Data Roaming in Mexico – Obtaining an Local SIM (Telcel)

Monday, January 23, 2012

The original narrative in my first blog entry described how a trip to Mexico in 2011 with a slight amount of data usage, resulted in a $900 data bill through my home carrier Fido.  I’m heading to Mexico again, but this time I have managed to arrange a Mexican SIM card in advance.  Thanks to my preparation, the data that I was charged $900 for through my home carrier Fido, will cost me $2.22 through Mexican carrier Telcel.

Mexico is one of the countries where the local equivalent of a Social Security or Social Insurance Number (a CURP) is required to obtain a mobile phone SIM, which means if you’re a tourist, it will likely be a big hassle or simply impossible to find a Mexican citizen to vouch for you.  And if you don’t speak Spanish, this problem is further compounded.  Fortunately I discovered a service that will provide you with a Telcel Mexican SIM card in advance, and will take care of its activation for you.

Travelers Telecom (also on eBay at travelers_telecom) is a US-based company that provides SIM cards for a variety of countries.  Through their eBay page, I purchased a Telcel SIM card for Mexico for $29.95.  Their Telecel SIM provides you with a Mexico City-based phone number.  Travelers Telecom provides detailed instructions on how to activate the card (along with some handy tips for using different Internet-based services to eliminate long distance charges) including an English translation of the Spanish Telcel web site (which you may utilize to add credit to the prepaid SIM).  If you are using an iPhone 4, iPad, or other device that requires a microSIM, be sure to mention this when you order, otherwise you’ll need to perform the delicate job of cutting your SIM card down to the smaller size yourself.

The SIM will be accompanied by some instructions, including some activation codes.  To activate the SIM, you will need to SMS a message formatted something like “ALTA.JTJ48342HABH2881718” to 2877.  This can be done from outside of Mexico so you can ensure it works prior to arrival.  You’ll receive some messages in Spanish confirming activation and you’ll also receive an SMS welcoming you to Telcel.  If you don’t speak Spanish, just use Google Translate to translate it.

Before using the SIM card, you need to add some airtime/credit to it.  Technically you can wait until you get to Mexico to do this, since you can just buy an airtime card from any corner store, however I like to prepare everything in advance so I wanted to add airtime prior to my trip.  Credit is valid for either 30 or 60 days depending on the amount (larger amounts are valid for longer periods).  When you add your first airtime top-up, you will also receive an additional bonus of approximately US$10 of airtime.

The Telcel web site supposedly accepts Visa and MasterCard from all International customers through its SIM recharge site, however I ran into great difficulty with it accepting either my Canadian or US credit cards.  It wouldn’t accept the format of a Canadian Postal Code and thus my Canadian credit cards wouldn’t pass the address verification test.  For my US card, it said that I had to wait for someone to phone me as a security check, but the call never came & the credit was never charged or added.  Luckily I found another service that I could use to eliminate that problem.

Pinzoo.com is a web-based service that sells wireless minutes and long distance calling cards.  While they primarily sell airtime for the gamut of US carriers, they do sell wireless airtime for carriers in India, Indonesia, Russia – and Telcel in Mexico.  They accept a variety of payment methods, including PayPal.  You can add airtime in denominations of US$10, $20, $30 or $50.  Upon my first order with Pinzoo, they needed to phone me as a security verification, so it’s best for you to add airtime to your Mexican SIM card before you leave your home country, so it’s easier for them to do this.  Since returning from Mexico, I have also discovered http://www.babblebug.com which appears to be a one-stop shop for international airtime top-ups.  In either case, the minimum order for Telcel airtime is US$10.

Since the purpose of my blog is primarily to assist people with data roaming, it’s important to know the data roaming rates so you can buy the appropriate amount of credit.  As of January 2012, there were a number of data packages available under the “Internet Telcel Amigo” plan.

MB/GB Code Price (Pesos) Duration
15MB BAT0 $15.00(USD1.15) 1 Day
100MB BAT1 $49.00(USD3.80) 1 Day
200MB BAT2 $79.00(USD6.00) 2 Days
700MB BAT7 $199.00(USD15.30) 7 Days
1.5GB BAT15 $299.00(USD23.00) 15 Days
3.0GB BAT30 $499.00(USD38.00) 30 Days

Adding a data package is as simple as texting the corresponding “code” via SMS to 5050 on your Telcel phone.  Incidentally, the 3GB data that costs USD38.00 through Telcel would cost $90,000 if roaming on a Fido SIM card.

Upon arriving in Mexico, I did however have trouble using the SMS method in choosing a data plan (I just kept receiving an error when SMSing my BATxx codes) and discovered in the process that the data plans noted above just became outdated.  Luckily I had my laptop with me & wifi at my hotel, so I was able to register and log in to the Telcel web site to manage my account.  To register with the Telcel web site, navigate to https://www.atencionenlinea.telcel.com/atencion_clientes/index.jsp  In the section entitled “Registrate Mi Telcel” key your 10 digit telephone number and press “Enviar”.  You will then receive a text message with a code, this code can be entered into the screen you have been sent to on the Telcel web site to vaidate your access.

In the bottom-left corner of the screen, you will see your available balance beneath the heading “Ahora consulta tu saldo sin costo.” (in Mexican Pesos of course – just move the decimal place one spot to the left to approximate Canadian or US dollars).  Clicking the link will show you details of the balance, as well as when it’s valid to (“Podrás utilizarlo antes del…”).  Make sure you have enough credit to add the data plan you want.

Back on the main portal screen, around the centre, and under the heading “Consumo de Internet”, you can add a data package by clicking the link “Activa el Paquete que mejor se adapte a tus necesidades de navegación aquí.”  As of January 2012, there were new plans listed.  I have also noted the appropriate code you would SMS to 5050 to activate a given plan, so you don’t have to use the Telcel web site:

Low Consumption (Bajo):

Validity

MB/GB Included

SMS to 5050

Price (Pesos/USD)

 

1 hour

10 MB

BAJO1H

$5.00/38¢

1 day

30 MB

BAJO1

$19.00/$1.46

2 days

50 MB

BAJO2

$39.00/$3.00

7 days

200 MB

BAJO7

$59.00/$4.64

15 days

600 MB

BAJO15

$199.00/$15.30

30 days

1 GB

BAJO30

$299.00/$23.00

Medium Consumption (Medio):

Validity

MB/GB Included

SMS to 5050

Price (Pesos/USD)

1 hour

30 MB

MEDIO1H

$9.00/69¢

1 day

50 MB

MEDIO1

$29.00/$2.23

2 days

100 MB

MEDIO2

$59.00/$4.54

7 days

400 MB

MEDIO7

$99.00/$7.62

15 days

1 GB

MEDIO15

$229.00/$17.62

30 days

2 GB

MEDIO30

$399.00/$30.69

High Consumption (Alto):

Validity

MB/GB Included

SMS to 5050

Price (Pesos/USD)

1 hour

100 MB

ALTO1H

$12.00/92¢

1 day

150 MB

ALTO1

$49.00/$3.77

2 days

200 MB

ALTO2

$79.00/$6.08

7 days

1 GB

ALTO7

$199.00/$15.31

15 days

2 GB

ALTO15

$299.00/$23.00

30 days

3 GB

ALTO30

$499.00/$38.38

If you travel to Mexico often, it’s a good idea to keep your SIM active so you don’t have to buy a new one for each trip (and so you can keep the same local phone number).  After 60 days, your airtime is “frozen” and unusable but it takes 6-12 months for your phone to actually become disconnected if you don’t top it up, so as long as you add some airtime every few months (the minimum through the online airtime top-up sites is US$10) you can keep your SIM active.  And any airtime that has been “frozen” is un-frozen each time you top up, so you won’t lose any credits, for applying to future data packs.