A quick-start guide to mobile phones and SIMs in Buenos Aires
If there’s one thing that has stood out since arriving in Buenos Aires, it’s that they’re a real friendly bunch over here. If there’s a second thing that has stood out, they’re often only capable of being friendly en Espanol. Which, if you don’t hablas Espanol, is kind of like offering to help an armless person carry something when you don’t have arms either. It’s the thought that counts though right?
I found this out when I went to try and track down a SIM card for my mobile phone in Buenos Aires. It’s hard enough understanding someone directing you where to go to purchase a card, let alone the nuances of the different carriers and their data/call/SMS plans. And even in the carrier’s high street stores you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who speaks English.
So here’s my quick-start guide to landing a working SIM ASAP in Buenos Aires, including getting data/internet access (a separate issue!), cutting out all the fluff.
3 quick steps to a working SIM card in Buenos Aires
If you’re on vacaciones in Buenos Aires or not on any sort of proper work visa, you’re not going to be able to get a mobile plan and will have to use a prepaid/pay-as-you-go SIM. This is what we address setting up in the following.
Step 1: There’s 3 main carriers in Buenos Aires but just go with Movistar. While they won’t always be the cheapest (but sometimes they are – like most things I understand this moves around) they do reportedly have the best coverage and their SIMs are stocked everywhere. You can’t walk down Avenida Sante Fe (or similar) for very long without seeing a Movistar sign (see below). When you do, go in and ask for a ‘Tarjeta SIM’. Make sure you show them which phone you have as iPhones for example are very rare in Buenos Aires due to the prohibitive cost (at US$500-600 that’s the equivalent of some people’s salaries in Buenos Aires), and the Tarjetas are often the larger form-factor accepted by Blackberrys and Nokias. No problem – the checkout guy will cut the SIM to an appropriate size for your phone, probably with a pair of scissors. It ain’t pretty but it works. My Movistar SIM cost me 20 pesos (in October 2013).
Step 2: Charge your card. The $20 for buying the card is just for that – ie. buying the card. Within an hour of putting the SIM in the photo it should automatically connect to the network and show reception, but you won’t be able to phone/message/surf the net yet because there is no money on your account. Now you need to find one of these:
…which is basically the Argentinian equivalent of a 7-11 or small convenience store. You won’t have to look hard to find one, they’re more or less on every street corner, and if the first one you wander into doesn’t offer recharge just walk along to the next street corner. If you’re not sure what to ask for when recharging say ‘Yo quiero a recarga mi Movistar SIM por favour’ which more-or-less translates as “Listen muchacho, get some credit on this SIM pronto” (ok, it might be slightly politer than that). The checkout gringo/chica will then either pick up something that looks like a card-swiping-machine-thingy (mindblank – anyone who can remember the official name please post in the comments below!) and ask for your mobile number (the 8 digits after the ’11’ or ’15’ on the packet your SIM came in – see below for more details on Argentinian mobile numbers), or will hand you a receipt with the recharge details, and you’ll have to manually call and add the credit. I could type out how to do this for you, but technically I’m Gen-Y (just) so I’m going to ape someone else and let you leave my blog for one minute – ONE minute! – to see this chap’s detailed run-through here of how to do it.
Step 3: So you’ve added credit to your phone – great! Now you can Whatsapp, Google map and check your emails to your heart’s content right? Wrong. Having added credit you now have the ability to phone and text – THAT’S IT. To use data services, access the internet etc you need to purchase a data package from Movistar. But don’t worry, adding credit to your phone was the hard part. Getting data access simply involves choosing the data plan you want, then texting Movistar at a pre-determined number with the name of the package and – voila! – you should have data access within the hour. Check http://movistar.com.ar/planes/prepago/paquetes/ for all the different ‘add-on’ packages with Movistar, with the package name and number to text. It’s in Spanish but it’s all pretty self-evident, and if you do have trouble understanding don’t message me, get on a plane and go back home because you’re too challenged to be travelling by yourself.
That’s all folks!
Congratulations, you’ve just achieved in one hour what it took me a couple of days to figure out, so send an email for me! A quick note on Spanish mobile numbers – they all start with ’15’ or ’11’ and are followed by another 8 digits which is the actual phone number. I recommend storing every mobile number you collect in Buenos Aires in your phone as ‘+549 11 XXXX XXXX’ (the country code for Argentina – ’54’ – plus the area code for Buenos Aires – ‘9’), because this will automatically allow you to find local Whatsapp etc users. If you just store the number as ’11 XXXX XXXX’ they won’t come up in your contact list for Whatsapp and similar apps.
For those of you who have traveled to Argentina before and have other advice for handling mobiles/SIMs, please add your thoughts in the comments section below.
Hasta luego mi amigos.