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Short-term cell phone in Mexico for only $14 US

Richard Ferguson

Have you ever wanted a cell phone in Mexico, but did not want to pay big money for the privilege? Even if your current cell phone company would arrange for your phone calls to your stateside cell phone number to ring your cell phone in Mexico, would you want to pay international long distance charges on every local call that you make or receive? Do you want to be able to save money on phone calls to the USA?

There are no shortage of horror stories from people who took their US cell phone abroad and found when they got home that their phone bill was hundreds or thousands of dollars. Using a US cell phone in Mexico can cost $1 or $1.50 US per minute or more. A Mexican cell phone can be much less expensive.

Maybe you just want a cell phone for emergencies. I had an old US cell phone activated in Mexico, and paid only $14 US. You can do it too, with the step by step process described below.

Prepaid cell phone service

Prepaid cell phone service is just that, you pay in advance for the calls that you will make. For short term use, prepaid service is the way to go. In the USA, most cell phone service is sold through heavily promoted annual contracts, offering a discounted or free cell phone. In other countries, prepaid service is more common. Note that long term residents of Mexico may sign up for a cell phone contract, similar to what one would find in the USA. This article will focus on prepaid service.

In Mexico, you buy cards that give you airtime. In the case of Telcel, you buy a card, scratch off the surface to reveal the secret code, dial "*333" on your cell phone to access your account, then push 2 to add airtime, then punch in the secret code. Dial "*333" and then push 1 to get your "saldo" or account balance, and the expiration date. Listen for an option to get your balance in English. Note that using your cell phone to check your account balance may not be a free call.

A prepaid card is only good for a limited time. To keep your phone active, you need to buy new airtime credit periodically, whether you use up your credit or not. Your airtime credit carries over when you buy a new card. Expiration date is not an issue on a short trip. If you buy a card and add time, it keeps your phone active for so many days from the date you add time. In most cases, the credit is good for two months. The smaller denomination cards, such as 20 pesos, generally are good for a shorter time period. Note that if you do not buy additional credit, and your phone is deactivated, you have up to six months to reactivate your phone, by buying additional airtime credit. After six months from the last purchase, you lose your phone number, and any credit balance that you may have on your account.

Note that you may be able to buy airtime electronically on the Internet or in some stores.

Decisions, decisions

It is easy to obtain prepaid cell phone service in Mexico. But you have to make two decisions, which can be interrelated. The first decision is where to get your phone. The second decision is which phone company to select for your service.

Decision 1 - The cell phone

There are several possible ways to get a cell phone. The first and simplest is to buy a phone in Mexico. The second way is to look in your drawers and find an old cell phone. The third way is to buy an unlocked phone in the USA.

Buy a new phone in Mexico

Phones are readily available for sale in Mexico. A basic phone costs around $30 to $40 US (300 to 400 pesos). The phone will include some airtime credit. It may look like the phone is free because they will throw in almost as much airtime as you pay for the phone. But as one salesman told me, this is kind of a trap. You don't get all the airtime out front. You get a little out front, and then more later, after you buy more airtime. One downside of this approach is that the phone will be locked to the provider. In other words, if you buy a phone from Movistar, you cannot later use that phone on the Telcel network. More on locking of cellphones later.

Use an old cellphone

Most people have old cellphones tucked away in a drawer somewhere. Perhaps you or a friend have a phone that is only a few years old, that was recently replaced. Check to be sure that the battery is still good.Since Mexico uses the same technical standards and frequencies as the USA, virtually all of these phones are usable in Mexico. But the phone may be locked.

Unlocking a cell phone

It is very likely that the phone in your drawer is locked to the original cell phone company. For example, if the phone originally came from AT&T/Cingular, you may only be able to use it on the AT&T network. In order to use that phone in Mexico you probably need to get the phone unlocked.

A little searching on the internet will identify various companies that will unlock your cellphone, or sell you the secret code that you need to unlock the phone yourself. Some small cell phone shops in your own town may offer unlocking services. Your cell phone provider may agree to unlock your phone for you, if you ask. If you have a GSM type cell phone, it is easy to check if the phone is unlocked, by changing the SIM card, which is found under the battery. If the phone came from T-mobile, insert an AT&T SIM, or vice-versa. If the phone works, the phone is unlocked, and it is ready to use in Mexico. It is more difficult to figure out if a phone without a SIM is unlocked or not. Note that it is possible to get a phone unlocked in Mexico, but it may be cheaper to get it unlocked in the USA, or just buy a new phone in Mexico. Note that the word for unlock in Mexico is Flexeo; look for the word Flexeo on a sign in the cell phone shop.

Buy an unlocked phone

Another approach is to buy an unlocked phone in the USA. This is what I did. I went on eBay and searched for a Quad Band Unlocked GSM phone. I paid about $35 US for a used Motorola V188 flip phone with a 110V/220V charger.

GSM is the Global System for Mobile communications. GSM phones can be identified by the small SIM card that plugs into the phone, underneath the battery, as shown in red in the photo. The phone number and most of the user information is included in the SIM card, so it is easy to take the SIM card out of one phone and insert it into another phone, and have the new phone ready to use immediately. Or you can take one phone and use different SIM cards. T-mobile and AT&T Wireless use GSM in the USA, Movistar and Telcel in Mexico.

The Quad Band means that it will work in the USA, Mexico, Europe, and more than 200 countries around the planet. I wanted a phone that I could use anywhere that I might travel. The USA, Canada, and Mexico use two frequency bands, and the rest of the world uses two different frequency bands. A quad band phone includes all the possible frequencies. If you bring a GSM phone from Europe, it may not include the Mexico frequency bands.

Note that there are other technical standards for cell phones. The most common one is CDMA, which stands for Code Division Multiple Access. Verizon and Sprint in the USA use CDMA; IUSACELL and Unefon use CDMA in Mexico. CDMA phones do not use SIM cards.

Technical Standards for Cell Phones

  GSM Providers CDMA Providers iDen providers
USA AT&T, T-mobile Sprint, Verizon, Qwest, Cricket, Alltel,
US Cellular, Virgin Mobile, Amp'd, Jump
Mexico Telcel, Movistar IUSACELL, Unefon Nextel

So if you bring a cell phone to Mexico, you need to know the technical standard that the phone uses, so that you can figure out which Mexican cell phone companies use the same system. For example, if you bring an AT&T GSM cell phone to Mexico, you could use Telcel or Movistar in Mexico, but not IUSACELL. The table above should identify the system used by most phones in the USA, and help you figure out the corresponding Mexican cell phone companies. Older cell phones may use obsolete technologies such as TDMA or analog, and are best avoided.

Decision 2 - Choosing your phone company

If you bring a cell phone to Mexico, you will be limited to those phone companies using the same system, as outlined in the table above. If you choose to buy a phone in Mexico, you can select whatever company you like.

With respect to costs, consider how you might use your cell phone. Will you be making a lot of calls to one other person? A lot of calls to the USA? Long calls? Short calls? A lot of minutes? Not so many minutes? Will you be traveling around? You may need translation help and many questions to understand the cost structure and available promotions. It is best if you can see the prices published, with notes explaining the restrictions. The information below should give you a head start on understanding costs, and how to reduce them. If you don't plan to use your phone much, the cost of calls may not be a big concern.

You will need to consider the cell phone coverage where you will be spending your time. In Catemaco, where I was, the choices were limited to Telcel and Movistar. Every cell phone shop was either a Telcel or a Movistar shop. IUSACELL phones would have had limited or no coverage, and were not for sale in Catemaco. The next town, San Andres, had IUSACELL coverage. The company's web sites have coverage (cobertura) information, sometimes in the form of maps, sometimes as a table listing the communities that they serve. Telcel generally has the most extensive national coverage, and the most subscribers, but other companies may offer lower prices. Some companies offer limited coverage, especially in rural areas. Consider asking locals in Mexico which cell phone provider you should choose.

Activating a cell phone

I paid 150 pesos ($14 US) to buy a Telcel SIM card and activate my cell phone. This included 50 pesos of airtime credit. The phone was activated immediately, no waiting.

When you activate a phone, you should receive your cell phone number, as well as a NIP (Número de Identificación Personal). The cell phone number and NIP should enable you to review your account information on the internet, including your account balance. You may also receive a security code that you can use to disable your phone to prevent use by unauthorized persons.

After my cell phone was activated, I kept getting a voice message with every call asking me to call and register my phone. Eventually I did this, giving them my name and a ficticious address in Veracruz. If you don't speak pretty good Spanish, have someone else do this for you. Not sure if other cell phone companies have the same procedure.

Cost of prepaid cell phone use in Mexico

Trying to understand the cost of a phone call in Mexico can make your head spin. Sometimes I think that the companies deliberately make it all very complex so that you can't understand it. The companies' web sites sometimes do not explain the cost of calls. The more questions that I asked, the more catches I found, and the more complex it appeared. If you take what they tell you at face value, you may be disappointed when you pay more than you think they promised you. My Telcel airtime seemed to be used up much more quickly than the published rates would indicate, which I was not happy about. But I will attempt to explain what I discovered. I suggest that you only purchase cell phone service from a company that is willing to put their rates in writing, as the small print will explain the restrictions and limitations. In addition to explaining the cost structure, I will try to highlight opportunities to save money, by marking these opportunities in bold characters.

Disclaimer: The cell phone business is very dynamic, and promotions and prices change constantly. Some of what is written here is likely to be out of date before the article is published.

The first thing to understand is the concept of calling party pays, which is uncommon in the USA, but almost universal in Mexico. In other words, if I call your cell phone, the call is free for you, and I am going to pay for your airtime. Calling a cell phone, even from a fixed line in the same town, can cost you 50 cents US per minute, or even more!

Example rates

The prices below are for you to use your own prepaid cell phone. These prices are merely an example, but should give you some idea what to expect, and help you understand how cell phone pricing generally works.

Telcel standard rates: To a Telcel phone, 5.75 pesos per minute, to a fixed line, 4.5 pesos per minute, long distance 7 pesos per minute, 16 pesos a minute to the USA. Very expensive, but Telcel has better plans, ask.

Movistar tarifa Única: This standard plan has both local and long distance calls, to Movistar, other cell phones, and fixed lines at 3.5 pesos per minute. Even calls to the USA are 3.5 pesos per minute! A flat rate plan.You can select up to 10 local numbers that you call frequently, and the rate to those numbers will be 1.15 pesos per minute. A good plan for short calls, and if most calls are to just a few numbers. A great deal for short calls to the USA. Easy to understand.

Movistar Por Llamada: This promotional rate means that most calls are flat rate, from 30 seconds up to 20 minutes. Local calls to a Movistar phone or a fixed phone are 5.75 pesos per call. To another company's cell phone, 3.5 pesos per minute. Long distance inside Mexico, is 5.75 pesos per call to a Movistar phone or a fixed phone, 6 pesos per minute to another company's cell phone. To the USA or Canada, 11.5 pesos per call. You can choose one Movistar number for free calls. A great plan for those who tend to make longer calls. The cost structure is also easier to understand than most.

Movistar Pagamenos: This promotional rate has most short calls priced per minute, and longer calls priced per call, up to 30 minutes. Local and long distance calls to a Movistar phone or a fixed phone are 2.75 pesos for the first two minutes, after that a flat rate 5.75 pesos per call. Local calls to another company's cell phones are 3.5 pesos per minute, or 6 pesos per minute long distance inside Mexico. Calls to the US or Canada are 5.5 pesos per minute for the first two minutes, or 11.50 per call. A great plan for those who tend to make longer calls.

Telcel Amigo Combinado: This promotional rate is very similar to Movistar Pagamenos. A Telcel advantage is when you put a Telcel phone number on your ten most frequently called list, calls to those numbers only cost 1.15 pesos per minute. The maximum call length for the flat rate was 20 minutes. But the favorable Telcel rates only apply if you are in your "home" city, otherwise they charge you roaming rates, which are higher. More seriously, the "per call" rates do not apply to calls to the USA, so a 20 minute call to the USA could cost $30 US!

If you are concerned about costs

Be sure that you are signed up for the best promotional offer available. In my case, Telcel offered a program called Amigo Combinado, which dramatically cut the rates, especially for longer phone calls. But I had to call and request that I be switched to that plan, and it took 24 hours for my request to take effect. Promotional plans can expire, so you might need to switch to another plan after a few months.

See it in writing. Don't sign up for service unless you see a rate sheet, and have it explained to you, including how to switch to the best plan. I asked repeatedly, but I never saw a Telcel price sheet during my trip.

Ask about roaming. If you are outside your home area, you may pay higher rates. This is important if you travel around Mexico, and not if you are staying in one area. I understand that Telcel charges 4 pesos per minute extra when roaming, while Movistar charges the same rate, roaming or not.

Avoid Telcel. Telcel is generally considered the most expensive, but also has the best nationwide coverage.

A bonus may be available by buying larger denomination prepaid cards. If you pay 100 pesos for a card, you receive 120 pesos of airtime credit. Buying a 200 peso card gives you 300 pesos of airtime credit, a 300 peso card 500 pesos of credit, and a 500 peso card 1000 pesos of credit. This is a form of volume discount.

Rates may go down if you buy larger denomination prepaid cards. IUSACELL was offering a promotion for free local calls to other IUSACELL phones, and 10 cents a minute to local fixed lines, if you buy 300 pesos or more. IUSACELL long distance to the USA costs much less if you buy 200 pesos or more, as low as 18 cents per minute for 300 pesos or more.

Pay by the call, not by the minute. Some companies have a plan or promotion in which the cost is per call, not per minute, up to 20 or 30 minutes. As you can see in the examples above, this could mean one price for both short and long calls. Paying by the call may save you a lot of money if you make calls that last more than a couple of minutes.

Use the same cell phone company as your friends and spouse. If you plan to make a lot of calls to another cell phone number, it will save you money to select the same cell phone company for both cell phones. As you can see above, the cost per minute could be significantly lower. IUSACELL sometimes offers free calls to any other IUSACELL or UNEFON phone, even long distance. Telcel has the largest number of users; if your friends have Telcel you will probably want to use Telcel.

Ask about discounts for frequently called numbers. If you plan to make many calls to one or more local numbers, ask about discounts when calling that number or numbers. In some cases, you may be able to specify one or up to 10 specific numbers to which you could call more cheaply or free. For example, I was told that Telcel lets you select one Telcel cell phone number to which you could make free calls up to five minutes. For those on your frequent number list, Telcel charges only 1.15 pesos per minute. A good deal.

Ask about free minutes. Another opportunity is if the company offers free local or long distance calls. For example, IUSACELL offers 200 minutes of free calls to another IUSACELL phone if you buy a 200 peso card. A different promotion offers free local calls to another IUSACELL phone, if you buy a card of 200 pesos or more.

Use text messaging. Depending on your plan, a text message costs a peso or two, or even free to some numbers, cheaper than a phone call.

Use the Internet to make your international calls. International calls from Mexico are expensive, whether you use a pay phone or a cell phone. However, by using a computer and Skype or another Internet calling service, you can make calls for free or for pennies a minute. Note that Skype, and some other Internet calling services, do not transmit touch tones well, so you cannot use Skype to retrieve voice mail or to access systems that require you to use touch-tones to select various options. Even if you did not bring your own computer, you may find a storefront business offering Internet calls for pennies per minute.

Dialing system

The dialing system in Mexico is much more complex than in the USA, as you can see below. As in the United States, Mexican phone numbers have ten digits, including the city or area code. Most areas have seven digit local numbers, with a three digit city or area code. However, Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey have a two digit city code, and an eight digit local number.

For emergency calls, you can generally dial 066, but check in your locality, as this is not universal. To dial an 800 number in the USA, you need to change the number as follows: 1-800 becomes 001-880, 1-888 becomes 001-881, 1-877 becomes 001-882, 1-866 becomes 001-883.

How to dial from a Mexican fixed line

If it is a local call to a Mexican fixed line, you can simply dial the seven or eight digit local number. If it is a call to a Mexican cell phone with your city code, dial 044 + the city code + the phone number; you will pay for the cell phone airtime. If it is a long distance call to a Mexican cell phone (another city code), dial 045 + the city code + the phone number. If it is a long distance call to a fixed line within Mexico, dial 01, the city code, and then the local number. If it is an international long distance call, dial 00 + country code + area code + phone number. (The country code for the USA and Canada is 1.) Note that cell phone numbers are usually written with 044 in front of the ten digits.

How to dial from a Mexican cell phone

If it is a local call to a Mexican fixed line or cell phone, you can simply dial the seven or eight digit number. If it is a long distance call to a Mexican fixed line or cell phone, dial the ten digit number. (Note that if it is a long distance call to a cell phone of another company, you might have to dial 045 and then the 10 digit number). If it is an international call, you dial 00 + country code + area code + phone number. (The country code for the USA and Canada is 1.)

How to dial from the USA or other countries

To call a fixed line in Mexico from the USA or Canada, dial 011 + 52 + city code + phone number. 52 is the country code for Mexico. To call a cell phone in Mexico, dial 011 + 52 + 1 + city code + phone number. The extra 1 is to let you know that calls to a cell phone in Mexico cost more than calls to fixed lines. If you are calling Mexico from a country other than the USA or Canada, substitute your international access code for 011, which is the international access code in the USA and Canada.

Wired phones vs. cell phones

To get a wired phone, Telmex charges up to $200 US for new service, so a cell phone can save money in initial charges. Some people even buy fixed cell phone service for use in their home. I understand that many Mexicans have a cell phone but do not have a wired phone.

Other options

Some companies, such as Telestial, will sell you a phone and a Mexican SIM and ship it to your home in advance of your trip. Other companies will rent you a cell phone with SIM. This has the advantage of letting you know your phone number in advance, and the convenience of having a working phone in your pocket when you get off the plane. But of course you pay more for that convenience.

A different approach, especially for those people who travel in several different countries in a short time, is to get a global phone or SIM from Mobal or Riiing, also sold by Telestial and other companies. You then have one number, typically from a country in Europe, that follows you around from country to country. With this service, people can always reach you, even if they don't know where you are. The downside is higher rates. Using Mobal service in Mexico costs $2 US per minute, or $3 US per minute to call the USA.

It is not hard to get a Mexican cell phone

If you need or want cell phone service in Mexico, it is not that difficult to arrange. You do not need to sign contracts, give them your credit card number or your firstborn, have a local address, or prove that you are creditworthy. Cash is all you need. On the other hand, maybe you really just want to get away from it all in Mexico. But if you read this far in the article, you probably do want to carry a cell phone. Enjoy your trip to Mexico and your cell phone.

Note: This article was completely rewritten and updated in early 2008. Thanks to Pete J. and Jerry for their helpful feedback on the article.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2008 by Richard Ferguson © 2009
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