Bhutan

A guide to finding the best prepaid SIM card when travelling to Bhutan

How to pick the best local SIM card in Bhutan.

The Kingdom of Bhutan is one of the best tourist destinations to experience the Himalayan mountain region. Rich in culture, but poor in wealth, the small landlocked nation offers a whole host of cost-saving products for both locals and tourists.

Using your mobile phone there can be expensive, so consider switching over to a local SIM card to take advantage of better deals. Bhutan has some of the best prepaid SIM cards in South Asia, with deals that can really reduce your bills. You can buy 1GB of data for as little as BTN150 (AUD$3). So, whether you’re planning a short trip, a holiday or a Himalayan tour, check out the best SIM card options available on finder.com.au.

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Prices last updated 28 Apr 2017

Mobile phone carriers in Bhutan

There are two main mobile phone operators in Bhutan: B-Mobile and TashiCell. Both operators have been tried, tested and trusted by both locals and travellers, and go through a strict approval process before being allowed to operate.

According to OpenSignal’s connectivity report, Bhutan has a strong mobile phone network around the Thimphu area. Other areas can be weak, and on the mountainous regions it can also be extremely difficult to find a good signal.

About Bhutan’s mobile phone operators

Bhutan’s operators offer good roaming rates and sell prepaid credit, which allow users to take advantage of their cheap local offers and deals. Both networks offer customers 2G, 3G and 4G services. Locals call their SIM cards chips and there are rules and regulations when purchasing them.

Tourists can only buy SIM cards from authorised dealers, after filling out a lot of paperwork and supplying a passport sized photograph. Once your passport has been checked and the paperwork approved, you can purchase a SIM card in-store.

About B-Mobile

State-owned Bhutan Telecom is the leading telco provider in the country and runs the B-Mobile network. It is the largest provider with a majority market share, and runs on 2G, 3G and 4G platforms. 2G is on 900 and 1800 MHz, 3G on 850 MHz and 4G/LTE on 1800 MHz.

4G/LTE services operate in Thimphu, Punakha, Wangdue, Paro and Phuentsholing. 4G SIMs are free of charge, and will start to work once you have uploaded credit. SIM cards can be purchased at official stores, approved resellers and Paro International Airport.

We advise purchasing a SIM as soon as you arrive to get it out of the way and to save hassle. Remember, you should show your passport and fill out the relevant forms beforehand. The B-mobile phone stand is next to the money exchange counter, as soon as you go through passport control.

Stores do sell micro and nano SIMs, but most of the time the sales assistant will cut it to size using a special SIM card cutter. So, don’t be alarmed if they put your SIM inside a stapler-like contraption and press hard – it’s normal!

B-Mobile sell two different SIM cards:

  • Tourist SIM – BTN100, includes the same amount of credit
  • Prepaid SIM – BTN100, includes the same amount of credit

Please note: The tourist SIM card is only valid for one month, and visitors are not able to upload additional data packages onto it. The prepaid SIM is a better option if you use a lot of data, and intend on staying longer than a month.

Credit can be purchased by getting hold of recharge scratch cards from the B-Mobile customer service counters and dealers in towns. BTN25, 50, 100, 200, 300 and 500 can be added to both SIM cards. eLoad recharges are also possible through many different sources, including supermarkets and convenience stores. Top-ups from between BTN5 to 500 give 14-60 days of validity.

A standard default rate of BTN0.1 will be charged up to 50KB, after which the normal rate of BTN0.0003 per KB will be apply on both SIM cards.

The following data plans can be added to the Prepaid SIM cards:

Daily Easy Pack166.25MB24 hoursBTN19
Daily Lite Pack256.50MB24 hoursBTN29
Weekly Student Pack332.50MB7 daysBTN39
Weekly Lite Pack422.75MB7 daysBTN49
Weekly Medium Pack855MB7 daysBTN99
Monthly Student Pack1.72GB30 daysBTN199
Monthly Lite Pack2.84GB30 daysBTN299
Monthly Medium Pack5.23GB30 daysBTN499
Monthly Heavy Pack7.7GB30 daysBTN699

Dial *170# to check data usage.

Bhutan Telecom also provides a satellite phone service which uses the Thuria system, and allows direct dialing from anywhere in the country, even on a Himalayan trek. Most tour operators have these phones or they can be rented. Although they guarantee a signal, the charges are much higher than the standard SIM deals. However, we recommend that either you or you tour guide has one of these if you plan on trekking through the mountains for several days.

About TashiCell

TashiCell is a privately-owned alternative to the state-owned provider, with a much smaller market share, 30% in fact. It has a smaller reach and slower coverage than B-Mobile, but has some competitive prices. 4G/LTE is available in Phuntsholing, Thimphu, Paro, Wangdue and Punakha dzongkhag.

SIM cards can be purchased from consumer care centres in most towns, their prepaid SIM tariff is called TalkMore. SIM cards can be purchased for BTN200, which includes the same amount of credit, valid for three months. If you have already purchased a TashiCell 2G or 3G SIM card, and want to use their 4G/LTE network, they will change the SIM card for free and transfer the balance.

Credit can be upload through vouchers or E-top-ups. Dial *777*<14-digit code># to activate the amount. By using the E-top-up service you can add any amount between BTN10 to 5,000, each is valid for 15-120 days, depending on the amount, and 5% bonuses are automatically added to the account. Dial *770# to check the balance.

The standard default data rates depend on the time of day:

  • 7am to 12midnight: BTN0.0006 per KB
  • 12midnight to 7am: BTN0.0002 per KB

The following data packs are also offered on 2G, 3G and 4G/LTE:

1 day50MBBTN20*766*1*1# to activateBTN0.5/MB overuse
7 days170MBBTN50*766*1*2# to activateBTN0.5/MB overuse
30 days400MBBTN100*766*1*3# to activateBTN0.4/MB overuse
1.5GBBTN300*766*1*4# to activateBTN0.3/MB overuse
7.77GBBTN777*766*1*5# to activateBTN0.2/MB overuse
3.5GBBTN500*766*1*6# to activateBTN0.3/MB overuse
15GBBTN1299*766*1*7# to activateBTN0.2/MB overuse

All packs automatically renew, dial *766*2# to unsubscribe. Dial *766*4# to check data usage.

Some top tips from finder.com.au staff:

  • Bhutanese is the official language of Bhutan. It’s highly unlikely that you will know this language, as it’s unique to the locals. Download Google Translate onto your phone before you travel for help. The good thing about Bhutan is that tourism is so popular therefore English is widely spoken.
  • Locals call a SIM card a chip or SIM.
  • Ask the seller to set up the SIM for you, they will know how to do it. If not, follow the instructions we have highlighted above or go to the official operator website to seek advice.
  • Because towns are centralised and get busy quickly, get to the shops early, that way you are more likely to receive better assistance and avoid the crowds!

TripAdvisor tips for the best SIM cards and where to buy them

While it’s well known for reviews, booking hotels, flights and holidays, TripAdvisor has many user comments that can help guide you through SIM cards that have been tried and tested in Bhutan.

Here are some top tips from TripAdvisor users:

  • “It’s very easy to get 3G pre-activated local SIM cards in Bhutan, you just need to submit your passport photocopy and you can get them from the airport on arrival or from local markets in Thimphu/Paro. It will cost you less than US$4.”
  • “You must fill out the tourist SIM card form which your guide will help you do. with this form, you must attach a passport copy. I don't think you will need the internet SIM card because every hotel has free Wi-Fi”
  • “Yes, you need to fill out the form which you will get from the SIM card outlet centre and is no hassle. Remember, bring your passport, they will want to see it!”

Pros and cons of Bhutan’s top telco providers

Both networks require you to have a SIM-unlocked GSM compatible mobile phone. To double check you have this phone, contact your provider before you set off on your travels.

Pros:

  • Good value for money
  • Bhutan has good coverage
  • Prepaid credit when required
  • No in-store contract needed
  • Could be compatible with your current mobile phone

Cons:

  • No mobile phone devices offered with the SIM card packages
  • Can only be used on SIM-unlocked GSM phones
  • Complicated rules and regulations makes buying a SIM card difficult

Have more questions about finding the best SIM?

Q: Is the signal good in Bhutan’s countryside and Himalayan region?

A: All networks will suffer in the Himalayan region, no matter what country you come from or what provider you use. B-Mobile offer some great satellite services for when you go on lengthy Himalayan treks, but for other areas both the B-Mobile and TashiCell networks are good for the terrain. Service can be problematic in country areas, but no worse than what you would get on your home phone, with huge roaming rates! So, it makes sense to opt for a local SIM card when travelling around Bhutan.

Picture: Shutterstock

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