Buying a SIM in India is a tricky process. Since the attacks in Mumbai in 2008, the government has really clamped down on security and buying a SIM requires a fair amount of paperwork. Once you have your documents assembled, activating your SIM is easy and a couple of simple tricks will allow you to surf away on your iPhone.
Internet cafes are common and fairly cheap in India. Unfortunately, they aren’t terribly convenient — most are small and very crowded. Like sitting on an aisle seat in a plane, you’ll find yourself getting up and down several times to let other customers pass by. I’m doing a bit of freelance work while I travel, so I needed to be online during the late hours, after the cafes were closed. Tethering my iPhone to my laptop sounded like a perfect solution.
I bought my Vodafone SIM from a vendor on the street, but if I had it to do over again, I’d just go to a Vodafone Center and take care of everything there. Armed with copies of my passport and Indian visa, a receipt from my hotel, a passport photo and a wad of cash, I stopped by a small booth recommended by an Indian friend. I’d hoped to try a different provider, AirTel or one of the others, but all of the shops seemed to only offer Vodafone.
The SIM cost me 800 rupees in total ($20 US) — for that I got an active SIM and phone number and almost 500 rupees in credit. I was told that when first activating a SIM, the first 300 credits go to the government — I heard this from a few different shops, so I think it’s on the up-and-up. But you really never know…
After waiting twenty minutes, my SIM was able to make and receive calls but I couldn’t seem to activate the data plan — no email, web or App access. I downloaded several hacked Vodafone profiles and tinkered with all kinds of settings but nothing seemed to work. In the end, I took a cab ride to the Churchgate district, found a Vodafone center and had them sort me out.
The solution was an easy one: they simply texted ACT IPHONE to #144 to enroll me in the iPhone data plan. The cost is 99 rupees per month (deducted from your balance) and then a charge per byte that you download. I think the charge worked out to 1 rupee per 100k of data, but don’t hold me to that. Fairly cheap, so long as you don’t download music or video. Note that really cheap data plans are available, but don’t seem to work on the iPhone. Dammit.
After four hours, I received a message saying that my account was active, restarted my iPhone and was soon surfing the web on a fairly standard Edge network. While I was at the Vodafone shop, I learned about their new 3G Internet Stick, a USB modem that would (supposedly) allow me to surf from anywhere in the country from my laptop. The cost was 1,800 rupees (about $40) and that included a month of unlimited data. Future months were 600 rupees for unlimited, or 400 rupees for 2GB.
Normally, I would have waited on a purchase like this so that I’d have time to do a little online research, but I was leaving Bombay the following day and didn’t really want to ride all the way over here again to pick one up. After asking “3G speed all over India? Really?” one more time, I was assured that yes, indeed, I would be a mover and a shaker on India’s hi-speed interwebs. I went for it.
This required completing another application for a SIM, complete with passport copies and using up my last available passport photo. Twenty minutes and forty dollars later, I walked out with a 3G modem that would be active in four hours.
Except that it wasn’t a 3G modem. I soon found that Vodafone doesn’t actually have a 3G network in India — yet. The “3G” is merely a name, a bit of marketing fornication. The USB stick would gladly link up in any location, but it connected to a Edge network that tops out at 17k per second. Dial-up speed.
I’d get exactly the same service simply tethering my phone to the laptop — the USB stick was a waste of money.
There was one last hurdle to cross: every Vodafone SIM is automatically enrolled in a ‘service’ called “Flash!”. Once you activate your phone, annoying trivia questions will pop up every two minutes, filling the screen with a question (sometimes in Hindi) and big red ‘Cancel’ and ‘Yes’ buttons. If you accidentally hit ‘Yes’, you’re charged 3 rupees. Hitting ‘Cancel’ resets a timer and two minutes later you find yourself staring at another inane question. Seriously? This is a ‘service’?
Now, if I had a Vodafone handset, this is an easy fix — simply go to the Vodafone menu and turn off the feature. But I had no menu and thus, no way to turn it off. Within the first day, I noticed that my battery was dying very quickly from all of the stupid pop-ups and I was about to lose my mind trying to figure out how to turn it off.
Then, The Google led me to Vishal Anand’s blog and saved my sanity. To turn off this damnable ‘feature’, go to Settings / Phone / SIM Applications / Flash!. Select Flash!, click on Activation, then click Deactivate.
I can now surf and read email in peace. The minutes go pretty quickly if I tether the phone or surf non-mobile-optimized sites. I easily burned through 400 credits in a week, and that was while using the USB as my primary connection (hey, it’s paid for).
I may get around to trying another provider in a month or so. I’ve heard that AirTel and a couple of others offer true 3G. I’ll let you know how it works out. But for now, enjoy your iPhone in India. Just stay away from those graphics-heavy sites.