This article is part of our Internet and Phone Report series.
In Mexico, we setup two types of prepaid data connections via cell phone network. In the US we bought an unlocked 3G Android phone and an unlocked USB 3G modem. The day we crossed into Mexico we bought SIM cards for both devices and setup prepaid accounts. The phone was used both for calling and for checking email. The modem came in handy when we needed to reply to an email in the middle of a long drive or when the internet in our hotel or campsite went down. About half way through our time in Mexico we also purchased a new proprietary USB 3G modem. Details on this below.
A few things you should know about prepaid phone plans:
There are two large cell phone companies in Mexico: Telcel and Movistar. Here’s the lowdown on both of them.
Telcel: Excellent coverage, but more expensive. Expect to pay double for anything from Telcel, but also expect that it will work in any town. It is also a pain to get a SIM card from Telcel. You’ll have to present your passport and do a bunch of paperwork. It took us three tries and 2 hours in the store to get a Telcel data plan setup. However it works marvelously (compared to Movistar), more on this below.
Movistar: The underdog. Cheap and easy. We used Movistar for our cell phone. The rate to call the USA from Mexico was only 2 pesos per minute (15 cents). Coverage wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible either. A lot of the small beach towns in Baja that had amazing camping didn’t have Movistar coverage. A bummer for us, but most towns with more than 1000 people had signal. Buying SIM cards took all of about 5 minutes.
Using a local prepaid SIM card for phone calls was simple. We already had an unlocked quad band phone. We purchased a Movistar SIM card in Ensenada for $150 pesos ($12). Movistar was our choice because of the ridiculously cheap rate to call the US. Investigate up to date calling rates before you buy!
I used this phone for scheduled conference calls every week. It was also cheap enough that we used it to call home every now and then to let Mom know we’re still alive
We recharged this phone several times during the two months we spent in Mexico without a hassle. Be aware that the free minutes that come with recharging are not valid for international calls. Movistar has a buy-one-get-one-free deal when buying time, but it took us a while to figure out that the free minutes only work for calls within Mexico.
If you are going to stay in remote areas, it’s probably better to go with Telcel. If you’re calling the US or Canada often, stick with Movistar and save some cash.
We also used our Android phone for checking emails, translating Spanish and occasionally consulting Google Maps while lost. It is easy to setup data on your phone once you have a SIM card and money on the account. If you don’t explicitly buy data you can still use data on your device, but it will be taken out of your account balance at a very expensive rate. The best thing to do is to sign up for a package deal. The most expensive (with Movistar) is $200 pesos ($15) for 1GB which expires in 1 month. Here’s the current list of options.
To sign up for one of these packages you send a text message to a special number and money is automatically taken from your account balance to pay for your data package. For example, to sign up for 1GB over 30 days, a $200 peso plan, you send a text message to 100 that says “30 dias”. $200 pesos will be removed from your account and you’ll have a gig of data to use. Telcel works the same way, only different rates and text messages. Note that all Telcel prepaid plans are currently referred to as “Amigo”. Here are Telcel’s current smartphone data rates.
Prepaid USB dongle plans are amazing. I was skeptical when we started, but this little modem prevented many missed deadlines and angry clients. Easily worth it’s weight in gold!
When we first entered Baja we bought a data SIM card for our unlocked 3G modem from Movistar. We checked with Telcel too, but didn’t have the patience to wait at the office for a few hours. It cost $200 pesos ($15 USD) for the card and it came with a free 3GB for the first month. Here’s a current list of modem data use prices for Movistar.
Our experience with the Movistar dongle wasn’t so great. It worked fine for the first 2 weeks, except for the distinct lack of coverage in a few key areas. Then one day it ran out of money. Slightly impossible, knowing that we used less than 500mb total. We didn’t have the patience to try and sort out the problem. It could have been related to the unlocked “non-Movistar” dongle, or it could have been a problem with our account.
Three weeks into our trip, we bought a second dongle, this time from Telcel. It was a royal pain in the butt, but we eventually found an official Telcel center (not a distributor), and things went smoothly. Telcel doesn’t sell SIM cards separately, and given our bad experience with Movistar we thought we’d pay the full price for the modem.
For $540 pesos ($41 USD) we had a shiny new 3G modem with another free 3GB of data, which expired in 30 days. It took a while to get it to work in the store, the Movistar software conflicted the with the Telcel software and technical support had to be called in. It wasn’t such a big deal, lesson learned: always test the modem in the store!
The Telcel modem was excellent. It worked everywhere, even while driving on freeways in the middle of nowhere. In some places we couldn’t get a good 3G signal and the connection was painfully slow. Most times it would have been difficult to download anything over 100mb or do any type of video or voice calling. I did successfully complete several uploads over 50mb, it took a while, but it worked.
Recharging with Telcel is more expensive than with Movistar. 3GB will cost another $500 pesos ($38 USD). Here are Telcel's USB modem rates. Even though it’s a bit more expensive and a hassle to purchase, I'd recommend the Telcel 3G data modem over Movistar simply because the coverage is so much better.
Recharging (adding money to your prepaid account) is simple. Find a shop with a big “Recarga” sign out front. All supermarkets and Oxxo’s will be able to recharge. Give the people at the counter your money and your phone number. They will put the money on your account. You will get a text message within a few minutes confirming your recharge.
Once the money is on the account you have several choices. You can use it for voice calls with no further action required. Or you can send a text to sign up for data packages. The number you send the text too and the message itself will determine what type of package you are signing up for.
Recharging USB modems is similar to phone data plans. The SIM card in the device has a phone number assigned to it, don’t lose it, you need it to recharge! Add money to that phone number just like you would with a phone. Once the money is on the account you have to choose which plan you want. You can either plug the dongle into your computer and use the software included with the modem to send an SMS, or you can put the SIM card in a phone and send an SMS from the phone.
Note that if you are using an unlocked dongle from another country you may not be able to install the software for that company. We were not able to use the Movistar software with the dongle we bought in the US, and had no easy way to check our balance.
We found it to be a total pain to check the balances on all of our devices. There is probably a simple SMS way to get your balance, but we could never sort it out.
Eventually, after a lot of trial an error we did manage to setup an account for our phone at MiMovistar. Here we could access our balance, and see a list of all our calls. We went through the same steps to setup an account for our Movistar data modem, and could never get access.
With Telcel, we could use the software on our computer to see how much data we used, but it only totaled for the computer it was plugged into. Because we used the dongle on 3 different machines, finding the balance was a pain.
If you need to have good internet in Mexico, invest in a Telcel USB modem. For calls to the US, Movistar is currently the cheapest, but not the best for coverage. Recharging is easy, but knowing how much balance you have left is a pain. Both companies have good websites, and with basic Spanish and the help of Google translate you can determine the best deals easily.