Staying connected is not only convenient, but can also make travel safer. Wi-Fi is not always available so having a local SIM card or ‘chip’ is your best option. What most people don’t know is that buying a local SIM card in each country is usually much easier and cheaper than using an international service from your home country.
This article is based on my experience using local SIM cards in Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. All of the photography and videography in this article is my own – no stock photos, no posing, no filters!
Why Buy a SIM Card in South America?
So why should you buy a SIM card in South America? Why not just use wi-fi?
There are many reasons and the first is safety. If you’re out on the street or trying to get home from somewhere late at night and you have no signal, you’re left at the mercy of taxis. Depending on the country, this can be risky. Whereas if you have mobile connectivity, you can call an Uber which is much safer.
You will also get lost a lot when you are travelling, which is part of the fun of course! However, having access to google maps is really helpful. But I can just use ‘Maps.Me’ right? Yes you can, but being connected means that you have real time public transport information and you can google things on the go that you might want to find out about.
Having directions and being able to search new information when you need it reduces the amount of time that you are lost out on the street, and this keeps you safer.
Making Plans & Meeting People
Have you organised to meet someone at a specific place at a specific time? Arrived on time and no sign of your tour guide, your friend or your date… struggling to find a local place with wi-fi to check if they’re on the way or if you’re in the right place… only receive a message saying “sorry, que pena contigo, can’t make it” an hour later when you get back to your wi-fi zone… welcome to South America without a SIM card!
South America is like the ‘Anti-Europe’ in terms of reliability… last minute cancellations are common. For example in Colombia, it is part of their culture to be as polite as possible. A Colombian friend of mine told me that there’s a social cost to saying “no” and explained that it was an immature part of their culture.
This means that people almost always agree to plans, without even without even thinking about it and this can sometimes lead to them cancelling at the last minute! For someone from another culture this can be very hard to understand and can be really frustrating.
In Brazil, I was waiting around on the beach to meet someone for about 45 minutes. After they arrived, they explained that arranging to meet at 8pm, doesn’t actually mean 8pm. It means sometime after. I can understand this as a cultural quirke if there’s some sort of rule where you add on say, 30 minutes, or 1 hour.
However, with no set rules, sometimes it’s just a complete guessing game. For someone from a culture with decent timekeeping, it makes no sense at all and can even feel disrespectful. But this is all part of trying to understand different cultures and is sometimes simplified into a simple phrase like ‘culture shock’, so try not to take these things personally.
It might seem like I’m rambling on but I’m just trying to save you a lot of time and frustration! Having a local SIM card won’t change culture but it will make it a bit easier and help you to deal with the last minute changes that are so common in South America.
Where to Buy a SIM Card in South America
You’ve just arrived in a new country and you don’t know anything. The easiest way to buy a SIM card is just to ask! In South America, a SIM card is called a ‘chip’ and in Brazil, it’s pronounced as ‘chipi’. Talk to the staff at your hotel or hostel and they should be able to point you in the right direction.
The biggest cell network service providers in South America are Claro and Movistar. I mostly used Claro although in Brazil I used TIM and in Bolivia I used Viva (after my Entel SIM didn’t seem to work!).
In some countries you can buy a SIM card on the street from official cell network vendors. In other countries you can buy a SIM card in a shop or a pharmacy whereas sometimes you need to go to a network provider’s official store. Below is a table showing where to buy a SIM card in each country in South America.
|Country||Where to Buy a SIM Card|
|Brazil||Cell Network Provider Store / Convenience Store / Supermarket / Pharmacy|
|Paraguay||Cell Network Provider Store / Convenience Store / Supermarket / On Street Kiosk|
|Uruguay||Cell Network Provider Store / Convenience Store / Supermarket / On Street Kiosk|
|Argentina||Cell Network Provider Store / Convenience Store / Supermarket / On Street Kiosk / Pharmacy|
|Chile||Cell Network Provider Store / Convenience Store / Street Kiosk Supermarket / Pharmacy|
|Bolivia||Cell Network Provider Store|
|Peru||Cell Network Provider Store|
|Ecuador||Cell Network Provider Store|
|Colombia||Cell Network Provider Store / Convenience Store / Supermarket / On Street Kiosk / Pharmacy|
How Much Does a SIM Card Cost in South America
SIM Cards in South America cost between €1-5 ($1-5) to buy. The cost to top up a SIM Card with data is about €10 ($11) per month. For someone coming from Europe or the USA, this is good value for the convenience that it gives you. The table below shows the cost of buying a SIM card in countries across South America.
|Country||Cost of a SIM Card|
|Brazil||10 BRL (€2 / $2.50)|
|Paraguay||10,000 PYG (€1 / $1.50)|
|Uruguay||50 UYU (€1 / $1.50)|
|Argentina||130 ARS (€2 / $2.50)|
|Chile||2,000 CLP (€2 / $2.50)|
|Bolivia||10 CLP (€1.50 / $1.50)|
|Peru||5 PEN (€1.50 / $1.50)|
|Ecuador||5 USD (€4.50)|
|Colombia||5,000 COP (€1.50 / $1.50)|
How to Activate a SIM Card in South America
Sometimes you buy a SIM card in a shop and all you have to do is top up and go. However, in a few countries you need to provide an identity or passport number. Activation might need to be done in store, by text message or by phone. In Chile, you might need to provide a RUT (Chilean Identity Number)… I asked the owner of my hostel for help registering and he just entered his RUT number. In Colombia, your phone’s IMEI number needs to be registered although your network provider should do this for you automatically.
In Brazil, you might be asked for a CPF (Brazilian Identity Number) but as a tourist you won’t have this so you need to provide your passport number (I have read that only TIM and Claro can be set up without a CPF). I did this over the phone although I have no idea how I found an English speaking customer service agent on the TIM helpline… I guess that if you just keep speaking in poor quality Portuguese or in English, they’ll find the English speaking guy who deals with foreigners!
If you don’t speak any Portuguese, it’s probably easier to buy a SIM in an official network provider store and get it registered there at the same time. It’s always easier to get things done in person rather than by phone because you can point at things!
How to Top Up a Pre-Paid SIM Card in South America
Generally, you purchase an amount in any store and then you activate this top up amount by typing an MMI code into your phone. An MMI code is when you dial a series of symbols and numbers (for example, *611) and then receive options on screen. All SIM Cards that I used in South America were topped up by using MMI code. So just remember that even if you’ve paid for the top up, you might still need to activate a ‘plan’.
With pay as you go top ups, you might have a choice of several different plans, some with talk time and data together and some only with talk time or solely data, depending on what you need. In most cases, the big network providers provide free WhatsApp messaging (not including data for images and video) which is really great value. I always bought data only plans and just used WhatsApp to call people.
So if you are in a country for a month or less and you have free WhatsApp with your plan, you might only need to top up once! Generally, I only used data for things like Google Maps, Tripadvisor and Uber when I was out and about and these apps don’t use up too much data. So unless you’re streaming audio or video, you probably won’t need to top up too often.
How to Insert a South American SIM Card in your Cellphone
SIM cards come in different sizes; SIM, MicroSIM and NanoSIM. Don’t worry though, because an adapter can be used if your SIM card slot is too big. For example if you have a Micro SIM slot but the cell provider has given you a Nano SIM, you can use an adapter which is a Micro SIM shaped card with a slot to insert your Nano SIM. The photo above shows a SIM Card Adapter Kit which can be useful although SIM cards usually come in Nano size with a Micro adapter included.
All you need is a small object like a paperclip to open your SIM card slot and somewhere to store your other SIM card. You can buy SIM card kits and storage cases online and these are handy for keeping organised. You can also buy a dual SIM phone to have both your home SIM card and your local SIM card at once.
Although I had a dual SIM phone, I always left my home SIM card packed safely away in my bag because I didn’t want to lose it if my phone was lost or got stolen. If you use WhatsApp, you probably don’t need your home SIM card to keep in touch with friends and family at home. You can use your original WhatsApp number from home with your new SIM card.
The only times that I needed my home SIM card was when I had to receive a code for two factor authentication where my home phone number was registered as the contact number for my account. So for example, if you need to reset an online password for your home bank account, you might have difficulties if you don’t have your home SIM card available. These situations are rare, but very important, so that’s why I keep my home SIM in a safe place rather than in my phone at all times.
Unlock your Cellphone Before you Leave
Before you leave for your South American trip, make sure that you have an unlocked cellphone. If it’s not unlocked, it might be difficult to unlock it abroad and it might void your phone manufacturer’s warranty depending on the terms and conditions.