Photo: Guesthouse wiring, Yangon.

Update: 10 August 2013 (The month-long SIM card)

SIM cards are the bane of communications in Burma/Myanmar. Charged with politics and lacking simple infrastructure, it’s no wonder that landline phones still sit on fold-out tables around Yangon (Rangoon) footpaths, with attendees charging you telephone booth prices. Still, many travellers cannot go without having a mobile phone while visiting. For these people, here are your options to choose from and then curse at.

Month-long sim cards for sale around Yangon

Month-long SIM cards for sale around Yangon.

The month-long SIM card

UPDATE: 10 Aug 2013 – At the moment there has been a halt put on the production of the month-long, pre-paid SIM cards and all stores seem to be completely sold out. Currently the Yangon International Airport is the only place to acquire one, via the phone rentals desk. It is not known whether or not this is a temporary situation or permanent but we will give updates on the situation as soon as we hear new information.

The month-long SIM starts at 20,000 kyat depending on the supply of SIMs around the city on that day and the shop owner’s knowledge of this information. As you might hear the shop owner saying, it can get “very expensive” with a price of up to 21,000 kyat. This gets you 20,000 kyat credit and a month of use before expiration, no matter how much credit you have remaining on it. No data feature is offered with these cards. The number will simply stop working at the end of the month-long term and a new SIM will need to be purchased, complete with a new phone number to text to all your contacts.

This is not only extremely annoying if you’re hoping to overstay your tourist visa or have a business visa, but offers up interesting conversations from random callers and cross connections. It’s not uncommon to get a wrong number calling you over and over, surprised each time anew that you don’t know where her husband is.

The rental
In February 2013, you could buy a month-long SIM card at one of the duty-free shops located just on the other side of the customs arrival desk at Yangon International Airport. In May 2013, however, no SIM cards were available for purchase and rentals were the only option at the airport. A counter rents phones and SIM cards at the exit and holds a variety of cards, including ones with 3G access and data plans.

In my experience, availability and prices seem to vary greatly and are ever-changing. Deposits for rentals can either be US$100 or $50 and rental fees go from $2 to $4 a day. A top-up card is needed separately and normal charges apply on top of your rental fee. A data SIM card only is reported to go for $60 and is valid for five days. Higher prices for longer validation days are sometimes available and as always in Burma/Myanmar, reception is funky and works randomly across the country.

Phones at a street stall in Yangon

Phones at a street stall in Yangon.

The permanent SIM card
If you’re a foreigner, prices for this prized piece of equipment start at $250 — this is quite a discount from past years, when just last year they were $500. Recent unfolding events have led to a cheap, under $2 SIM card being introduced into circulation for locals via local citizen registration and lottery. The first lottery to release 350,000 cards — to a population of more than 60 million — was held a few months back, and rumours are abuzz about a black market developing for these special cards that expats and travellers might have a chance of obtaining. A telecom license announcement is expected later this month, which should see two private businesses allowed inside the country to set up work, and this should develop things faster.

Top-up cards
Something to pay attention to is you will be charged for incoming calls, and it’s not uncommon to run out of credit faster than you would think. No set rules or norms seem to go along with charges for calls and texts, despite what people say, as experience sees price varying depending on the mood of the network. You will probably have to explore the phone shops to find who has top-up cards at any given time, but many will have them starting at 10,000 kyat or $10. Add the credit right then and there with the shop to minimise frustration with a failed card.

It’s also important to note the difference between the currencies when you have a phone starting with “09”, which will only take FEC $10 cards. If you get one of these, then you’ll have to ensure you have crisp bills on hand when you run out of credit in order to top up.

Last updated on 18th June, 2013.

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