You may not be too familiar with something called a subscriber identification module but then up until relatively recently neither were most Burmese people with the common plastic telephone chips weighing in at the improbable price of $250. Cheap imported Chinese phones were available but only the very wealthy had SIM cards to go with them.
Fortunately the situation has now changed and for both residents and foreign visitors they are now easily purchased for less than $2. ID may or may not be required, (so have your passport to hand anyway); any ‘unblocked’ telephone will accept them and reasonably priced top-up cards can be had in most grocery stores, phone shops, minimarts or even tea-shops.
The system now then is similar to that of neighbouring Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Laos and indeed one of your first sights stepping out of arrivals at Yangon is a row of phone company desks interspersed with the exchange booths. If you do have an unblocked phone, (i.e. not a contract phone tied to a specific provider at home), then it is well worth considering the small investment as contrary to the aforementioned neighbours, Burmese hotel WiFi is still often very ropey and you’ll often find the local 3G service more efficient.
International roaming is still very hit and miss though, depending on your home provider, and always expensive, (and even if they say “yes”; it doesn’t guarantee it will actually work on the ground in Burma.
Standard 3G rates aren’t too expensive for regular use though for those travelling with a laptop we have found creating a hotspot eats through your top-up card pretty quickly. The principal providers at time of writing were MPT, (Myanmar Post & Telecommunications), Telenor and Ooredoo with the latter two offering a 4G service. Prices seem similar, give or take a few kyat, but with connections varying from region to region. If you’re staying in the same spot for a while then just ask locals which service works best for that town. (Note in border towns such as Tachileik, Kawthaung or Myawaddy Thai SIMs are frequently used.)
Freshly purchased SIMs usually come with a minimal amount of credit and we’ve always found the store happy to do any setting changes or card registration necessary. Usual cost is 1,500 kyat with top-up cards available in 1, 3, 5 and 10,000 denominations.
Finally note that even with a working local SIM, certain web-sites are blocked and SMS services still didn’t function last time we tried.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.