the service. An automated voice will ask you for your date of birth, the last four digits and your passport number.

You can call the airport kiosk to have your call/text/data added immediately or wait for it to “automatically”.

Purchase an Indian SIM outside the Airport

You will be rewarded with lower prices and more choice if you buy your SIM card at the airport.

It seems that tourists outside of the airport will be able to buy Idea SIM cards more easily than Airtel SIM cards.  This doesn’t necessarily mean it will be easy. It is often a bit easier.

In my case, the owner of my guesthouse asked me if I had purchased a local SIM card as we checked in, and then offered to take me to the nearest store. The small Idea store was located in the South Delhi neighbourhood. There were three employees working there and we were seen immediately.

The staff member completed most of the paperwork. He also took a copy of my passport and a head-and-shoulders photo of me. The guesthouse owner had to provide his address and telephone number. He also needed to provide the verification code that was sent.

I had to give my father’s address and name, even though it was in New Zealand. You don’t have to be exact if there’s no verification.

After selecting a plan and making payment, the staff member inserted the SIM card into my smartphone and it began working immediately.  It took about 15 minutes to complete the entire process.

It is important to note that this would have been much harder and taken longer without the help of a guesthouse owner. I strongly recommend that you book a place where there are reviews that mention help with purchasing a SIM.

You should be aware that you may end up buying a SIM already activated if you decide to do it yourself. It means that it is already registered to someone else and you won’t know when it expires. People have reported buying these cards and seeing their cards stop working after a week. There is no way to retrieve any credit.

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is a great alternative for those with an iPhone or another supported device. It often comes at very affordable rates.

Prepaid SIM costs

 India is a very affordable country for cell service, but prices will vary depending on whether your SIM is purchased at the airport.

The Airtel SIM and call/text/data bundle costs 900 rupees ($13) when purchased at New Delhi’s airport. The bundle included 1.5GB data, 100 domestic texts per daily, and unlimited domestic calls for up to four weeks.

If you are able to get past the paperwork hurdles, the cost of buying the same bundle elsewhere is 248 rupees. The vendor may charge you 50-100 rupees for the SIM card.

My Idea package cost me 199 rupees. The package included 1.5GB of data, 100 SMS per day, unlimited domestic calls, and unlimited data for four weeks. The SIM card cost 51 rupees, which was a total of 250 rupees.

There are many other packages available. You can search the most recent offers online ( Airtel and Vodafone Idea).

Topping Up

 You can top up your account by visiting one of the small shops that sells credit packages and cash transactions. These packages are priced by networks so shop owners won’t really try to rip you off

It’s a good idea, however, to check your balance while you are still with the vendor. Every provider has a code to check your balance. Airtel’s code is *123*11#. This will return a message with your remaining data, voice and SMS credit.

A local credit card is required for most credit-related options. was the only one that allowed me to use my foreign credit card. I was charged $0.99 USD for this service fee.

Coverage and data speeds

 India’s cellular service areas are broken into close to two dozen “circles”, which roughly align with the various states.. This matters less than it used to, as call, text, and data bundles now apply countrywide.  However, you will still need to make sure that data roaming is turned on when you leave the area where your SIM card was purchased.

I discovered that my Android phone had an Idea SIM and I was prompted to enable data roaming after I moved to another state. It worked perfectly from there.

Airtel would give us “No Service” when we entered a new state with an iPhone. This is even if we had data roaming enabled. We would need to manually select an Airtel Network (via Settings – Mobile Data – Primary – Network Selection) every time we want things to work again.

4G/LTE is available all over the country, but speeds are not always very fast.

For example, in Delhi, LTE download speeds were much faster with Idea than Airtel. Airtel however had faster upload speeds. Although coverage was available nearly anywhere in the city with Airtel, data sometimes stopped working or slowed down to unacceptable levels with both providers.

Both on this trip, and a previous one, we had the same experience with service and speed in other parts of the country. It may be worth purchasing a SIM card from one provider if you are staying for a long time and have trouble getting reliable service.

This assumes you are able to handle the second purchase process.


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