If you are planning to go to India in the near future, you might have heard the news: if you arrive at the Gandhi international airport in Delhi and have an e-visa
you will receive a free precharged sim card provided by the Indian government. They have started doing this as a way to promote the connectivity of tourists with their loved ones back home and to help foreigners use India’s services when they visit. In this article, I will tell you why you will probably need an Indian phone number, where to pick up your BSNL sim card, how to recharge it and some essential phone settings you need to know about.
Important update: as of mid-Novemver 2017, the Indian government no longer gives away free BSNL sim cards at Delhi airport. Thanks to Hannah for sharing this in the comments! This guide can still be used to recharge a purchased Indian BSNL sim card, and you can still purchase sim cards from other companies at Delhi airport.
Update 2, which is advice from a travel forum: “the general recommendation would be: don’t buy at the airport. The reason for this is that if something goes wrong, it’s much easier to go to the branded store ‘up the street’ than trying to go back to the airport. Recent experience does vary – but be prepared to provide passport size photos, a copy of your passport and visa, some proof of ‘residence’ – the booking at your hotel will do – and some paperwork. The SIM might be active in 30 minutes or 30 hours, depending. Is India. For providers, take Airtel or Vodaphone.”
Why do I need an Indian phone number?
Of course, you might think: can’t I just keep my foreign phone number? By all means yes, but it might seriously limit your options when you plan to use many of India’s (public) services.
You might be used to super user-friendly websites that let you book a hotel, train or airplane trip flawlessly within minutes. Well, that’s not always the case in India. Many of the official websites of public services look like they have been made at least 15 years ago, and that includes the way you will have to navigate across them. This fact, combined with a load of often unnecessary rules and bureaucracy, will mean that you often will be asked to fill in an Indian phone number to book or apply for something. And no, foreign numbers will not be accepted in the form and the field is often mandatory to continue, so you’ll just be stuck in the process.
If you’re planning to book trains, buses, hotels, hostels, government services or other public services, you will need an Indian phone number. Here is a list of a few commonly used (online) services:
- Cleartrip.com – for booking trains
- Irctc.co.in – the official Indian Railways booking site (update: reader David commented that it’s now possible to use an overseas mobile phone number for signing up for this website)
- Redbus.in – for booking buses
- Sometimes when booking hostels, guesthouses or hotels in India
- Signing up for public Wifi spots
- Paytm.com – a widely accepted online wallet, similar to Paypal
- and more
Where to get your free BSNL sim card
It’s not that easy to find the tiny stand where you can pick up your free sim card. At the passport control, you will see a few posters and flyers with a little map of where to pick up the sim. Do take one. When coming out of the main arrivals gate, there is a pretty big sign saying “free sim card” with an arrow, but if you follow it you won’t find another one like it.
The stand can be found in between the taxi service, budget car, and coach service stands; personally, I try to avoid these at any cost so it took me a while to find it. The stand itself is not more than a sign, a counter, some paperwork and a scanner and was manned by an elderly Indian couple when I visited it. They will ask for a passport and you will have to fill in a few details. They will install the sim card into your phone as well. You will receive a leaflet on how to top-up your sim card, but unfortunately, I found out that this is not possible with a foreign credit card (with the exception of American Express).
How to recharge your free Indian sim card
So if you can’t recharge your sim card using a credit card, how do you do it? Luckily, it is very easy to find mobile phone shops all over India, especially in the big cities. They are usually very friendly and willing to help out. For me, I just wanted to recharge some data to use as a personal hotspot for my laptop (it was pretty funny working as a Digital Nomad in a bustling Indian sleeper train). On the flyer you received at the airport there is a link: http://portal2.bsnl.in/myportal/quickrecharge.do
You can make an account with your Indian phone number here. You will get asked to choose an India state/province: just choose the one you are currently in. Although you can’t buy your credit online (with a foreign credit or debit card), it helps to know which plans there are. Trust me, there are a LOT, and it can get quite confusing. You can buy call credit, text credit, 2G, and 3G data (4G is not available yet), each with its own value and validity. Scroll through it and choose the best option for you before you visit a mobile store. At the time of writing, 2Gb of 3G data valid for 2 weeks cost 155 rupees, roughly € 2.25.
Tip: always try to open a webpage there and then in the shop after they recharge your sim, so you (and they) can see that the data recharge worked.
To see the data plans, click on the “STV” tab and click “Data voucher” after you have logged in with your account.
The difference between phone credit and data
Back home, I’m used to receive clear balance statements from my mobile phone company. This is a little bit different when it comes to BSNL. Here’s a guide:
- To check your phone credit, press *123# and press call.
- Then press 1 and hit “reply” on the right top to get your balance.
Important: this is not your data balance. This is where I went wrong the first time, as I thought the recharge didn’t come through (while in reality the settings were just not configured correctly). You can find your data balance this way:
- Go to Settings -> Mobile data and untick the “Mobile data” switch. After a few seconds you should get the screen below
- You will find your balance here, saying something like: “Remaining Vol 3Gb 862Mb 361Kb”.
Making sense of the BSNL recharge text message
This is where I went wrong the first time, as I interpreted this text message wrongly. A few guys from a hostel I stayed in were very helpful when I asked them about recharging my credit, and did so through their own payment account. I got this “confirmation” message”:
Can you imagine I was a bit confused? Especially the “Cr. given Rs. 0” worried me. Has something gone wrong with the payment? Later, I found out that this only meant no phone call credit was given, but the data (which they call PV/STV here) has been recharged with 155Rs. The internet still wasn’t working however, but that was because my settings weren’t correctly configured.
The right settings to get your data plan to work on iPhone
Note: I’m afraid I don’t have an Android phone, so this guide will be tailored to iPhones. You will most probably have to put in these settings as well on an Android phone, but they will be located somewhere else in your settings.
This step is usually done by the person recharging your sim card in the store, but if you managed to somehow recharge it yourself or the person in the store forgot this step, this is how it’s done.
MOBILE DATA / CELLULAR DATA
PERSONAL HOTSPOT / INTERNET TETHERING
You might need to reboot your iPhone after putting in these settings.
National roaming costs in India
As I am used to in Europe, data roaming is a bad thing that you don’t want to enable unless you want to pay ridiculous amounts of money for your calls (note: this article was written before the EU put an end to these roaming costs in 2017). In India there is a slight difference. Here, roaming doesn’t mean “calls, text messages and data you use outside your country”. It means “calls and text messages you use outside the state you bought your sim card in”. As reader RPG pointed out in the comments section, it’s even more complicated:
There are, in fact, higher charges if you use SMS or make phone calls while roaming, but the amounts are small. There is no roaming charge for data. Note that roaming does not involve visiting “another state”. It involves visiting another CIRCLE. Circles are defined such that sometimes there are multiple states in a circle, and sometimes there are multiple circles in a state. And sometimes there is exactly one state in a circle.
Luckily the roaming fees are very small, so you probably don’t have to worry about them too much…