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Guide to buying a SIM card with PAYG data in Mexico




On the face of it, buying a SIM card should have been easy. My unlocked phone works everywhere. There are mobile phone shops everywhere. There are booths and market stalls selling mobile phones everywhere. I speak enough Spanish to shop everywhere. There are people that speak English everywhere.

Nowhere would sell me a phone.

Telcel SIM Card

Telcel SIM Card

Buying a SIM card

In a move to curtail drug cartels and their use of burner (single-use) phones, it’s now mandatory that SIM card purchasers are registered to their Mexican home address. A hotel address isn’t good enough, which is understandable, but not very helpful for tourists.

After visiting official mobile phone shops, electronics retailers and a warren of tiny phone shops and touts we were still out of luck. In the end I found a market trader who had no qualms about registering my SIM card under his name and address.

My name is now Felix, and I live in ‘El Valley’, which sounds suspiciously made up.

Movistar logo

Movistar logo

There are two mobile phone companies, TelCel and Movistar. TelCel is the larger and has far better coverage, Movistar is considerably cheaper. In reality they’re both quite cheap for a tourist only in the country for three weeks, so we went with TelCel.

Both companies offer Pay As You Go (PAYG) plans, meaning no contract but if you let the balance run out the phone will stop working.

To avoid this, the next order of business was setting up on-line payments. This was all in Spanish, so took quite a while, sitting there with a dictionary translating various technical words.

It was so tiring I went to the nearby Oxxo convenience store for refreshments. I ended up queuing behind a bunch of people who were adding funds to their phones at the cashier. This looked much easier…

Topping up your prepaid plan

Go to almost any supermarket, petrol station or convenience store that displays a Recarga top-up symbol. Tell them your phone number (writing it down is helpful if your Spanish is not great) then hand over some cash.

Recarga logo

Recarga logo

To order a data plan, just text 5050 and the code of the plan. There are three level of plan bajo(low), medio(medium) and alto(high). Within the three levels you can order a plan for anything from 1 hour to 30 days.

e.g. To order a medium plan for 30 days you would just text medio30 to 5050

Here is the current list of rates for TelCel

A few seconds later a response comes by text message and your phone is charged. It’s much quicker than messing around on the website.

You can check your remaining balance by calling *133#

The Mi Telcel website can be useful for knowing how much money and data you have left. Follow the prompts to register an account. HINT: It’s much easier in Google Chrome, as it has an auto translate function which is excellent with Spanish. Right click the page and select ‘Translate to [your language]’.

Very quick guide to the Mi Telcel Website

Telcel logo

Telcel logo

To register click ‘¿Eres usuario nuevo de Mi Telcel? Regístrate aqui.’ Type in your phone number and you’ll be sent a text containing your password’

Go back to the home page and log in with your phone number and new password.

Once logged in you can add funds by clicking ‘Recarga Saldo’. Select one time ‘Una Vez’, your phone number and the amount.  Fill in your credit card details, press continue ‘Seguir’ and you’re all done

Once funds are showing, activate a data plan by clicking ‘Activa tu Paquete Internet Telcel’. Pick a plan, select ‘Inmediata’ and the checkboxes to show you’ve read the Terms & Conditions. Press ‘Activar Servico’ and a few seconds later you’ll get a text and data will start working.

And you’re online!

The SIM card worked perfectly in both the phone and tablet, and seemed to work fine when tethered to a laptop as well. The speed was fine, but given how patchy the 3G data was I don’t think it’s ideal for working or watching streaming videos if you’re in rural areas.


We opted for data only with no calls/texts. The one time we needed to make a call we used Skype instead.

Your phone needs to be unlocked. Most Android phones come already unlocked. For other devices, just google ‘unlock <your phone model>’. Some are easier than others.

The market traders all offered an app that will allow the phone to connect to the Wi-Fi cloud in the streets. We were only in Mexico City a few days and I wasn’t sure we’d get much use out of it once in the countryside. This might be useful if you’re staying in major towns, but I’d be wary of installing a random app on my phone.

If you did install the Wi-Fi app I’d love to know how it went in the comments below, or any experiences of using a MoviStar SIM card.





Since leaving London in 2006 I’ve travelled, worked, volunteered and lived in over 90 countries. Highlights so far would be driving along the Silk Road from Beijing to Istanbul, a complete circuit of South America and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica. I’m currently back in Beijing, as a base to visit more of Asia and attempt to learn Mandarin.


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