Buying a mobile phone SIM card – in Peru!

Posted on December 19, 2013 by in Travel Deals

If you have been to Asia – you know how comfortable it is to get a local SIM card and use the mobile Internet. At Taiwan airport there is a booth just to the left when you exit and the girls will put a working SIM card in your iPhone in less than a minute. It's juts a couple of dollars a day and enables you to use Google Maps, Wikipedia and read Flyertalk on the go.

I hoped Peru would be a similar experience. Well there is a booth at the airport but for the week I would be in the country the SIM card would have been $55 flat fee. I stubbornly opted to to get my own mobile SIM card with one of the local operators. The local players in Peru are Claro and Movistar.

I expected the whole operation to be done in a couple of minutes so I did not even bother to get my morning coffee before setting out to this adventure. Big mistake!

The first Claro store I saw was small but given my experience in Asia that may be a good sign. The store attendant however pointed me away to a different Claro store. That was unexpected – but ok. Now the mall isn't big but confusing so it took me a while to find the other Claro store and it looked much more like a government office. A line snaking trough the store and people taking numbers for their spot. This did not look good.

I decided to take the 'Chinese approach' and zoomed in on an empty sales stall. Lucky for me the attendant actually understood what I wanted – 'prepaga' is the keyword. There is a mobile Internet option but it's lost in the translation how I can work with that. Now she types away in her computer and I expect the SIM card to work in my iPhone seconds later – not so fast!

She goes through all sorts of paper and finally gives me a print out and sends me to the cashier booth. Since I play the lost gringo – she accompanies me and the cashier booth is unattended – up we go t a different floor. On the way she keeps chatting up other attendants – so after about 5 minutes in line I get to pay my $5 for the SIM card. Again I get handed a stack of paper from this transaction but NO SIM CARD!

The actual SIM card is available at a different booth. The person working there is busy – another wait and when my turn is up of course he does not speak English – so he walks away to bring 2-3 of his co-workers whose are equally perplexed (but very friendly) by my English from another planet. Just a reminder this is a technology store with most people working there under 30!

We finally manage to overcome the language barrier and they put the nano SIM card into my phone. Of course it does not work! Now we reach out to at least half a dozen colleagues who drag me (and my phone) all over the store. After 20 minutes of investigation it turns out that the Claro pre-pay system is down and no new cards can be activated and I'd have to come back in an hour and line up again!

That was too much for me – I'm simply not built for that much patience! After a quick stop at Starbucks I found a nearby Movistar office and decided to try the competition. I almost missed the building that Movistar houses – it looks more like a city prison than a mobile phone shop. Not a place you want to be at night. Now I have been to shaky looking places in India that were perfectly safe but here in Peru which is a rather expensive, somewhat developed country I did not expect that.

Anyway things are very similar to Claro – this time a get a number first but after I realized the screen does not really call for the numbers in the range I have I appraoch a number of agents. Again barely anybody speaks English in a tech store with only young people (during most of my stay in Peru I found a lot of English speakers).

Luckily there is a attendant who decides to have mercy with me and hangs around translating for me while waiting for another stack of paper, another cashier, another line with SIM cards. It's bordering on the insane how much bureaucracy people have to put up for $5 of a SIM card.

The most strange moment comes when the super friendly attendant comes with me to charge money on the card – it's done outside the building in a completely independent cigarette sales stall. This happens in 10 seconds or less. He must have had a reason why he took me there 🙂