Turkey, sandwiched between Europe and Asia, has its own culture and spirit. The country, which is large and diverse, has a lot to offer visitors, regardless of their interests. Whether you’re visiting Istanbul’s stunning Aya Sofya or Blue Mosque, taking a hot-air balloon ride over Cappadocia’s incredible caves and rock formations, or simply relaxing at one of the country’s many Mediterranean resorts, the biggest challenge will be fitting in everything you want to see and do!
While travelling in Turkey is not exceptionally expensive, staying connected as a visitor is not. Getting a Turkish prepaid SIM card isn’t always cheap, especially because few shops are willing to offer it to foreigners at the “official” price. At least in the towns and cities, coverage is adequate and data speeds are reasonable once you’re set up. As a tourist in Turkey, here’s everything you need to know about purchasing a Turkish prepaid SIM card.
For the majority of passengers, Turkcell is the best option. Turkcell, Vodafone, and Türk Telekom are the three mobile operators in Turkey. Turkcell is the best option for most tourists to Turkey because it has the most coverage and consumers. It’s the firm I decided to work with. In terms of coverage and subscribers, Vodafone is in second place. It’s a good option if you require a lot of data because it has more prepaid data bundle alternatives than Turkcell.
Outside of the major towns and cities, Türk Telekom is the smallest operator with the least coverage. There’s no compelling reason for travellers to use it unless they just plan to visit larger cities and find a very excellent deal. Note that unless you visit a tax office and pay a hefty cost to register your foreign phone, it will stop working 120 days after you first use it in Turkey.
This will not effect the great majority of short-term visitors, but it is worth noting if you plan to return with the same device in the future. The IMEI, which is assigned to each SIM card slot, is the one that is blocked. You can get around the difficulty if you have a dual-SIM phone by swapping your SIM to the other slot after 120 days. On your next trip, you’ll either need to use a different phone or buy and use an unlocked mobile hotspot.
How to Buy a Prepaid SIM Card in Turkey?
All three providers operate stores in the arrivals lounges of both Istanbul airports (the modern Istanbul Airport and the more distant Sabiha Gocken), so you won’t have to leave the country without being covered. However, this convenience does not come without a cost, since operators charge significantly higher costs at airports than elsewhere.
You’ll be pressured to buy one of each company’s tourist SIM card packages, which are far more expensive than ordinary local prices. Even outside the airport, though, you may find that sellers will only sell you tourist-oriented prepaid SIM cards. If you don’t speak Turkish, prepare to pay a hefty registration fee as well. To sign up for any plan, you will need to show your passport.
The salesperson will fill out the paperwork for you on the spot (if they speak English, which all of the ones I spoke with did). If necessary, they will also put the SIM card in your phone for you. Since I’ve been known to block my SIM card slot in the past, I gladly accepted their offer. Ahem.
Prepaid SIM Costs
A small selection of tourist SIM packages is available at the Turkcell booth at Istanbul Airport (IST). Options on our previous visit ranged from 8GB of data with plenty of local calls and messages to a 50GB data-only bundle with a 30-day validity period. Even for somewhat heavy users, the lesser plans should be sufficient for the majority of visits to the country.
Prices went escalated from there, with the 8GB plan costing 185 TRY ($28). The SIM card was included in all bundles. The Vodafone booth has a somewhat bigger selection of products, but they’re quite pricey. It takes a lot of effort to make Turkcell’s airport charges appear fairly reasonable, but Vodafone pulled it off. Vodafone charges 380 TRY for a similar call/text bundle with 8GB of data, which is more than twice as costly.
If you go with the largest data-only bundle (66GB), you’ll have to pay 610 TRY ($91). The airport fee for an 8GB data bundle from Turkish Telecom was 177 TRY. That’s a little less than Turkcell and a lot less than Vodafone, but given the company’s narrower service area, the minor savings aren’t worth it. Wait till you get into the city and buy from a mobile store there to receive the best deals on all carriers.
However, how cheap it is will be determined by where you go, your negotiating skills, and how much the vendor decides to charge. Expect to visit multiple stores and be prepared to be frustrated! If you visit a Turkcell store outside of the airport, you’ll very certainly be routed to the company’s tourist SIM. It comes with 20GB of data, 200 minutes of talk time, and unlimited WhatsApp messages. The official rate is 149 TRY (about $22), but you may wind up paying a different amount.
Top-ups are done with a voucher that may be obtained in supermarkets or at authorised provider locations across the country. Plans will continue to renew as long as you have funds in your account.
Coverage and Data Speeds
Even in very bad weather, data speeds were fairly constant throughout my visit. 4G/LTE is available across Istanbul and the neighbouring areas, but it is less reliable until you reach Turkey’s rural districts. Both upload and download speeds were reasonable everywhere I tested them.
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