Recently, I was planning a trip to India, and a crucial issue came up: How was I to stay connected? Would my US cellphone work in India? I’d had uneven results on earlier trips, and used a patchwork of solutions (usually involving kind friends).
Anyway, this time I resolved to Be Prepared. I called my cellphone provider. Yes, they had coverage in India through roaming agreements. It would cost $10 per month for global roaming, and then another $2.29 per minute for each call. Incoming or outgoing. (And if I wanted text messaging, it would cost $20 per month, plus 20 cents per message.) Yow. Someone I know had run up a $1000 phone bill after a short trip to India. Now I understood how.
Anyway, I enabled it. What choice did I have?
That’s what I emailed friends in India to find out. One said, “No problem, we’ll just change the SIM card. You’ll have an Indian phone. We can do it at the nearby stationery store.” Another said, “The best option is to buy an Indian phone. You’ll need ID and an Indian address.”
So I landed in India and strolled down to the nearby market with my friend who was hosting me. (One thing I love about India: All these little markets with shops providing pretty nearly everything, walking distance from most peoples’ homes.)
The first idea was a non-starter. “US phone?” The stationery store man shook his head sadly. “The wave-length is different.” He tried anyway, but it didn’t work. He restored my US mobile phone to its pristine $2.29-per-minuteness, and pointed to the mobile phone shop, a few stores over.
They were in the process of cleaning behind their display cabinets, which had been moved to the center of the tiny shop. We offered to return later. “No, no, no problem,” said the man in charge. We maneuvered around the displaced cabinets, the man with the broom, the man helping him, and wedged ourselves into a small space near the counter.
Once we’d explained the problem, he promptly pulled out the cheapest Nokia phone, and a contract. I needed ID, which was provided by my passport. I needed a local address and a local sponsor, provided by my friend. (“It’s because of the terrorism,” she said. “They didn’t need all this before.”)
WHY YOU SHOULD GET AN INDIAN CELLPHONE IN INDIA
The phone cost Rs1350 (or the next model up would cost Rs1600), the SIM card Rs 100, and I added Rs500 of prepaid minutes. Calls cost only a few rupees a minute, whether local or international. He could bill it to my US credit card, no problem. So for a total of US$45, I was all set. (The exchange rate is around US$1=Rs45.)
No $1000 cell-phone bills for me. The only thing that’s wrong with this phone is the barrage of junk-texts. Thank goodness we don’t have text-spam in the US.
[ETA: Apparently, I had another option – to take a US phone on which the contract had expired, after getting it unlocked. Check the comments to this post.]
[ETA2: I should mention that the SIM card will expire if unused for 2 months. However, getting a new SIM card is relatively cheap – under US$4. It does mean getting a new phone number on each visit.]
There are four GSM frequency bands. So, a quad band GSM phone will work anywhere in India, and in the US as well with a GSM carrier such as T-Mobile. If you get your phone in the US with a contract, it will probably be locked and will not accept an Indian SIM card. Once the contract expires, the carrier will unlock it for you – call their support line, tell them you want the phone unlocked and provide them with the electronic serial number (called the IMEI number). They will send you an unlock code and instructions for unlocking your phone. These days, we always unlock our phones when the contract expires, and when we travel to India, we always take along an unlocked phone. Last year, I bought a SIM card when I was in Noida, and it worked well in Chennai and Bangalore for Siddharth and me later in the year.
Yes, the SMS spam is annoying – and it comes from the mobile phone company, not from anyone else. But the cell phone rates in India are some of the lowest in the world.
Would an unlocked phone work in the US? In other words, can I get my regular cellphone unlocked? Or do I save my older phones following an upgrade and use those?
Yes, an unlocked GSM phone will work anywhere, including in the US, as long as at least one frequency band supported by the phone matches one frequency band used by the carrier.
I have never tried getting a carrier to unlock a phone that was still under contract. In theory, they should not object because the contract says you will pay for service from them for two years (or other period), not that you will use that service. In practice, I don’t know. The best time to unlock your phone is after the contract expires and before getting a new handset.
Years ago, I bought a cheap Nokia cell phone in India for use only in India. Whenever I go there for a visit I just get a new SIM card. Works like a charm. Yes, now the Indian authorities have become strict about requiring an ID and local address, but that’s easy enough to take care of.