One of the most common questions asked when people are coming down to Mexico is what to do about their cell phones. While each person’s situation will be a little different and there are hundreds of options to choose, here are some basic tips for cell phones in Mexico.
Did you know the richest man in the world is Mexican? Mr. Carlos Slim owns Telcel the largest cellular company in Mexico, among other things. The world of cell phone companies is complicated and rife with intrigue and drama, none of which I’m going to go into. What you need to know about Telcel is that it has the largest service area in Mexico. If you are traveling around the country, Telcel is the company to choose.
Personally, all the service providers suck. Cell phones in Mexico are expensive and until recently the only real option was Telcel. With the passing of anti-monopoly laws this is slowly changing.
There are other companies that may work well for your purposes including Nextel and iUSACell. Each has its own benefits and you can see their options online.
For our purposes we are going to focus on Telcel because it is the most accessible.
Cell phone options in Mexico
Depending on how long you are planning on being in Mexico you may have a few different options for cell phones in Mexico.
- Add-on. Get an appropriate international plan with your carrier before you leave your home country.
This is great if you’re here for a short time. Don’t want or need a local number and have access to free wifi (or a starbucks nearby).
- Purchase a phone in Mexico. For as little as $20 ($300 pesos) you can buy a ‘burner’ phone at most grocery stores or convenience stores. This phone will come with a chip, its own phone number and anywhere from $10-300 pesos credit. The first time you use it you will be asked to register via text message (in Spanish) your name and birthdate.
These burner phones are cheap and easy to use – great for calling taxis, making dinner reservations and staying in touch with your fellow travellers. For $20 you only get a phone (no whatsapp, no facebook, no translator app) and depending on your level of expertise, the frustration of trying to send a text message using T9 may be enough for you to drink (more margaritas.)
- Just the chip. You can also purchase only the chip for $150 pesos (with $50-100 pesos in credit) if you have an unlocked phone. This gives you a local phone number and you get to continue using your phone that you know and love.
Likely you have a cell phone from the US or Canada that you want to bring with you. This phone needs to be unlocked which means that the phone company you purchased it from will allow you to change carriers. Usually this can only be done if you’ve finished the contract on your phone.
Depending on your phone it is possible to unlock most of the time and there are many places that offer this service. Expect to pay about $500 pesos for it to be done in Mexico. Or search Craigslist in your city for businesses that offer this service. Note: make sure the chip you buy is the correct size. Some phones use microchips. Both are available for purchase.
- Skip all the nonsense and buy one. You want a smartphone but you don’t want to or can’t unlock yours. You can buy a phone outright from all the various cell phone companies. You won’t have a contract and you’ll be able to buy as much cell service as you need, when you need it. While pricey upfront this is a great option if you travel in Mexico frequently or for long periods of time.
Again, I don’t love Telcel and they are not paying me to write this but for matter of convenience and demonstration purposes here are some tips that I enjoy.
Telcel has a number of promotions that are not always advertised. It is good to check out their website for offers and tips including:
- When you buy cell phone credit of more than $100 pesos at a time you get bonus (regalo) credit. The amounts can change but currently if you pay for $500 pesos you get a regalo of $400 – this is good for calls and text messages and using the internet – and more than enough for a month of service.
- If you put more than $200 pesos on the phone each month your cost for local calls drops from about $2 pesos to less than $1 peso per minute.
- Free facebook and whatsapp. This promotion seems to come and go. You need to register your phone number online and this may be a bonus available. Another is 2 or 3 free phone numbers.
- Free phone numbers are only good with other Telcel phone numbers and while you can make unlimited calls to those numbers they are limited to under 5 minutes. Consider adding a timer app to your smartphone to remind you when time is up.
- Without a contract you can still buy monthly packages for internet, text messages and calls. This is called the Amigo plan and it is as easy as sending a text message each month. For example you can add 2gb of internet for $349 pesos. You send Medio 30 to the number 5050 and for the next 30 days you get 2gb of internet and the cost is deducted from your balance. (You can not use regalo credit for purchases.) There are bigger and smaller amounts as well as one day or week-long packages you can purchase.
Have tips of your own? Leave them in the comments.
Calling in Mexico is a whole other can of worms. That’s for next week.
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