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Prepaid Phone and Internet in Mexico

Written by Jessica on January 2, 2012

This article is part of our Internet and Phone Report series.

jess on the phoneIn 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.

Understanding Prepaid

A few things you should know about prepaid phone plans:

  1. There is no contract.
  2. You must put money on your account before using the phone. When the money runs out, the phone doesn’t work.
  3. You can recharge your phone everywhere - supermarkets, gas stations, small street-side shops.
  4. You must have an UNLOCKED GSM cell phone or dongle for this to work. Or you must buy one from the carrier.

The Two Companies

There are two large cell phone companies in Mexico: Telcel and Movistar. Here’s the lowdown on both of them.

Telcel LogoTelcel: 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 logoMovistar: 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.

Calling on the Phone

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.

Data on Smartphones

Sony Ericson XperiaWe 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.

Data on a Dongle

usb modemPrepaid 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

RecargasRecharging (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.

Checking Balances

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.

The Bottom Line

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.

Comments  

 
Shaurya
#22 Shaurya 2014-02-15 15:48
Hey
I need to purchase a pre paid sim in Mexico and do not know where I can buy one. Can you please help?
 
 
JessicaM
#21 JessicaM 2014-01-26 07:52
Hi Susan,
Just buy the Telcel modem when you get there. It's the same price and it will be much easier to setup. Good luck!
Jessica
 
 
susan
#20 susan 2014-01-19 19:05
Thank you for all the great info. I am Canadian. Will be working in Cancun for the month of March and need to use my laptop at least 8 hours per day for work, plus it would be great if I had Netflix because no TV or wifi in my place. Definitely plan to get the Telcel data plan, the 3GB for 30 days for 399 pesos: http://www.internet.telcel.com/paquetes.html#tab1
If possible I would like to buy an unlocked USB modem before leaving home and just sign up for the plan when I get there. Do you think this is a good plan? Or do you think it is better to buy a Telcel modem when I get there? I need a huge degree of reliability so I can meet work deadlines, and want the fewest headaches possible. Appreciate advice--thanks.
 
 
R. Wiggum
#19 R. Wiggum 2014-01-14 03:14
I used this to setup an unlocked cell android in Baja outside TJ. I really appreciated having a few sites like this to help. I was able to pick up a prepaid SIM in "Centro" (Downtown TJ) for 100 pesos (less than 10 bucks @ current rates). Once setup, it took a few texts and talking to a person w/ way better Spanish than mine to get the data hooked up. You basically refill your SIM (at like an Oxxo store) and then send a text choosing where to apply the funds. It was pretty straightforward . Besides the 60 pesos of calls already loaded on my chip, I loaded 200 pesos. I am on a "Unlimited" plan now, which is of course limited in all sorts of ways. It's enough for my needs though. There was a "2 for one" with the minutes, so my 200 pesos got me a plan that included 400 pesos credit of talktime, "unlimited use of Facebook/Twitte r/Spotify" (which I don't really use), and I think like 500 MB of data. I'm on wifi most of the time anyhow, and you can always load more. My Spanish as aforementioned is poor, so I'm not so sure exactly how much actual internet I get. They said unlimited, but also sent a text that said "unimited facebook/twitte r". I'm not sure if that means I can't visit other sites or what. It's a little frustrating, and getting someone at *611 or customer service to speak English is impossible. Even with a Spanish speaking friend I was unable to even reach a real person at Movistar. :|

If you're setting up an android/smartph one, especially one unlocked from another country or carrier, you may need to manually set you APNs for mobile date. These can be found in your mobile network settings on Android. I used this website, and I was up and running in 5 mintues, on HSPA "4g", which although isn't nearly as fast as my LTE was just across the border, is still plenty for my needs (top speeds around 6 Mb/s). I don't plan on downloading movies onto my phone or anything, so it's fine. I really use it mostly for Google maps and to call the USA or cell phones in Mexico w/ my VOIP setup. Depending on where you are, and who you're calling, this can be a cheaper option. Still, at two pesos a minute to the USA, this is by far the best option for me to stay in touch with people on both sides of the border. Thanks for the info.

Here is the website to help setup a data connection for Movistar on a smartphone. Saved me a lot of heartache trying to sort out my data connection.
http://www.unlockit.co.nz/mobilesettings/settings.php?id=14
 
 
Jessicam
#18 Jessicam 2013-12-07 05:14
Hi Anthony,
Long story short it could be many different things. It could be that you are checking your balance and that costs a small amount. It could be something else. I'd go to a shop and ask.
Jessica
 
 
Antony
#17 Antony 2013-12-06 03:57
Hi thanks for all the feeds guys. I have a question.
I recharged my sim for a 2gb internet plan for a month. I got 300 and 50 as salda. But the problem is my balance is deducting every now and then. It's left with only 250 pesos now. Can anyone tell why it is? Is it because I'm using Facebook and Twitter.. ? If that's the case is there any plan that I can activate to make my Facebook and Twitter apps free of cost.. please post me the procedure to activate the plan
 
 
Vincent
#16 Vincent 2013-10-18 04:56
Just to clarify, Telcel and Iusacell also allows to tether Data, so if you buy a 3GB pack for 30 days you can use it anyway you want. The computer does eats a lot more Data then the phone.
 
 
JERRY
#15 JERRY 2013-10-16 20:26
Marrisa, YES you can tether your phone to your computer, BUT VERY VERY EXPENSIVE. It eats the data pretty fast. but if you buy the dongle you will see a big differance. I can tell you, no matter where your at when you teather your phone be it in the USA or Mexico it cost!!!
 
 
JERRY
#14 JERRY 2013-10-16 20:20
I have lived in Mexico for the past 5 years. Everything that was posted by the original person is SO CORRECT!!! Exelente advice. You can use *333 to get your balance for TELCEL. If you know your spanish well you can change the info from SPANISH to ENGLISH. I do like Telcel better for the coverage and the convience of adding 30 pesos here and there to keep your balance up to date. you can also buy a 100 peso or 200 peso's card and add it to your account buy dialing *333 at least in the state of CHIHUAHUA.. hope this helped
 
 
jessicam
#13 jessicam 2013-09-26 00:13
Hi Marissa,
Yes, assuming that your android phone is GSM and can accept a SIM card, you can take it to Mexico buy a prepaid SIM, sign up for a data package and tether your heart out. It may take some work to get the data package right, so you aren't running out constantly or paying a per KB price, but with some basic spanish you should be able to sort it out. Good luck!
Jessica
 
 
Marissa
#12 Marissa 2013-09-25 18:18
Thanks for tgis great article! I'm re-reading it again to be sure I understand all the options. My question is: is it possible with the Mexican phone companies to use your android phone for "tethering" to the internet? Maybe if you have the data plan package? I'll only be in Mexico 1 month & hesitate to invest in the dongle if I don't use one in the US. What are your suggestions? Thanks a heap!
 
 
Vincent
#11 Vincent 2013-03-25 21:45
I started a company that sells SIM to people that come to Mexico. They receive their activated SIM or USB Modem before their trip and they can refill them if they run out of credits. I sell Telcel products which are very good for coverage and Iusacell which works much faster then Telcel in 100,000+ cities. Come have a peak!
www.mexicosimcard.com
 
 
Dave
#10 Dave 2013-01-20 02:12
The Telcel information was much appreciated. We looked into the dongle, but the speed really isn't all that rapido. Maybe 1.5-2.5MB download. Handy for many things but we're going to tough out the shared internet here at our condo for a while. But we did get a payg cellphone. This article really helped a lot! Many thanks. And happy travels!
 
 
Derek
#9 Derek 2013-01-17 23:00
Thanks - this was really useful. Just got to Playa Carmen, ended up getting 4 sim cards; two for the USB ports for our laptops, 2 for our smartphones. Only snag was, our phones can't get online yet even though we got the confirmation sms... we'll have to go back to the Telcel office tomorrow. They were very friendly and helpful, but so slow...
 
 
daniel
#8 daniel 2012-12-20 04:12
checking the balance on Movistar is very easy, you just call to *SALDO>*72536(s aldo means balance)and a machine will tell you in spanish your balance, but don't worry, before the call ends (because it ends automatically) or a few seconds after the call ends, you'll receive an SMS with you balances, the one you bought and the free balance that they give to you with the buy-one-get-one -free deal.
 
 
jessicam
#7 jessicam 2012-08-03 00:06
Interesting info John. And that makes a lot of sense. At least telcel in Mexico has a system setup to register SIM cards for foreigners. In El Salvador registration was also required, but it was impossible unless you have a resident card. We ended up buying on the street from someone who was willing to enter another persons' info on our behalf.
 
 
John Adams
#6 John Adams 2012-08-03 00:01
There's a relatively new federal law in Mexico requiring that purchasers of SIMS and cellphones with installed SIMS register their names and identifying information (driver's license, passport). This law was ostensibly enacted to deter kidnappers from using cellphones to make ransom demands.

Telcel is complying, and has even gone so far as terminating the service of its existing customers who refused to comply. Moviestar is fighting the law, and is not implementing it pending a final court determination favoring the law.

Some Telcel dealers, anxious to make sales, will register the phones in their names, thereby saving you the hassle.
 
 
Jessicam
#5 Jessicam 2012-01-17 01:45
Good news about the dongle, bad news about the phone. Hope you find it!
 
 
James
#4 James 2012-01-17 00:43
Yep my telcel SIM worked fine in the unlocked dongle, looks like I have managed to lose my damn phone though... tearing apart the truck tomorrow to hopefully find it.
 
 
Jessicam
#3 Jessicam 2012-01-10 14:04
Thanks for the info James. See the problem I had with Telcel, was that I could never get the registration to go through. Likely due to my lack of patience with the interwebs in general. Did you get the telcel sim to work on your unlocked dongle? We were told that wasn't possible at Telcel, but I wouldn't be surprised if that was a load of crap.

Will check out your site later today. It does sound like you aren't too far behind us, but out blog posts are usually about a week late. We're over on the Yucatan coast near Tulum now, planning to head to Belize this Saturday. Likely we'll overlap in Guatemala. We're stopping near Antigua for a few months to do some volunteering and study Spanish. Anyway, keep in touch and we'll meet up soon!
 
 
James
#2 James 2012-01-10 01:28
Got my stuff all sorted out.

You can check your TelCel balance and refill you balance online at https://www.atencionenlinea.telcel.com/atencion_clientes/index.jsp

You have to register your account first, put your number in that bottom right box "Regístrate en Mi Telcel" and follow the prompts to get yourself setup (PS: Google translate is a gift from baby jesus)

Once you get signed in, click on the top right "Consulta tu Saldo" to see your remaining balance and click under Servicos "Tiempo Aire con Cargo a Tarjeta" to refill your SIM via credit card.

You can also check your balance by calling *133#
 
 
James
#1 James 2012-01-09 23:13
Whats up guys! Just tracked you down via my buddy Brenton (Ruined Adventures) blog. I spent most of today here in Moreilas jumping from telcel distribiutor to distribuotr before finally hiking 3 miles to get to the legit Telcel HQ. After about 3 hours of back and forth I FINALLY have a telcel SIM, got it configured and working on my unlocked ATT LG Thrive. I also picked up a unlocked USB dongle back in the states, next step it to try and get this SIM working in that badboy. Going to catch up on the rest of your posts now, were a week or so behind you it seems. Headed out to Sierra Chincua tomorrow to check out the butterflys and then off to Mexico City. Look foward to meeting up with you guy somewhere down the road.
 

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