How To Sign Up for Mobile Internet Access in India

By Lloyd C | Updated February 17th, 2011

We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs.
How To Sign Up for Mobile Internet Access in India

I spent half of yesterday signing up for mobile (GSM) Internet access in Mumbai. If you know the process, it’s pretty quick and easy, but it can take a long time if you’re not prepared.
It also helps to remember that technology moves very quickly here. 3G has just arrived, so the difference between carriers, locations and technologies are quite large.
If you pick the right service for your area, it can be both reliable and quick. But none of the carrier’s service all of the areas with 3G, so if you pick the wrong one, you could end up with sub-dial-up speed. Here we’ll save you the headaches and give you everything you’ll need to sign up for mobile internet access in India.

The Players

There are quite a few mobile carriers, but at the moment only a handful offer 3G access. Even then, these 3G carriers don’t have licenses to operate 3G in all areas. The 3G landscape is changing daily, so it’s best to check the respective websites when you visit. Here are the 3G operators:

  • Reliance
  • Tata Docomo
  • Vodafone
  • Airtel
  • BSNL

Because we’ll be moving around the entire country over the next couple of weeks, I decided to sign up for two carriers (Vodafone and Reliance). I may also sign up for Tata at a later stage since they seem to have a fast and reliable 3G service in places we’re thinking of staying long term. If you search the Indian technology forums, you’ll find positive and negative reviews in seemingly equal quantities for all of the carriers.

The Process

The process was the same at Vodafone and Reliance, so I suspect it’s similar to other carriers for tourists.

  1. Ask your hotel for a letter confirming your stay; they’ll know what you mean when you say it’s for a phone account
  2. Make sure you have a passport photo and a copy of your passport photo page and your Indian visa page
  3. Go to a nearby outlet and ask to sign up a new account
  4. Ask them to demonstrate the speed of their offering; it may help to take your own laptop or phone
  5. Fill out the forms, pay the tariff and you’re done

You absolutely must have a passport photo and copies of the two passport pages. Some outlets will have a photocopy machine, but many won’t, so it pays to be prepared if you don’t want to spend your whole day running after a new account. Photocopy shops seem ubiquitous, and copies are only 1 rupee each (a few cents), so it pays to get them done in advance.

You generally need to buy the following items:

  • SIM card – to access the carrier’s network
  • Data Top-Up – allow you to use the SIM to access the Internet
  • USB Dongle – if you’re using a laptop and don’t already have a GSM dongle

If you have an iPhone4, or any phone that uses a MicroSIM, you’ll also need a pair of scissors to cut the SIM to fit. It seems dodgy, but the plastic is malleable and easy to shape. If you mess it up, which seems impossible, a replacement SIM is about $1.

Buyers Beware

Keep the following points in mind during the entire process:

  • For some reason, speed seems to drop quickly once you leave the carrier’s shop
  • Not all 3G carriers operate a 3G network in all areas; ask them which ‘circles’ they service
  • If using it with a laptop, try to get an unlocked dongle, in case you want to use another carrier’s SIM card
  • Not all dongles allow you to change the SIM, which makes it impossible to use another carrier
  • Make sure you top up the SIM and learn how to buy data bundles using the phone before you leave
  • Make sure you understand if the payments are recurring and how to cancel them
  • During the store demonstration, use to measure the real speed of the connection
  • Unlimited data isn’t as good as it sounds if your connection is as slow as a snail

Tariffs & Costs

  • A non-3G dongle is about $20-35
  • A 3G dongle from Vodafone is about $40, while the reliance 3G dongle is about $50
  • Unlimited data from Vodafone is about $15/month
  • 2GB from Reliance is about $15/month
  • You can get smaller bundles, such as a few hundred MB for a couple of dollars

Our Experience

We first went to Vodafone and bought a 3G dongle with unlimited monthly data. In retrospect, it wasn’t the best decision because the speed isn’t fast enough to warrant an unlimited data plan, the 3G dongle is locked (I couldn’t crack it after about an hour of trying), and the speed is very slow. In the shop, it loaded pages quickly, but in our hotel room, we’re getting about 20Kb/s, which is slower than most dial-up.

We then went to Reliance and bought just a SIM card for $1 and topped up the account. They are the only company currently offering 3G in Mumbai, as far as I know. In the shop, the speed test maxed out at 7Mb/s. Wow! So I bought the SIM, topped it up with about $12 and left. About 20 meters down the road, I was getting 3Mb/s, and in the hotel room, we’re getting 2-3Mb/s.

Although the Reliance speed tests sound great, coverage isn’t as good as in developed countries. You can walk around a corner and 50 meters down the street and drop from 5 bars of reception to only 1 bar. But, for our purpose, it’s more than enough. We’re interested to see how the two carriers perform once we start moving around the country from tomorrow.