Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How to Stay Connected with Mobile Internet While Traveling in India

Updated Feb 2015 There is nothing like traveling all around India, visiting temples, practicing yoga and meditation while at the same time staying connected with my family and friends using the mobile internet on my iPhone (with Indian Sim Card). I can check my e-mails, Facebook, browse the web, book flights and trains and a lot more. Do you want to know how to do this with your own smartphone?

Staying Connected with Mobile Internet in India

If you are traveling in India or are planning to visit India soon, either on a spiritual journey or just for holidays, then I guess you would like to stay connected with your family and friends. The best advice that I can give you is to get an unlocked smartphone and buy a sim card from a local mobile provider as soon as you arrive.

It surprises me but not many people know this.  In India you can easily access the internet from your smartphone using an Indian sim card to check your emails, Facebook, browse the web or even watch videos for 95 Indian rupees Rs. 175 a month (1GB of data on 2G network with Airtel).

Update:  Prices and plans have changed a lot.  Today you can get with Airtel unlimited internet (3 GB per day) for 30 days for only 600 rupees using 4G network.

That is about 2.5 euros a month! All the main Indian mobile providers give this service with a few changes in price or capacity.

And that's not all.  You can use your phone as a modem (internet tethering) and connect your phone to your laptop via Wifi, Bluetooth or USB cable so you can use the phone internet on your computer. Isn't that awesome!?

Update: This feature is now called Personal Hotspot on iPhones or Mobile Hotspot on Android devices.  Today most people are aware of this feature, although from time to time I still meet people that are like, “Really!?”  Lol.

Yes I know, In India you can always find an internet cafe in every place you visit. Though speed and prices vary from place to place checking your e-mails, Facebook and loading pictures is always possible. On average an hour of internet cost 30 rupees. But if you use your phone you will pay Rs. 175 for a whole month and avoid spending time in any internet cafe. Which option do you prefer?

How to Get Mobile Service and Mobile Internet Service in India on Your Smartphone?

All you need to do is to approach any mobile phone stand (you can find them everywhere) with one passport size photo, a copy of your passport, a copy of your Indian visa, an address proof and a reference phone number.

This is part of the bureaucracy in India and if you don't bring any of these documents nobody will sell you any sim card, so make sure that you take them along with you.

An address proof can be a receipt from the hostel or hotel where you are staying, an admission letter from the ashram/yoga center where you plan to stay or a housing contract.

Update: the rules have soften a bit nowadays.  Last time I got a sim card they didn't ask me for an address proof. 

You can recharge the sim with some talk time and then recharge it for pocket internet or mobile internet. Then you need to request the settings to the service provider and you are good to go.

Keep in mind that the mobile service is by state, that means that if you call from one state in India to another state in India you will incur in roaming charges.

Roaming charges do not apply to the mobile internet. You can normally use this service anywhere if you get an unlimited internet plan. At least that has been my experience so far. Let's hopes that they don't change the service.

How Good is the Mobile Internet Connection in India?

Well, let me tell you what I have been able to do on my iPhone: Read and send e-mails, check my Facebook, browse the web, update my blog, watch YouTube videos and even do Skype or FaceTime Video calls with my family and friends. Isn't that awesome?

You can do that with 2G but videos and Skype video calls work best on 3G.

But ok, it all depends on where you are and how good the reception is, so don't expect to be able to Skype or watch videos anytime.

However, browsing the web or sending emails is most of the time possible.

If you are in a city, especially main cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi etc you shouldn't have any trouble at all. If you are in a rural area then the reception might not be so good and you will be very limited to what you can do; very slow browsing, but something is better than nothing, right?

In the beginning, I was always using 2G but once I tried 3G I was never able to go back. The connection is really good, you can watch videos with no problem at all. Of course, it's more expensive than 2G.

With Airtel 1GB on 2G is Rs. 176 and 1GB on 3G are Rs. 249, but when you use 3G you'll consume your data faster since you can easily watch many videos in a row. I usually get 4GB on 3G for Rs. 755

Update: I can't believe I was using 2G before! It was so slow! Lol.  Today the standard is 4G but in low reception areas, it might drop to 3G. I've been able to watch movies on Netflix using 4G with no problem at all.

Which is The Best Mobile Internet Provider in India?

The main mobile service provider in India are Airtel, Vodafone, Idea, Tata Docomo and Aircel.

I have tried on my iPhone the mobile internet service from Aircel, Tata Docomo and Airtel. They all work pretty well... as long as you have enough reception or signal.

In the arrival hall at Bangalore airport, I got 3G signal using Tata Docomo (although I was paying for 2G) and I was able to do Skype video conferencing calls for hours with excellent video and sound quality.

If you are traveling all around India then I would recommend Airtel because in my experience it has better reception all around India compared to the other operators.

I also tried to use Vodafone but setting it up was a nightmare. I had to wait two days for them to confirm my details calling a reference number that I had to give in advance (the guesthouse where I stayed) and then when I finally got the service I couldn't activate the internet pack since they actually have a special plan for the iPhone.

Update: I always use Airtel

The downside

Ok, but nothing is so simple in India.

Once you recharge your phone with the mobile internet plan, depending on the type of phone that you use, you will need to send a text message requesting the mobile internet settings, dial a specific number to request the activation or you might need to do nothing.

But sometimes the service might not work right away so you will have to call their helpline which can be a nightmare since most of the time they don't speak proper English and are not really able to understand your request.

A few weeks ago I helped a friend to get the Airtel mobile internet service on her HTC. I had to call again and again to their helpline (guessing which number to press cause the menu was in the local language) to explain to them that the mobile internet was not working.

Every time I called they told me that it was not possible to set it up on her phone until finally, I got somebody smart enough to solve the problem. It took a few hours on the phone but now my friend is happily browsing the web on her phone and updating her Facebook while riding on the bus to her yoga university class in Bangalore.

Update: fortunately this has changed.  You don't need to do anything for the activation anymore.  It might take just a few minutes.

Which Smartphone to Use to Stay Connected in India?

You can use mobile internet on any smartphone, just make sure that it is a factory unlocked phone if you buy it outside of India. You can also buy a local phone manufactured in India. There are some phones that can use up to three sim cards at the same time!

I'm currently using an iPhone 5S and I have used before and iPhone 5 and iPhone 4. The mobile internet worked on all of them with no problem at all and there is no reason to think that it wouldn't work on the iPhone 6 or 6 Plus.

Update:  Currently using an iPhone 7 and I might update to iPhone 11 soon.

I have been able to do video calls with my family in New York, Ecuador or in Germany using the Skype app or FaceTime. I can write e-mails offline and update my Facebook. The Safari web browser works excellent, I can easily check the Indian train schedules or book my flight tickets. Even my friends have used my phone to book their own tickets.

Sharing Your Mobile Internet with Your Laptop - Personal Hotspot

I can also share the mobile internet of my iPhone with my MacBook Air via USB, Wifi or Bluetooth and update my blog.  Imagine updating my blog while sitting in a restaurant in front of the beach and watching the sunset... How cool is that!

It always surprises me but a lot of people have no idea that they can do this with their smartphone. Many times when I tell my friends about it they are like.. What? Really? Yes, you can do this with any smartphone.

Update:  Yes, today most people know about this.

Is there an alternative to mobile internet for staying connected?

Yes, there is. It is usually called broadband USB internet connection and it is offered by Reliance (Reliance Netconnect), Airtel (Airtel Broadband) and Tata (Tata Photon).

In this case, you will need to buy a USB Modem/Data Card to connect to your laptop which could be around 2,000 rupees and acquire a monthly plan for something like 300 rupees a month.

Prices and plans vary a lot depending on the provider so you better check their website. I haven't tried this service at all. The connection is supposed to be a lot faster than the mobile internet but I doubt that you can use it everywhere. Besides for me, it is still handier to use the internet on my phone.

Well, I hope this helps you to stay connected with family and friends using mobile internet on your phone. Good luck and enjoy your India experience ;-)

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  1. Yes I am staying in New Delhi and always I use iPhone 4S with Airtel Prepaid on 3G. I just top for Rs.1250/- and I get 10GB worth of 3G data. I hardly cross more than 6 to 7gb a month inspite of my heavy mobile internet usage. I do tethering too on my Macbook Air. Its pretty awesome. Airtel is the best!

  2. Thanks for the informative post. I am travelling to Chennai Via Delhi and I wonder if I can buy a sim card in Delhi and use it in Tamilnadu. Good post.

  3. You can buy a sim card anywhere in India but if you go out of the state from where you bought it you'll have to pay roaming charges for calls and sms but there is no roaming for the mobile internet, you can have the unlimited one month internet and use it anywhere in India, as long as you have signal. :-)

  4. Hi,

    I have started a company which helps travelers to access internet anywhere they travel. Please could you help me by answering the following question.

    Would you like to rent a portable wifi device during your travel dates in India. it would cost you around 250Rs (4$) per day for 150MB of data usage. You can carry the device anywhere you travel and can access internet anywhere. The speed you can access can be up to 5Mbps. The device will be delivered to your doorsteps or any hotels your staying in. Returning the device is also hassle free, just dropping it in international airports while you leaving the country.

    Warm Regards

    1. hi Mr Madhumalesh
      I am interested to rent your portable wifi device.
      Could you please leave your email here?

      Thank you

  5. Hey thanks for the help :) But i was wondering weather it would be the same procedures with a CDMA iphone 4 ? Would it be alot more complicated to get connected or will they be able to do it just like a sim card?

  6. Mr. Marco Polo!

    All of your articles and posts on the iphone have been very informative and educative. You do a great job in being detailed to the right extent...there is not too much or too little but a happy middle like the Buddha's Way. It seems you have had a great time in India looking at some of your videos. Thanks a lot, they have helped me so much! Happy future traveling with the iphone!!!

    -Bharet Vij

    1. Thank you so much Bharet! It's cool to know that you find this useful. I should update this post although everything is still relevant but as a short update I can tell that I have tried the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5S and it works perfectly as well with Airtel :-)

  7. Great ideas for travelers to India. Thanks.

    I have US phone # and SIM, and I don't want to switch SIM;how can I use wifi while India? I am just wondering will iphone6 be able to use the wifi from another iphone via tethering? That I have 1 iphone6 with SIM issued from India that connects to wifi and another iphone6 with sim from USA, I would like to tether the USA iphone6 to access wifi via tether from iphone6 with SIM India. I guess that should be possible. Anyone tried or can comment on that?

    1. Hi,

      You can certainly share the internet data plan from one iPhone with another iPhone or any other smartphone, tablet and laptop via Wifi. In the iPhone you just need to go to settings/personal hotspot and switch it on. It will give you a password so that anybody who knows the password can share your internet. But it also depends on carriers, some carriers don't allow to use the tethering option. In India it might not be a problem I think, I always used personal hotspot with Airtel. I hope that helps. Oh, btw, you have two iPhone 6?? Cool!

  8. Thanks Marco.

    I will have the USA plan Iphone6s with me while travelling in India. I will keep one of them with the USA SIM and for the other I will buy India SIM and tether from that to use the network via wifi in the other USA SIM phone.I wanted to keep one of the iphone under USA SIM because that is how I can use that phone with USA number via VonageApp.

    1. You are very welcome, I hope it works well for you but remember that you other iPhone 6 will need to be unlocked to be able to use a local Sim card. Good luck.

  9. We are visiting Karaikudi, Tamilnadu next month. I am a foreigner from Malaysia and would like to buy a SIM prepaid card. How do we go about? Please advice.

  10. We are visiting Karaikudi, Tamilnadu next month. I am a foreigner from Malaysia and would like to buy a SIM prepaid card. How do we go about? Please advice.

  11. The best advice that I can give you is to get an unblocked smartphone and buy a sim card from a local mobile provider as soon as you arrive.