How to get a SIM card in Kathmandu

There is no blood sacrifice involved, I promise!

Quick+Dirty!

The card that launched a thousand questions.

Don’t freak out – it’s actually really, really easy to get a SIM card in Kathmandu, or pretty much anywhere in Nepal.

That’s because in other parts of the world, people seem to deal almost exclusively in cards – SIM cards for their phones, memory cards for their laptops, and all manner of removable sticks that, at least in America, having rarely been seen since the advent of the “thumb drive.”

If you haven’t spent much time abroad, you’ve probably never had to worry about getting a  SIM card. You bought your smartphone, signed up for a plan with a popular carrier like AT&T or Verizon, and that was that.

Little did you know that there was SIM card lurking inside your phone the entire time, just begging to be swapped for its foreign counterpart in France! Or Italy! Or Qatar!

WHY YOU NEED A SIM CARD

If you’re thinking of long-term travel, it’s a great idea to buy a local SIM card in whatever country you’re in.

A SIM card is just a little (very little) card that pops right into the side of your phone. Don’t worry if you have no idea how to get your SIM card in or out – when you buy a new SIM card, the vendor will pop out your old card and put a new one in for you.

With a local SIM card, you can buy a pre-paid phone plan and save a TON of money on calls, texts, and data.

My carrier in the States was Verizon, and when I heard what the international roaming charges would be if I made a call in Nepal, I nearly fell off my chair. It was something insane like $17/minute. That’s when I knew I’d need to get a SIM card if I wanted to use my phone while I was abroad.

It’s a good idea to have a local SIM card and phone plan for safety. You may not think you’ll need to call or text anyone, and you very well may not.

But if you have a prepaid plan that includes data, you’ll be able to check Google maps when you get lost, make an emergency phone call if need be, and contact your guest house to come pick you up when the cab driver leaves you stranded. You’ll also be able to easily keep in touch with new friends you meet while traveling.

Since the power goes out often in Nepal – and along with it, the WiFi – having a prepaid SIM is a life saver. If you’re relying on WiFi alone, you’re shit out of luck when the power’s out. But if you have a prepaid plan, you can still makes calls, send texts, and get online by using your smartphone as a WiFi hotspot.

Just make sure your smartphone is unlocked before you leave the country.

  • iPhone 4 and later come automatically unlocked.
  • If you have an older model, call your service provider to see if they’ll unlock it for you.
  • If you’re unsure about whether your phone is locked or not, try popping out the SIM card (use the end of a paperclip or a bobby pin) and inserting the SIM card of a friend who uses a different carrier. See if you can make a call or send a text. If you can, your phone is unlocked.
  • Don’t pay hundreds of dollars to have a third party service unlock your phone for you. I almost fell for this, but then I called Verizon. They would’ve been happy to unlock my phone for me for free (it turned out my phone was already unlocked).

HOW TO GET A SIM CARD IN KATHMANDU

Everything I read online about getting a SIM card in Kathmandu made it sound like you’d need to promise your first born child to a man clad in black who’d emerge from the shadows and offer your SIM card wrapped in goat hair and the blood of orphans.

According to these travel blogs, the government of Nepal wants to keep track of every single foreigner who plans on taking advantage of the golden NCELL network, the pride and joy of the nation.

First of all, the government of Nepal  doesn’t seem to be that strict about tracking anything, let alone who’s making cell phone calls.

Second, I was not required to give blood samples, sexual history, my passport, or fingerprints in order to get a SIM card abroad.

You can get a SIM card in Kathmandu at one of the zillions of convenience stores or phone shops that line the streets of Thamel. I’d recommend hitting up an official NCELL phone shop if you can find one, because they’ll have a big paper cutter-looking thing that can cut their giant SIM cards down to iPhone-size.

I wish I could tell you exactly which shop I went to, but even if it had a name, the street it’s on does not. Thamel is small, the streets wind endlessly, and a casual saunter will reward you with at least 12 options to buy a SIM card – promise. Just look for the giant signs that say “SIM CARD” outside every door.

Here is what I needed to make the purchase:

  • A photocopy of my passport (I’d brought an actual photocopy with me, not the passport itself, and the clerk photocopied my photocopy and returned the photocopy to me.)
  • The address of my guest house in Kathmandu
  • 1,000 rupees for the card itself (about $10)
  • 2,000 rupees for a 2GB data plan, which included a bunch of bonus minutes and texts ($20)

The clerk popped the Verizon SIM out of my phone using a pin, cut the NCELL SIM card down to size, and popped it into my iPhone.

Voila! I now had a phone number in Nepal and could check my Facebook page from the middle of nowhere in the mountains using my data plan.

When WiFi was spotty and/or the power was out, I’d use my phone as a WiFi hotspot and be able to continue working.

What questions do you have about getting a SIM card in Kathmandu?

Does it still seem as scary as it first seemed to me?

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. The Thamel district in Kathmandu is packed with NCELL shops and convenience stores that sell SIM cards.

2. Look for the giant "SIM CARD" signs that are posted outside shop windows and doors.

3. I did not need to give my passport or fingerprints (or anything else!) to get my SIM card. I provided a photocopy of my passport and the address of my guest house, and that was it.

4. A 2GB data plan cost about $30 - $10 for the SIM card itself, and $20 for the data plan, which included bonus minutes and texting.

5. You can always "top up" your plan by buying a prepaid scratch-off card at any convenience store in Nepal. The lowest denomination is 100 rupees ($1), which gives you about 100 minutes OR 100 texts. You can combine talk and text and you'll receive a text message when you're running low on minutes.

6. Make sure your smartphone is unlocked before you leave the country.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

8 comments on “How to get a SIM card in Kathmandu

  1. Robert

    Thanks for the info. This would be really handy. Just curious, what do you do with the SIM cards when you return home?

    Reply
    1. Rebekah Voss Post author

      Great question Robert. I’ve been traveling for almost a year and I’ve been pretty disorganized! I should have been saving the SIM cards so if and when I return to that country, I don’t have to buy another one. Luckily they’re pretty cheap so if you toss them it’s no big deal. It’s a good idea to save your original SIM, though, if you’re traveling short term.

      Reply
  2. Mary

    Hi Rebekah,

    I will be going to Nepal for five months. You had mentioned you can get prepaid scratch cards to add minutes to your plan once you purchase the sim and the data plan, are there prepaid cards that also add data in case you use up the 2 gb?

    Thanks!
    Mary

    Reply
    1. Rebekah Voss Post author

      Mary, how exciting!!! I can’t WAIT to return to Nepal, I know you’re going to have an incredible time. If memory serves, the prepaid cards you buy to ‘top up’ are sort of like points – you can use the ‘points’ towards minutes OR data, whatever you need. It’s like putting money in the bank and when it’s gone, it’s gone. It may have changed a bit in the last year but if you’re buying your SIM for the first time in Thamel or Pokhara or a touristy area, the clerk will most likely speak excellent English and be able to answer your questions. My memory was of denominations in 100, 200, 500 but I don’t remember having to choose between data or minutes, so I’m 90% sure you’d get the same type of card for both.
      Rebekah Voss recently posted…Currywurst and Sportscars: Endless Summer in Dresden, Germany My Profile

      Reply
  3. Sean

    Hi Rebecca, I’m going to Nepal for most of Nov 2015. I spoke to Verizon rep and they said my iPhone 6 plus has a SIM in it to cover China/Homg Kong and Nepal. I just purchased a plan for 120 min, 120 txts and 120 mbs of data. I figure I will be using my iPad in teahouses in Nepal and Himalayas for emails, etc. does this all sound about right? Just wanted to check with you. Like your website, and thanks for the insight. – Sean

    Reply
    1. Rebekah Voss Post author

      Hi Sean, that sounds pretty cool – didn’t have iPhone6 when I went so I’m not sure. I had to pop out the SIM on my iPhone5 and insert a SIM that I bought in Nepal. I did have the option to purchase minutes from Verizon but they were much more expensive than purchasing minutes in-country. If you’ve already bought ’em though you’re all set. Not sure what kind of reception you’ll get if you’re trekking. If you’re in Kathmandu or Pokhara you should be able to get free WiFi at a lot of restaurants and coffee shops in tourist areas. If you go outside tourists areas you may not even get cell reception in a lot of places. Enjoy!!!!

      Reply

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