Why you need a Mexcian SIM card and how a dual SIM mobile phone will upgrade your binational lifestyle
The unlimited talk, text, and data in Mexico that comes inlcuded with some US mobile plans also comes with a giant caveat. As soon as you cross the border and your signal locks onto a Mexican cell tower, you quickly realize that “unlimited data” is throttled down to 2G (yes, 2G) speeds. I discovered that the hard way late one night trying to book an Uber with four bags of groceries and the app kept saying “no internet.” Fortunately, Giuseppis nextdoor to Soriana Súper on Revolución had an open wi-fi network and I was able to connect from the street after-hours.
Where to get a Mexican chip (SIM card)
The next day I went to OXXO and bought a Telcel chip (SIM card). A 4GB Telcel chip will set you back about $100 pesos (USD $5) which includes unlimited data to use on WhatsApp and the big social networks inside Mexico.
Here’s what I learned in the process. There are several options for mobile in Mexico including AT&T and Movistar. Telcel is the largest mobile network in Mexico, so they generally have the best coverage and signal penetration. Even with all the hills and cañones, Telcel 4G is fast and reliable in Tijuana.
You need WhatsApp in Mexico
After you insert the Telcel chip in your phone, you’ll want to install the (dreadful) Telcel app to create and manage your account to keep track of data usage and recharge when you need to.
WhatsApp is the default messaging app in México. Everyone uses it. Calls using WhatsApp sound far superior to ordinary cell calls. Calls on the cell network sound underwater and super low bandwidth. If you don’t already have it, you’ll want to grab WhatsApp. You’ll use it a lot.
If all you do is make calls, use WhatsApp and check Instagram, your data should last a month. If you’re a data whore like me, you’re gonna burn through data like a California wildfire until Telnor installs your fiber. At one point, I was consuming data so fast, Telcel blocked my card because they suspected fraud after the 4th data recarga in 2 semanas.
Choose your data package carefully
Once my internet got installed at home, I’ve able to get by with 2 GB of mobile data for $150 pesos/mo (USD $7.50) which lasts the *whole month with normal usage. Pay close attention to the package you choose though, because some of them are only good for 1, 3, 7, 13, or 15 days. The 2GB package I’m on is only good for *26 days (which is close enough, but they manage to squeeze in 2 extra billing cycles a year.)
Don’t refill your data early
If you think you’re going to go over your data and you want to refill your account early… DON’T. Wait until your data expires before refilling, because Telcel will start using your credit immediately and when your data actually runs out, you won’t have any credit left. I’m not sure how it’s even possible, but its really annoying and refunds (with few exceptions) are a phenomenon that don’t exist in Mexico.
My best advise for cross-border warriors
On a trip back to LA on the train late one night, I got stranded at Union Station in DTLA because I burned through my Telcel data and didn’t have the tool to swap SIM cards with me. I was able to hail an Uber while I was connected to Amtrak Wi-Fi, but the minute I stepped outside, I lost my signal and my Uber was nowhere to be found.
If you cross the border back to California a lot, I’m about to drop some advice that will upgrade your binational status. Buy a dual SIM phone (like the Google Pixel). It supports one physical SIM card and one virtual eSIM. Both networks work simultaneously, and you can easily switch default networks with a few taps in Android settings. If you have another phone that already supports dual SIM, Google “dual sim choose default network” for your specific phone and and never get stranded without high-speed data again.