Cellular Telephone Purchasing Tips

Editor’s note: Yesterday I innocently asked People’s Guide correspondent David “El Codo” Eidell if he had any advice on using a cell phone in Mexico, and I received the following novel in what seemed like minutes. “El Codo” has mysterious super powers.

by David “El Codo” Eidell

Yesterday I tried to get my USA Tracfone changed to the Mexican TelCel system but try as they might, three TelCel dealers could not make their “SIMS” chip work in my Samsung phone. (I prefer that model of cellular because it comes with earbuds — a nice thing to have in noisy Mexico.) So what did I do? For 360 pesos, I purchased a Mexican version of the Samsung cellular.

The Mexican TelCel was advertised to come with 300 pesos worth of airtime, but when the TelCel dealer activated my cellular and dialed *333, I heard “100 pesos airtime balance”. The sales clerk explained the 300 peso airtime credit is given over a period of three months, at 100 pesos per month.

The menu on the phone allows a change in idiomas to “Ingles“, but the two biggest services in Mexico, TelCel and Movistar, only offer dial-up help and booklet instructions in Spanish. Whether or not your fancy USA 3G or 4G phone can have a SIMS chip successfully swapped out is anyone’s guess. Three hundred sixty pesos translates to less than $30 US, so if your fancy USA telephone rejects a SIMS chip transplant, an acceptable Mexican cellular won’t cost an arm and a leg.

  • Many rural beach camping areas have no coverage. TelCel has a greater coverage area than Movistar. I would not rely on online coverage maps, or personnel in a distant cellular store for coverage promises, but rather on a Mexican or fellow traveler who actually has had reliable success calling and receiving calls in your rural camping or hotel area.  However, if you plan on going south of Mexico City, I would go with TelCel, which has better coverage than Movistar. Rural TelCel coverage covers a wider area over most of Mexico, which means you stand a better chance of reaching the Green Angels for roadside assistance. But keep in mind that vast areas of the country do not have even a single bar of signal strength.
  • Both TelCel and Movistar have defined “local call” areas. Outside of your local area, roaming charges soar. My new TelCel local coverage works great all over the states of Baja California and Baja California Sur, but once I cross the Gulf of California on the ferry, a call is going to cost many times that from los Bajas Californias. Your cellular phone dealer can explain this in more detail and perhaps even supply a color map depicting your coverage area. SIMS card changes cost 150 pesos at TelCel, but each time you replace a SIMS card you’ll get an entirely different telephone number. Unlike many prepaid cellular services in the USA, incoming calls are not charged against your telephone balance.
  • Both TelCel and Movistar have special call plans to call numbers in the USA and Canada. My TelCel plan allows me to call any number in the USA (toll free numbers are blocked but there is an earlier People’s Guide article dealing with special “From Mexico” 800, and 888 type access codes). Regular calls to the USA and Canada cost a paltry 9 pesos for 20 minutes. Note: Monitor calls closely. The moment you exceed 20 minutes, costs soar to unbelievable heights. I say goodbye and hang up after 19 minutes.
  • Sadly, you cannot just saunter in a cellular telephone store, buy a phone and walk out five minutes later. Mexico has a national telephone registration service called “CURP”  and it can be frustrating or a snap, seemingly dependent on the dedication and level of customer service exhibited by the personnel in your local TelCel or Movistar store. When purchasing your cellular or changing the SIMS card in your USA or Canadian cellular for the firsst time, bring ALL your immigration documentation. You’ll need your Passport, your Mexican FMM, tourist card or FM3 resident’s card and even a driver’s license with your photo on it. And you may need patience. If the store personnel do not seem interested enough to shout information to a dullard CURP registration person, go to another store. (Cellular stores seem to be everywhere except in small towns and villages.) It took me three attempts, but the señorita at the final store was a gem.  She was on the phone to CURP for 20 minutes, constantly repeating information, and shouting incredulously. When all was said and done, I had to force a 50 peso tip on her, which made her blush and smile appreciatively. By the way, if you buy a cellular and the sales person just hands it to you, it isn’t registered with CURP and all you’ll see and hear when dialing are “error” messages.
  • Be sure you understand the expiration date of your new phone card. I have a person with better hearing dial up the add minutes number and enter the prepaid card number. They can tell me when the minutes on the new card expire. New minutes roll over old unexpired minutes. Phone cards are typically 50, 100, 200, and 500 pesos. The more expensive the card, the longer it will be before they expire. If my minutes ever get in danger of expiring, I’ll buy a 50 peso card which will buy me a month’s worth of rollover.
  • Yellow pages are known as “Seccion Amarilla” and are hard to find. Telephone booths do not have them. If I really need to use the yellow pages, I’ll have to resign myself to having lunch at an expensive “credit card” restaurant and ask the waiter to lend me the book before I order the most inexpensive thing on the menu. The condition of many “Seccion Amarillas” resemble the Dead Sea Scrolls, and you might want to thumb to the section you’re looking for to see if the pages are missing or have had a bowl full of mole poblano dumped on them.
  • Not all cellulars sold in Mexico come with external speaker feature. The proper term for external speaker is Alta Voz (AHL-ta Vose)”
  • If you should misplace your cellular number (as I did), ring up someone you know.  After they stop laughing they can text you your number. (With my cheeks glowing red, I scotch-taped my number on the back of the cellular.)

About Kelly Nowicki

One Response to “Cellular Telephone Purchasing Tips”

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  1. Carl Franz says:

    Codo, your article reminded me all too vividly of my own experience of buying and registering a prepaid TelCel phone. I was with a Mexican friend who is very cell-phone-savvy, otherwise I would have simply given up. First of all, the store was jammed with customers so we had to wait in line for almost an hour just to purchase a phone. Once we had the phone, the whole confusing issue of registering it came up. I wasn’t carrying my passport so we registered the phone in my friend’s name — this took another thirty minutes.

    The best part of the deal is the low cost of the phone.

    In using my new phone I also learned that many people in Mexico will not answer a call made from a phone number that is unknown to them. This is because of a rash of phone extorsions. It goes like this: you answer a call and someone says, “We are the Zetas and if you don’t give us five thousand pesos we’ll… (insert horrifying consequences).”

    This is yet another unfortunate example of collateral damage from the so-called narco war.