Using 3G in South East Asia

28th October 2014

simcard-post

One thing anyone who is even mildly technology dependant should do before travelling anywhere for an extended period of time is to have their smart phone unlocked. Having 3G in South East Asia (in fact in any foreign country!) opens up so many possibilities. All of a sudden you are not dependant on tuktuk drivers telling you that your hotel is miles away, you can look up this nice hotel you just stumbled upon on Tripadvisor to see what other people thought of it and you can pretty much just hop on a scooter and go get lost anywhere, knowing that your trusty GPS will always bring you back home at the end of the day. 3G in South East Asia is extremely cheap and surprisingly very fast and reliable in most places.

Since we get asked about this all the time, I thought we’d put together our little guide to SIM cards and data plans in South East Asia. A lot of information can already be found online on how to purchase a SIM card in various countries, but little is said about things like subscribing to a plan, figuring out your balance, changing plan and so forth, so we thought sharing our experience could be valuable. We both have an iPhone 4, but I am guessing these instructions would work across most platforms. We only buy a package for one phone and use the personal hotspot for the other as well as our computer and other devices!

Please let us know if you’ve had better experiences or if you have some tricks as we would love to make some amendments to make this as complete as possible. Hopefully this list can grow as we go! 🙂

In general data should just work when you first use your phone with a new SIM, but if not you might need to set up the profile:

+ Visit this site on your phone.
+ Choose the carrier and follow the instructions
+ You may need to reboot after applying the new profile
+ If personal hotspot doesn’t work, go to Settings > Mobile (or “Cellular”) > Mobile Data Network
+ Make sure “Personal Hotspot” APN/Username/Password is the same as the “Mobile Data” APN/Username/Password


VIETNAM

We arrived in Vietnam via the Phnom Penh/Chau Doc ferry. Chau Doc is a relatively small town, so your experience might be easier than ours in larger cities. We walked in a random used cellphone shop (it was an unbranded shop, just some local store selling phones). The guy there barely spoke two words of English, but we told him “Internet” and showed him our phone. He gave us a SIM card (Vinaphone) for 100,000VND, although I think the actual price is 75,000VND and we got charged foreigner price, but this is supposedly common. We also got a 50,000VND top up. The word “data” is pretty international. The SIM card we bought was a regular full size one, so he had to clip it to fit the iPhone mini SIM. He added the top up for us and subscribed us to a package that gave unlimited high speed internet for one month up to 600Mb, and after that it was at reduced speed (but still fast enough for browsing and using maps). The phone needed to be rebooted in order to work with the new SIM card in. With this package, there was a little credit left over for calling and texting.

Vinaphone website is NOT in English and doesn’t translate well, but the process was very much like the rest of Asia: figure out the plan you want, and text the corresponding code. If you go into an actual phone company shop this should all be much easier. To check how much high speed data is left send an SMS to 888 saying “DATA”. We had great coverage all over Vietnam with Vinaphone.

Unlimited data for 1 month including SIM card: $8.20US


LAOS

We went into a random corner store in the remote little town of Muang Khua and bought an mPhone (LaoTel) SIM card for 50,000K. It popped out into a mini SIM, so it didn’t need to be cut. We also bought a top up for 50,000K and applied it (just follow the instructions on the card, it’s in Lao but very self explanatory). MPhone’s website has no info online about packages and we never saw a shop or a leaflet for them. However, we found this picture online with the data packages, it’s really out of date but still gives an idea.

1379484619-InternetPa-o

We took the 50,000K package for 30 days / 1100MB data – just dialled *118*3# to apply it. For some reason we got 2500MB of data, which was great because we spent an extended period of time in Vang Vieng without Wifi, relying only on 3G. Once the data ran out, we topped it up again and reapplied the package the same way. If you subscribe to a new package before the old one runs out, the data just gets accumulated and the validity extends. To see your remaining data just dial *123#. Overall the coverage was pretty good around towns and cities.

2.5GB data for one month including SIM card: ~$12US (and ~$6US for every 2.5GB after that)


THAILAND

DTAC sells “Happy Tourist” SIM cards but we found it to be a ripoff at 300B. We thought it was best to just buy the vanilla SIM card for 49B (it just pops out into mini SIM, so no cutter required). We paid 60B from a lady at the Lao/Thai border on a later trip after our original SIM card got misplaced. This card comes with a very small amount of credit and is subscribed to a 1.99B per MB data plan by default. You can top up at 7-11 or just do it online with a credit card. Choose a “Happy Internet” package here (just dial the appropriate activation shortcut).

Note that monthly subscriptions auto renew if you have enough credit in your account. If you don’t want it to renew, you need to unsubscribe before that happens. Daily/weekly subscriptions don’t auto renew so be careful! At midnight when it expires, you will go back to 1.99B per MB data plan and your phone will eat through your credit while you sleep. We ended up just switching mobile data off before going to bed and resubscribing in the morning. Please let me know if you know of a better way! We usually use the 199B/7 days for 1Gb 3G and then unlimited at 384kbps, perfect for web/maps but a little slow for YouTube or Instagram. Generally, the coverage was great everywhere. DTAC’s website is excellent, all self service numbers are listed here.

Unlimited data for one month including SIM card can be as cheap as ~$15US


MALAYSIA

You can buy a SIM card at any convenience store, ours was from 7-11. We bought the UMobile SIM card for a couple of dollars and a 30MR top up. The SIM card was the correct size for our iPhone 4. We subscribed to the UMI 28 plan (1GB high speed internet, 50 minutes of calls, 30 SMS). The girl in the shop did everything for us, but it’s very straightforward and the UMobile website is really good. This plan includes unlimited internet, but only 1GB at high speed, after that you get throttled to 64kbps up/down which is virtually unusable. You can add 10MR credit and send SMS “ON BOOST” to 28118, which adds a further 1GB of high speed but it will ONLY BE VALID for 72 hours, so this was kind of crap. You can top up / check usages / etc with the on-phone menu: dial *118# and then follow the prompts (e.g. Mobile Services > Unlimited Mobile Internet > Check Usage). The coverage was good and worked well on the west coast, but they had zero 3G coverage on the entire east coast.

1GB data for one month including SIM card: ~$18US


INDONESIA

We bought a Telcomsel SimPati SIM at the airport for 50,000 rupiah (the price varies depending where you buy and can be as low as 10,000). Telcomsel is supposed to have the best coverage. The SIM popped out to fit in the iPhone 4. We also bought a topup and followed the instructions. Do this YOURSELF, don’t let the shopkeeper do it! (we got scammed!)

+ Check your balance by dialling *888#
+ Check your data balance by dialling *889#
+ Access the phone menu with *363# (it’s in Bahasa Indonesia but you can use Google Translate to figure it out.)
+ For volume-based internet, choose in order:
2. Telkomsel Flash
2. Flash Volume-Ultima
3. Flash Bulanan
+ Choose the package:
600MB / 30rb
2GB / 60rb
4.5GB / 110rb
8GB / 250rb
9GB / 450rb

I think the price/data you get may vary depending where you are, as per their website.

The website works with Google Translate in Chrome, but it’s quite confusing. Although coverage is seemingly quite good (at least in West and Central Java as well as Bali and Lombok), in practice it doesn’t work very well – we had to regularly toggle airplane mode to get internet to work, despite having 5 bars of 3G…

2GB data for one month including SIM card: ~$9US


MYANMAR

SIM cards are available all over – in shops and on the street. We bought an MPT card – the official price is 1500k, but they are sold for between 3000 and 5000 on the street.

First you need to activate the card – do this by topping up. You can buy a topup from nearly anywhere in multiple denominations. In case the topup doesn’t have instructions, you simply scratch off the silver panel and dial: *123*[top up number]#. The credit will be applied.

For activating the SIM you will receive a few hundred kyat bonus credit as well. At this point, data will not be active.

Next you need to activate data. You can do this on the ‘base’ plan by simple sending “Orderdata service” by SMS to 1331. However, it will cost you a 10,000k activation fee. After that, data will be charged – strangely – at 2k per minute of use.

We subscribed instead to the Swe Thahar plan, for free, by sending “SWE” by SMS to 1332. This gave us some more bonus credit and 50mb of free data.

To use the data, you need to make sure your APN is set to “mptnet” (on iPhone, this is found in Settings > Mobile > Mobile Data Network).

Once the bonus data is used, you will be charged (more sensibly) 15k per Mb. Better to buy a package – you can get either 400Mb for 5000k (by sending “400MB” by SMS to 1332), or 1Gb for 10,000k (by sending “1GB” instead).

As a side note – the MPT website is excellent and has lots of useful information in English. We had an issue after buying a data package – data simply didn’t work despite apparently being enabled. I had no luck reaching MPT at their call centre and, on a whim, wrote a comment on their Facebook page instead. To my surprise, it was quickly passed onto their technical team who very soon resolved the issue for us.

You can check your credit and data balance at any time by sending “BAL” via SMS to 1331.

Coverage was excellent in Yangon and Mandalay, and far better than the lousy hotel wifi. Things were a little more spotty in Bagan – generally we had slow 2G service, with 3G sometimes working in higher locations (on the hotel roof, or on top of some of the bigger temples!).


So there you have it! Please let us know if you have anything to add!

3 thoughts on “Using 3G in South East Asia

  1. Jesse

    Last spring when I went to Italy I got an international SIM card for my iPhone. I don’t think I used the phone at all while I was there. I think I used it a couple times for data access. The tour bus my group was on had wi-fi and Italy seems to have gotten much better when it comes to wi-fi access since my previous visit in 2010. I think I could’ve gotten something cheaper if I had went and gotten something set up earlier instead of at the airport in Rome but having that extra layer of security in having a working phone made things much better.

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