SIM cards in Russia for Travellers
I get asked a lot about the best methods for keeping in touch with the west or updating websites etc while crossing Russia ... so here is a 2012 update on the state of play:
There are 3 national mobile phone networks in Russia, Beeline, MTS and Megafon. If the right plan is selected they all offer cheap high speed 3G smartphone services across Russia. If the wrong plan is selected they will burn through cash faster than you can imagine.
Russia (like many big countries) is made up of mobile phone zones ... and roaming charges usually apply outside of the the region in which a SIM card originates. This means you must get the russian SIM account set up for ROAMING
Almost everyone in Russia is on a pay as you go account - you top it up when it needs top ups. Top up terminals are available even in small general stores in tiny villages. Mobile phone stores are everywhere in cities and the centres of towns .
You can and should use your normal western originating smartphones in Russia but you WILL need to get them unlocked. Unlocking phones typically takes up to a month. Many western phones are "locked" to a network ... i.e. if you get the phone from vodafone UK, then it will only work with a vodafone UK sim card. You need to have the phone unlocked to allow it to work with other operators SIM cards. In Europe, phone operators are obliged by law to unlock your phone if you request it. Do this well in advance of your travel date.
Buying a SIM in Russia typically costs a net 50 to 200 rubles (1-4 quid).
I am currently using two smartphones as I travel across Russia and will give you a rough guide as to the deals i have on the SIMs.
I have a Beeline SIM which charges me 7 rubles (15p) a day. For that I have roaming all over Russia and unlimited data.
I have a Megafon SIM which costs me 300 rubles (6 quid) per gigabyte of data, with full roaming all over Russia.
With these two different services, I seem to have 3G data pretty much everywhere and am able to stop in the middle of nowhere, take a foto and upload it to facebook immediately.
I have in the past also had MTS SIM cards with similar deals.
Having a local Russian number also makes it cheap for you to receive calls from abroad.