Updated: May 3
Before travelling to Mexico, as I always do, I researched how to get cellular coverage while in the country. Although the general consensus was "it's easy and cheap", the details were unclear. I didn't find many good sources of information; some were out of date, some plain unhelpful.
This is an up-to-date guide which will help get you online quickly and cheaply. I recommend reading the whole post, but if you're the sort who just wants to cut to the chase, here's the skinny:
The Super-Quick Guide
Check with your home operator - it's possible you already have calls, data and SMS available here
Make sure your handset is unlocked, and works with GSM networks
Go to an Oxxo store and ask for "Un chip Telcel, paquete Amigo Sin Límite"
Ask for $300 to be added to the SIM (that's about US$16).
This tariff will give you free calls, SMS, WhatsApp messages, Facebook, Messenger, SnapChat, Instagram, and Twitter, plus 8GB data, valid for 33 days. It's good for Mexico, US and Canada
Switch off your phone, swap the Telcel SIM in and restart. It comes in all 3 sizes, just push out the one that fits
Remember to keep the old SIM for when you get home! I usually put it into the new SIM pack with a bit of tape
Your phone should restart and register with the Telcel network. Text "saldo" to 333 to check your balance and expiry date
In the event the SIM doesn't activate your package, try texting "SL300" to 5050 to explicitly switch to this package
The Longer Guide
Assuming you want more info, or prefer to know a bit more about what you're doing before tinkering, then read on 😀
Before you start
Check whether your home plan allows you calls, data and texts in Mexico. Some (especially US/Canadian) may include it as standard. Some may charge a modest fee.
I knew for a fact that my UK Vodafone didn't allow it, which was one reason I cancelled when I left the country. Mrs Wench, however, discovered that her EE account included unlimited calls and data in Mexico. A lucky up-sell at her last contract renewal, and she not only gets Mexico for free but she keeps her UK number. Win 👍🏻
Make sure your phone is unlocked and works with the GSM network. All modern phones will do; some older, 3G only phones from CDMA operators (I'm looking at you, Verizon and Sprint) may not. Check if in doubt.
Assuming you have a GSM-capable, unlocked handset, you're good to go.
There are basically three carriers in Mexico: Telcel, Movistar and AT&T. There are other players, but they're all white-label operators running on the big boys' networks.
Telcel is by far the biggest, and has the best overall coverage. You may want to check a coverage map, but if your goal is to get online quickly and easily, as long as you have Telcel coverage we're good to go.
Getting a SIM
Unlike in some countries, getting a working prepaid SIM card here is very straightforward
You'll need a Telcel SIM card. The helpful blog posts say that they're on sale 'everywhere'. I've only consistently seen them in Oxxo. Most branches of Oxxo will have them in stock, and Oxxo is ubiquitous. If the shop you're in is sold out, walk a couple of blocks. In Mexico a SIM card is called a chip.
Ask them to top it up in the shop. I'd suggest MX$300 initially (see later). They'll scan the card for its number, add the top-up, and take your money. The card is now live and will be activated as soon as you swap it into your handset.
Don't worry about size, like everywhere else Mexican cards are pre-cut for standard, micro and nano size. It will fit your phone.
Telcel Mexico Plans
The Telcel plans are designed for a range of purposes; from "I need access today, and cheap!" to more regular weekly to monthly periods.
To someone, somewhere, these plans are logical. To me they are the result of sending the marketing and accounts departments on a night out with too much gin. Anyway, the plan you want is Paquete Amigo Sin Límite. It comes in a bewildering array of flavours.
Note these prices are valid as of Dec 2019. They change, especially the promotions, so check the latest deals. I've rounded some of the $/GB prices slightly, and assumed a rate of US$1 = MX$20.
First thing to understand is that all the deals include free calls, SMS and WhatsApp messages 👍🏻 Better still, these are all valid across Mexico, Canada and the US. WA is enormously popular in Latin America; businesses as well as individuals use it.
Next, all the tariffs include an allowance for social media use. The lowest two give Facebook, Messenger and Twitter; the next two include Instagram and Snapchat. Packages of $100 or above give unlimited use of these social platforms. I'm not 100% sure if this includes streaming video from Facebook and so on - maybe you can drop a note in the comments if you know - but this is pretty generous.
Finally, the two 4 tariffs include a half-gigabyte allowance for Claro Música, a streaming service.
You'll now see why I suggested buying the SIM and getting a $300 top-up. For me this is the sweet spot; it's the cheapest per-GB deal; it's valid for 33 days (ie, monthly plus a few days in case you forget); and it gives you all the social and music allowance on top of that. I don't imagine many people will be using more than this, unless (like us 🙄) you need to use Skype for work. Even then, tethering works fine - so it's good for emergencies.
If you're only going to be in the country for a week or two, SL100 or SL150 are likely fine, if you want to save a few bucks.
How to Check Your Balance and Telcel Recharge
There are various ways of getting top-ups, managing and tracking your account. Your account has a balance (saldo) and a plan. Your plan will be Amigo Sin Límite if you're following this guide; your balance will be whatever is on the account that hasn't been spent. I still haven't worked out how to add money to my balance without it automatically switching tariffs, but I'll update here when I do!
To check your current balance/paquete: Text saldo to 333:
This tells me I'm on an Amigo tariff, valid till 21st January, and I have $100 in my balance. The rest of the balances are zero because they're unlimited.
To top-up your balance: There are lots of options!
Go to Oxxo. Give them your phone number, which they'll type into their terminal. They'll get you to double-check it. Confirm the amount you want to add and give them the cash. Voila. You'll likely get an SMS confirmation before you leave the shop
As in the image above, you can call *321 and talk to a machine/person. Spanish only
Visit the site shown in the image. You can enter your number and pay by credit card. It's a bit clunky but basically works
GSM service menu. Call *133# <call>. (As in - enter exactly that as if it were a phone number, including the star and hash, then press the dial/call button). This will initiate an interactive session where you can check balances, buy and change paquetes (I never managed to buy any, but your mileage may vary)
The very best option, in my opinion, is the Mi Telcel app, available for Android and iOS. It lets you view your allowances, change tariffs, store a credit card for future recharges and more. Not a lot of use for a 2-week holiday, but if you're here for any length of time this is probably your best bet:
If you're an iPhone user, you're in a bit of a spot here. Unless you're using the Mexican Apple store, you may not be able to find the Mi Telcel app. I couldn't (my home base is the UK). There's a workaround though. It involves creating a new account in the Mexican Apple store with a new ID. There are guides out there on how to do this, but frankly it's a pain in the ass.
Personally, I wouldn't bother unless you're going to be in the country for an extended period of time.
Getting connected in Mexico is cheap, straightforward and much easier than other countries. I hope this post helps! Do your homework. Tariffs and deals change all the time. Check the Telcel site as above for the latest.
Any errors and omissions are mine; please email me or comment below if you find any. That said, it is only a guide - please don't flame me if you end up out of pocket by a few pesos through some weird technical snafu 😉
If you enjoyed this article, I'd love you to share it! You can use the buttons below 👍🏻