India has the fastest growing telecom network in the world with about 900 million subscribers. It's also one of the most chaotic to foreigners. These GSM operators share the market:
- Bharti Airtel
- Vodafone India (to be merged with Idea)
- Idea Cellular (to be merged with Vodafone)
- Reliance JIO (on 4G/LTE-only)
- Aircel (to be merged with RCom)
- Reliance Communications (RCom) (to be merged with Aircel)
- Telenor India (to be bought by Airtel)
- Tata DoCoMo
Only 10% of the users are on the two state-owned networks (BSNL, MTNL), the remaining 90% on privately-owned carriers.
Jio shook the market with predatory pricing in 2016/7. As a reaction a consolidation of the market takes place and mergers are underway between Aircel and Reliance, Airtel and Telenor as well as Vodafone and Idea.
This is very straight and one of the few uniformed platforms: 2G/GSM is on 900 and 1800 MHz, all 3G on 2100 MHz up to HSPA+ speed. 4G/LTE is on rare 2300 MHz (TDD-LTE, band 40) and usual 850 (B5) and 1800 MHz (FDD-LTE, B3) and will be eventually on 700 MHz too. Besides GSM networks, WIMAX and CDMA is used too, but not part of this survey. CDMA is progressively shut down and the spectrum is refarmed to LTE. So it usually makes no sense to activate CDMA subscriptions.
In 2010 the licences for 3G were auctioned. The result has been a very fragmented situation. Most networks acquired only licences for specific states locally called circles. List of network and circles. 3G network map of India. Airtel, Vodafone and Idea agreed on sharing through a national roaming agreement, but this is often not available for data. So going to India, first check, which network is operating in your destination region: 3G network coverage in India, 4G networks in India. Travelling through India, the widest 3G coverage have Airtel and BSNL (but not in Kolkatta and Dehli).
You can never really rely on one network only as blackouts and congestions are frequent. At other times and places, you may also get worldclass speed and coverage.
Legal requirements Edit
It's theoretically easy to get a prepaid SIM card in India as a foreigner, you just have to make sure you have all the proper documents and they'll probably want photocopies of them too. These documents you'll probably need:
- make a copy of the photo / name page of your passport,
- a copy of the Indian visa page in your passport (or your OCI card),
- and a passport sized picture as well.
You will need to present these, along with your original passport document, to the SIM vendor.
- Get a proof of where you're staying in India. If you're in a hotel, you should be able to get a letter from the frontdesk verifying that you are indeed staying there.
- If your passport doesn't have a home address, try to show something which looks official with it.
The Indian Government has recently put in restrictions that puts a 3 month limit on prepaid SIM connectivity for foreign visitors to India. Cellphone vendors cannot sell SIM cards with longer than 3 months validity.
As of November 2012, there has been a significant tightening of regulations around the purchase and activation of SIM cards. Some operators are saying that it will take at least 4 days to activate a SIM card once purchased. Officially, this process takes 24-48 hours. In practice, some SIMs are activated within 12 hours since the rule has changed, and other SIMs have taken almost a week to activate. And, just to make things more difficult, there is very little rhyme, reason or logic to how long any of these things take.
In 2015 the process seems mostly to be a bit swifter. Many people report that their SIM cards were activated within 2 days. For latest reports and updates check this forum. But you still have to be prepared that it takes quite a while and you may be called to confirm your identity or local address. Some users finally gave up during the lenghty process.
Miracously, there are also opposite reports especially from tourist locations, where users needed to pay some extra fees like Rs. 700 to bypass the paperwork and skip activation time. These SIM cards usually work for 30 days only. In 2017 the goverment and the national tourist office stated that tourists need to wait for 5-6 hours on average for activating a new SIM Card, and after providing all relevant documents. So things seem to have speeded up.
Effective February 2017 state-run provider BSNL started to offer pre-activated SIM cards to tourists after some relaxing in activation done by the government. These are given out at 15 airports in the country to tourists of 161 countries on eVisas. For more info see BSNL section below.
Because of the legal hassle at the end of this article a travel solution for India with a phone rental including data SIM is added. With Trabug you'll pay a heavy surcharge, but can pre-arrange your SIM and can be sure that it will work in the country rightaway.
Most international airports in India have counters where you can buy SIM cards. These counters are usually located right after you clear customs. For the most part, if you have the above documents in order, you should be able to get your card in 15-20 minutes after you fill out the required documentation.
If you don't get one at the airport, you should be able to get a prepaid SIM card at a local, independent cellphone dealer. If you have all the documents in place, it will make it much easier for them and will lead to less hassle.
Regional organization Edit
When starting up, be sure to enable (domestic) roaming as the networks are organized on a state (circle) level. Different prices and offers apply to every region in India. Jio started with agressiv princing in 2016/7 and so far Airtel and Idea have announced to scrap all domestic roaming charges within India from April 2017.
Special rules for Jammu and Kashmir state Edit
A prepaid SIM card bought and registered somewhere in India, can be used all over the union, except in Jammu and Kashmir (State of North India) this is because of the fear of terrorism. Only a new prepaid SIM, bought in J&K works in this state. There the restrictions are even higher: you will need 4 passport photos, copies of your passport and your local sponsor (hotel manager or local counterpart) and expect that activation takes even longer. J&K SIM cards have reduced functionality: You can't receive or send text messages and the number of the prepaid subscriber from Jammu and Kashmir won't work outside the state. This restriction has been extended to 2018.
Airtel (Bharti Airtel)Edit
Airtel (a.k.a. as Bharti Airtel) is the biggest provider in India. It has about 260 million customers in 2016 and the widest coverage. It has 3G licences in 13 circles and a roaming agreement for voice with Vodafone and Idea. Users recommend them especially for the metropolitan areas. 4G/LTE has started in 296 cities and around 12 circles and has reached 22 circles by the end of 2016. It's open for prepaid in some of them: Airtel's 4G cities . Note, that Airtel uses mostly 2300 MHz (on band 40, in TDD-LTE), but increasingly the more common 1800 MHz (band 3) for LTE too.
The incumbents have come under extreme pressure because of Jio's agressive pricing in 2016/7. Airtel announced the abolition of all national roaming charges on voice, SMS and data from April,1st 2017. Airtel agreed to buy the assets of Telenor India and is going to integrate the Telenor network into its own soon giving it a better access to 7 circles.
An Airtel SIM card costs Rs. 50-100, some vendors may charge more. Lifetime validity requires a recharge of Rs. 49.
Activation takes 2 hours up to some days. 3G activation takes up another 4 hours after intial SIM card activation. When you buy the card, initially you will have no network; after some hours, you'll notice network availability; call 59059 to activate. You'll need to give the last four digits of your ID.
Data feature packsEdit
Default data rate depends on prepaid tariff line and region and is mostly around 4p per 10 KB.
Airtel always offers promotions for new customers and their first time recharge. So ask for it. Afterwards 3G/4G data "normal" recharge price applies and they differ between circles. There are no manual activations as such, once the credit is added the data package is activated automatically, with a SMS notification. So every top-up correspondents with a certain allowance. Be sure to top-up the right amount exactly to get the right bundle.
As the top-up face prices and packages sizes differ for every circle, it's not useful to give prices here as they will be changed to a totally different package in a different circle:
- for 2G packages (less useful): select "prepaid" and circle and check here
- for 3G packages: select circle and check here
- for 4G/LTE packages: select city and check here (scroll down to red boxes)
4G/LTE is available for prepaid in about 100 towns so far in 2016 like Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and many others.
To apply a feature data pack, you can ask at any shop showing the Airtel logo, which are very widespread. Contrary to most countries, don't just buy the airtime - you need to buy and apply data packs separately.
There are lots of special offers, and data packs can be shared with up to five 'family' members. It's worth downloading the My Airtel app to see all offers and easily apply them; this is only available on the Indian App and Play stores, but expert Android users can Google "my airtel apk" and install it in the usual way.
Domestic roaming has to be switched on to use internet outside the state you purchased the SIM from. But there are no extra charges for this domestic data roaming, but for phone calls there are roaming charges.
Credit balance check: *123#, remaining data check: *123*11# . Click here for many other useful codes.
3G/4G Combo plans: Infinity Edit
In 2015 Airtel launched its prepaid combo plans called Infinity that are valid in all circles where Airtel operates and are on 3G and 4G, valid for 28 days. All packages include unlimited Airtel calls, unlimited local calls, unlimited Wynk music and movies and 100 SMS per day plus:
- 1098 Rs.: 3 GB 3G/4G data
- 1749 Rs.: 5 GB 3G/4G data
- 2249 Rs: 7 GB 3G/4G data
- 3249 Rs: 10 GB 3G/4G data
The 7 and 10 GB bundles also include unlimited STD calls and pan-Indian roaming. Overuse fee for all packages is 25p per MB.
These Infinity plans may be the most expensive in India right now. But they are the most convenient for travellers through different circles as well. Please remember, that for 4G/LTE you'll need a device capable of 2300 MHz TDD-LTE (Band 40) that is still unusual in the rest of the wolrd.
- APN: airtelgprs.com
- Airtel number will be released if not logged into the network for 30 days
- Website in English: http://www.airtel.in/
Vodafone India (to be merged with Idea)Edit
Vodafone has the 2nd most subscribers in India with 200 million customers in 2016 and one of the better networks for metropolitan coverage. Some locals consider its 3G as fastest and most reliable in India. It has 3G licences in 9 circles and roaming agreements with Airtel and Idea. In 2015 4G/LTE on 1800 MHz (Band 3) has started in Kochi and has spread to Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkata and more places in 2016.
In March 2017 Vodafone India agreed to a merger with Idea Cellular, through which the two will create a combined entity with a market share of over 35% and India's largest operator. The brand strategy of the new company will be determined at a later date.
SIM card costs: Rs. 50-100, various vendors may charge whatever they feel like. Recharges are made in their shops or online from Rs. 111 for a credit of Rs. 105 to Rs. 1000.
Data feature packs Edit
Default rate outside of packs is on most prepaid tariffs and circles is around 4p per 10 KB. For prepaid they 4G/LTE, 2G and 3G is widespread available. Like Airtel, their rates and package sizes differ very much from circle to circle. So it doesn't make sense to quote prices here.
- 2G, 3G and 4G/LTE packages: select and circle here on top right
Hard-capped packages will charge the default rate for overuse, soft-capped packs are called "unlimited" and will throttle down to 56 kbps.
Vodafone Flex Edit
In autumn 2016 they've introduced the Flex recharge plans valid in all circles. The offer is available with no pre-fixed quotas for voice, data or SMS. Vodafone Flex customers can carry forward their unused credit.
1 Flex is a unit: every MB data, SMS sent and minute of call incoming costs 1 Flex, every local and roaming call outgoing per min 2 Flex. These Flex packages are sold, each valid for 28 days (prices can vary slightly between circles because of different taxes):
- 325 Flex: Rs. 119
- 700 Flex: Rs. 199
- 1200 Flex: Rs. 299
- 1750 Flex: Rs. 399
Vodafone U Edit
Aimed at the youth, but publicly available, Vodafone sells these combo plans in all circles vaild for 28 days:
- Starter packs:
- U Small: 150 MB + 150 MB night (@ midnight-6am) 3G data: Rs. 85-90
- U Large: 1 GB + 500 MB night (@ midnight-6am) 3G data: Rs. 180-190
- U Small: see above: Rs. 99-106
- U Medium: 300 MB + 300 MB night (@ midnight - 6am): Rs. 169-179
- U Large: see above: Rs. 280-301
Prices differ slightly between circles because of taxes. Every U pack or reload contains Rs.20 calltime, call to one favourite Vodafone number at Rs.0.20 per min and music downloads worth of Rs. 99 through Saavn Pro.
More info Edit
- APN: www
- Website: http://www.vodafone.in
Idea Cellular (to be merged with Vodafone) Edit
Idea is the 3rd provider in India with 179 million subscribers in 2016. It has 3G licences in 11 circles and offers service in 14 circles through network sharing with Vodafone and Aircel. For a survey, check their website or here. In 2015 it started with 4G/LTE and in 2016 it already covers 150 cities in about 10 circles (list) on 1800 MHz (band 3).
As 2nd incumbent after Airtel Idea announced the drop of all national roaming charges on voice, SMS and data from April,1st 2017 as a reaction to Jio's agressive pricing.
In March 2017 Idea Cellular agreed to a merger with Vodafone India, through which the two will create a combined entity with a market share of over 35% and India's largest operator. The brand strategy of the new company will be determined at a later date.
SIM card costs: Rs.10 + 1.10 tax, various vendors may charge whatever they feel like. Default data rate is around 3p per 10 KB.
2G and 3G packages Edit
Idea has very competitive prices for packages, slightly below the level of Airtel or Vodafone. However, their prices differ widely according to state/circle. Generally they sell 3 kinds of data packs:
- Sachet packs: for small data amounts, often charged by the minute and for 20 mins only at around 7 Rs.
- Limited volume packs: for medium data amounts, 300 MB to 3 GB per month, hard-capped, overuse around 4p per 10 KB.
- "unlimited" volume packs: for big data, 3 GB to 15 GB, soft-capped, throttled to 40 or 20 kbps when reached quota
- special packs, like night traffic, add-ons, WhatsApp packs, only offered in some markets
For the exact packages and prices of 2G and 3G packages, you need to check their website here and first select circle on the right.
4G/LTE packages Edit
At the beginning of 2016 LTE was available on prepaid in these circles: Andrha Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh & Chattisgarh, Punjab and Tamil Nadu & Cennai.
For prices and packages check their website here and first select circle.
More info Edit
- APN: internet
- Website: http://www.ideacellular.com
Reliance Communications (RCom) Edit
Reliance Communications (RCom) is the 4th provider in India holding licences in all 22 circles on 2G or 3G. It runs a CDMA network too (imcompatible to GSM) about to be shut down. It's 4G is through sharing with JIO (see below).
In September 2016 it was announced that it has acquired Aircel (see below) to be merged to their network soon.
SIM card costs: Rs. 50-100, various vendors may charge whatever they feel like.
Data feature packages Edit
Their pay as you go rate is a pretty high 10 Rs. per 10 KB.
They offer this anchor pack for all circles: for Rs. 177, you get 1GB 3G data and unlimited Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter in all regions in 30 days. To activate type *777*177#. Overuse is 3p per 10 KB.
For some states, they have special plans, packages and offers you can check here
Data-only SIM Edit
They offer data-only SIMs too which has no voice and is intended for tablets or modems.
- 7.2 Mbps USB Data Card: Rs. 1,499
- 21.6 Mbps USB Data Card: Rs. 1,999
These packages are offered for the data card in all circles:
|1 GB||1 day||98 Rs.|
|750 MB||7 days||153 Rs.|
|1 GB||7 days||173 Rs.|
|1 GB||30 days||255 Rs.|
|2 GB||30 days||
|3 GB||30 days||650 Rs.|
|12 GB||90 days||
|30 GB||180 days||3,000 Rs.|
In all circles special packages and pricings are offered and can be checked here.
More info Edit
- APN: rcomnet /OR/ smartnet
- Website: http://www.rcom.co.in
Reliance Jio Infocomm (RJIL), the mobile arm of petrochemical giant Reliance Industries Ltd. (RIL) owned by India's richest man Mukesh Ambani, started its new 4G-only network in 2015/6 in all circles.
In 2016 RJIL started a price war on their new 4G/LTE network. The operator currently covers 18,000 cities and 200,000 villages in 22 circles and plans to cover 90% of the population by March 2017 with 4G/LTE. It has twice as many towers for 4G than all its competitors combined, but on JIO, there is no fallback to 2G or 3G. You'll need to have a device capable of LTE on 2300 MHz in TDD-LTE (band 40). Jio claims to have the double average speed with 16 Mbps compared to its competitors.
Under it's welcome offer, all Jio services including voice, apps, and 4G/LTE data are be available free of cost extented to Mar 31, 2017 (up to 4 GB per day). Long lines have been building up in front of their stores already. It's the fastest growing technology firm with 100 million customers gained in just 170 days, that's 7 customers per second. As Jio is expected to see a dip in its subscriber base once it begins charging for services in April 2017, they offer every existing customer Prime membership for once-off Rs. 99. Then they will be paying only Rs. 303 per month for unlimited data until April 2018.
From April 2017 new customers will be charged for data, but all voice calls for Jio customers made through 4G/LTE (VoLTE) are absolutely free, roaming charges are also be zero between circles. Jio promises to match all plans of its competitors by adding 20% more data. These plans for new customers will be introduced in all circles:
- 100 MB for 1 day: Rs.19
- 750 MB for 3 days: Rs. 129
- 300 MB for 28 days: Rs. 149
- 2 GB for 21 days: Rs. 299
- 4 GB for 28 days: Rs. 499
- 10 GB for 28 days: Rs. 999
- 20 GB for 28 days: Rs. 1499
Packages include unlimited night traffic (2am-5am), unlimited SMS, unlimited voice to all Indian networks (through VoLTE - on suitable devices only), and the double data amount additionally through India's largest WiFi network called JIONet.
As their SIM cards are in high demand, expect delays and problems like overcrowding of their network. Jio faces a blockade of the other carriers e.g. through interconnection issues with the other networks. Jio claims a call failure rate of 175 calls per 1000 calls due to anti-competitive behaviour of the other providers. In 2017 their data download rates which were unreliable at first, seemed to have stabilised nationwide.
The other providers have urged the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to weigh-in on whether the services provided by Reliance Jio Infocomm (Jio) should be considered predatory pricing. But the TRAI took no action. In any case Jio has sparked a price war as India’s incumbents fight to compete with Jio’s aggressive strategy.
More info Edit
- APN: jionet
- Website: http://www.jio.com
BSNL for Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited is an Indian state-owned telecommunications company. It operates in all circles except the cities of Mumbai and New Delhi where MTNL operates instead (see below). This provider is seen generally as not so reliable in the cities, but is in some provinces the only 3G option. So better make a network scan before you buy a SIM card. BSNL holds spectrum for 4G on 2500 MHz TDD-LTE (band 41) only, that is not marketed for prepaid up to now.
They sell a prepaid data SIM with voice for Rs. 20 with a 96 Rs. voucher as a normal SIM or for Rs. 59 as USIM. This includes 500 MB vaild for 30 days. These packages below can be booked for 2G and 3G.
Data feature packages Edit
* = promotion. Other plans and offers may apply regionally and can be found on their website
Tourist SIM Edit
In February 2017 BSNL and the government of India launched an initiative to provide tourists a free SIM card at airports. This SIM card comes already pre-activated skipping the lenghty activation process. It will be made available initially at the Indira Gandhi International Airport (T3 Terminal) in New Delhi and later to over 15 international airports to tourists of 160 countries elegible for an eVisa.
Tourists will now be only required to present a copy of their eVisa and the first page of the passport for proof to get the SIM card. The SIM will be loaded with a call credit of Rs. 50 and 50 MB data. It will be active for a month, and tourists will be able to avail the 24-hour helpline in 12 languages.
The initial validity of SIM will be 30 days and there is no international roaming facility. It's unknown if validity can be extended or the SIM can be reloaded. Initially this SIM will have only facility of sending SMS only, not receiving SMS. The customers needs to send a SMS of format ACT <VISA NO><EXPIRY DATE dd/mm/yy> to 9440087000 for an activation of Incoming/Outgoing/data & other facilities on SIM.
However, BSNL having a rather unreliable network without 4G/LTE, it can be still a good option on arrival while activating a SIM of the major private providers that still takes hours or days.
More info Edit
- APN: bsnlnet
- Website: http://bsnl.in
Aircel (to be mergerd into RCom) Edit
Aircel is the 6th largest mobile provider in India with a market share of about 8%. It's mostly owned by Malaysian Maxis. It has 3G licences for 13 circles and started 4G/LTE as TDD-LTE on 2300 MHz (Band 40) in 2014, that is not available for prepaid yet.
In September 2016, RCom and Maxis Communications announced that they would merge their mobile network operators. The brand Aircel will eventually be dropped and integrated into RCom (see above).
Their start-up kit is available where they have a 3G coverage. So you don't find it in Mumbai or Dehli, but in Kolkata. Check aircel coverage map first. It's sold for 28 Rs. including taxes. Top-ups are available Rs. 10-1500. For online recharges, Airtel offers 20% data bonus.
Data feature packages Edit
Data by default is 15p per MB. Internet packages are called Pocket Internet. These packs are sold in Delhi:
For other circles and places, check their website and adjust circle on top first.
More info Edit
- APN: aircelgprs
- Website: http://www.aircel.com
TaTa DoCoMo (Virgin mobile India, Tata Indicom)Edit
Starter pack is sold for 35 - 49 Rs. in their stores.
Data feature packages Edit
DoCoMo, Virgin Mobile and Tata Indicom in Dehli have very low prices. They differ immensely on the circle you are in. Note that the nationwide coverage in India is very limited however. For exact prices in your circle, check their websites (see below).
More info Edit
- APN for DoCoMo: tata.docomo.internet
- APN for Virgin Mobile: vinternet.in
- Website of DoCoMo: http://www.tatadocomo.com/
- Website of Virgin Mobile: http://www.virginmobile.in
- Website cof Tata Indicom (in Dehli): http://www.tataindicom.com/
Telenor India (to be bought by Airtel) Edit
Telenor as a branch of the Norwegian provider joined by local Unitech Group is one of the smaller providers in India with only 50 million customers. They only operate in 7 circles across the states of Uttar Pradesh (East and West), Uttarakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana.
They currently hold a 1800 MHz license for 2G and 4G/LTE in these circles. They sell SIM cards in their stores (locator) in these circles.
In February 2017 Telenor India agreed to be bought by market leader Airtel (see above). Telenor India's operations will continue as normal, until the transaction is completed.
Data packages differ between circles and are given here for 2G data: change circle on top right.
In 2017 4G/LTE on 1800 MHz is active in the cities of Vizag, Vijayawada, Eluru, Tenali, Bhimavaram, Warangal, Guntur, Cuddapa, Rajahmundry, Karimnagar and Hyderabad. 4G data plans for prepaid differ again between circles and can be checked here:change circle on top right
- APN: uninor
- Website: http://www.telenor.in
MTNL for Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd. is a state-owned telecommunications service provider in the metro cities of Mumbai and New Delhi. They operate only there and in two different branches for Mumbai and Delhi.
MTNL in Mumbai Edit
MTNL sells a broad and quite cheap variety of data packs for Mumbai: check data-packs
MTNL in New Dehli Edit
Likewise, MTNL sells similar very cheap packs in Delhi, check here and tick data plans
More info Edit
- APN for Mumbai and Delhi: mtnl.net
- Website MTNL Mumbai: http://mtnlmumbai.in
- Website MTNL New Delhi: http://mtnldelhi.in
Because of the legal hassle to get a SIM card (see Basics) a travel solution for India with a phone rental including data SIM is offered with Trabug. You'll pay a heavy surcharge for their service, but can pre-arrange your SIM before travel and can be sure that it will work in the country from the start.
Trabug was launched in 2016 by a small team of tech professionals in the North Indian town of Panchkula. They rent out smartphones powered by a 4G/LTE SIM card to foreign tourists. The Android phone and operators are not specified, but will have 4G access where covered. It additionally includes a travel guide.
You have to order online on their website. Though you still have to send all the required documents (see Basics) to them when ordering, but Trabug will do the arrangements for you. Once the traveller arrives in India and receives the kit, all he/she has to do is activate the SIM card, by following a simple set of instructions.
For returning the phone to the company the user needs to place it in a pre-supplied box, leave it at the hotel reception or place of stay, and the company will have it collected.
The product must be ordered and payed in advance online by credit card or PayPal. They offer three plans with an Android smartphone and 4G data:
- ECO: US$ 16.99 including 300 MB, 45 domestic mins, 15 dom. SMS and rental for 1 day
- FLEXI: US$ 34.99 including 2 GB, 125 dom. mins, 30 internatl. mins, 50 dom. SMS and rental for 1 day
- POWER: US$ 69.99 including 16 GB FUP (beyond throttled to 64 kbps), 300 dom. mins, 60 internatl. mins, 150 dom. SMS and rental for 14 days
All incoming calls and SMS are free. Smartphone rental is charged at US$ 1 for every extra day over the included number of days. Due to government regulations, plans can not be greater than 80 days. There is a refundable security deposit of US$ 65 charged before shipping, which is refunded within 10 working days after returning the device.
More information Edit
- Website: http://www.trabug.com/
- Facebook and Twitter: Hellotrabug