To make calls within Peru without racking up expensive roaming charges, travelers with an unlocked GSM phone can purchase and use a SIM card. This explanation might leave those unfamiliar with tech-savvy lingo asking the question: what does this mean?
All you need to know about SIM cards in Peru
GSM and CDMA networks: Explaining the difference
GSM (Global System for Mobile) and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) are two basic technologies in cellular phones. Most countries in Latin America, including Peru, are connected by GSM.
GSM carriers put customer information on a removable chip called a SIM card. If the SIM card is taken out and put in a different phone, the same number is transferred to the new cell phone. For this reason, SIM cards make it easier for compatible devices to switch between different GSM network carriers as well as cross-borders.
CDMA networks don’t use SIM cards. Instead, CDMA carriers use network-based registries to verify specific users. Many of the cell phone carriers in the United States use CDMA networks, such as Verizon Wireless and Sprint. Because CDMA carriers generally only provision devices compatible for use on their own network, phones made for Verizon, for example, won’t work on Sprint’s network and vice versa. This also means that CDMA devices -which are a majority of phones from the US- cannot be used in Peru.
Some phones are “global” – such as new iPhone models – and have an extra SIM card slot to support foreign GSM networks. But when these “global” phones are used on their own home networks (in the United States for example) certain carriers still use CDMA to authenticate their phones.
Locked or unlocked phone: Who has the key?
In addition to GSM compatibility, a cell phone must be unlocked to properly function using a SIM card from a Peru phone carrier.
A locked phone has a software code, or “lock”, that’s meant to ensure the phone can’t be used on any other carrier’s network. Alternatively, an unlocked phone does not have the lock software on it, or an unlock software code has already been applied. Unlocked GSM phones can accept SIM cards from different carriers and connect to a service network, which is exactly what travelers need in order to stay connected in Peru.
Certain phones are sometimes sold unlocked, such as Google Android Nexus devices and iPhones sold at Apple stores. But most GSM devices are locked to a particular carrier when they’re purchased. To legally unlock a locked device, the phone owner must meet certain criteria imposed by their wireless phone carrier. This criteria includes paying the full price of your device or being in good standing with your service provider at the end of your contract.
Travelers can forgo the hassle of trying to unlock their own cell phone and buy one that’s already unlocked when they arrive in Peru. Unlocked phones are available for purchase at Claro and Movistar locations – the main Peruvian phone companies – and other independent electronic stores in cities throughout the country. Phone prices range from as low as S/.40 (about US$14) to more expensive options.
How to buy and use a SIM card in Peru: Step-by-step
Travelers with an unlocked GSM phone can purchase and use a SIM card in Peru. Follow this step-by-step breakdown of how to buy and use a SIM card on your next visit to Peru.
Step 1: Pre-travel check
Make sure the phone is unlocked and there’s a place to insert a SIM card.
Step 2: Buy a prepaid SIM card
Claro and Movistar are the dominant communication providers in Peru. Both offer a variety of mobile phone and home internet plans, but buying a prepaid SIM card (with no contract) is generally the best option for foreign travelers in Peru. A prepaid SIM card allows you to dial and receive local calls, and add additional credit when needed.
Several Claro and Movistar stores are located throughout Peru. There’s a Claro counter at Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport on the second floor in the Peru Plaza where you can buy a SIM card and add credit. Both Claro and Movistar have stores in the Miraflores district of Lima, as well as in other popular cities throughout the country, in Cusco, Arequipa, Puno, etc.
A store representative will assist you with the purchase of a SIM card. Bring your passport for identification and local currency to avoid any inconveniences. The words un chip de prepago, or prepaid SIM card, will get you on the right track if your Spanish is limited.
A SIM card in Peru costs about S/.15 (about US$5). At the time of purchase, buy some credit so that you can leave the store with a functioning phone, ready to receive and dial calls. An amount of S/.20 (about US$7) of prepaid phone credit should be enough to get you started. Once you add credit, you will receive a text message confirming the amount. This is a good indicator that your phone is working properly.
The costs associated with phone usage depends on carrier pricing. In general, communicating through a couple of text messages is cheaper than making multiple, quick phone calls. Calling within a specific carrier’s network is also generally cheaper. For example, a person with a Claro SIM card that calls another Claro number is cheaper than calling outside of the network to a Movistar number. Data usage to connect to the internet varies in price. In March 2014, Movistar launched Peru’s first 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) network: at this time it only covers 7 districts in Lima, including Miraflores, Central Lima, La Molina, San Borja, San Isidro, San Miguel, and Surco.
Step 3: Making calls in Peru
The SIM card that you buy in Peru comes with a local number. Cell phone numbers are 9 digits.
Example: 9 ? ? – ? ? ? – ? ? ?
Once you receive your new SIM card and phone number, you are all set to make and receive calls. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions regarding phone use:
Q: What is the country code for Peru?
A: Peru´s country code is “51”. If someone from outside Peru wants to call your new Peruvian cell phone number, the numbers they dial will look something like 51 / 9? / ?? – ??? – ???; which is in the format of the country code/city code/telephone number.
Q: How do I make local calls from my new cell phone when I am in Peru?
A: To make calls to any Peruvian number within Peru, you do not need to use the country code. Just dial the 9-digit cell phone number you wish to call, and you will be connected. Land-lines are different in that they only have 8 digits. If you want to call a land-line number, dial “0” and the proper city code before the 8-digit number. It should follow the format 0/city code/?? – ??? – ???
Q: What are the emergency numbers in Peru?
A: Here is a list of important emergency numbers so you’re prepared during your next visit to Peru:
Emergency calls: 112
Civil Defense: 115
Step 4: Adding credit to your phone in Peru
Adding minutes to your prepaid SIM card is quick, easy, and convenient.
Official Claro and Movistar stores aren’t the only places to buy credit. Corner convenient stores and large supermarkets, such as Wong or Metro, also sell prepaid minutes. A good trick is to look for businesses that have signs with the Claro or Movistar logos hanging outside their storefront.
There are two common methods of adding phone credit.
One way is to buy a tarjeta de Claro or tarjeta de Movistar – cards with prepaid minutes sold in increments of S/.10 and S/.20, etc. To add phone credit using a tarjeta, scratch the metallic covering off to expose the hidden numbers, follow the direction on the back of the card to add credit, and then you’ll receive a text message to confirm the purchase. A second way to add phone credit is to do it paper-free at a store checkout by having your telephone number and money on hand. Inform the person at checkout that you want to add phone credit, Claro recarga or Movistar regarga; tell them the amount; and they’ll take care of processing the phone credit transaction. Similar to adding credit with a prepaid card, you’ll also receive a text message to confirm that transaction at checkout.
Helpful online tools and information
Visit the official Claro website (in Spanish) for pricing and store locations in Peru.
Visit the official Movistar website (in Spanish) for pricing and store locations in Peru.
Read this helpful article explaining the difference between locked and unlocked phones.
While a phone with a local number isn’t a necessity for every traveler that comes to Peru, it can help you stay connected with others in-country. Alternative options, such as renting a phone, also exist. But with the right phone, it only takes a few steps to have connectivity at your fingertips in Peru.
The tech geek’s guide to traveling in Peru