Go to a Tigo store (the main store/office in downtown LaPaz if you’re there). Purchase a SIM card and provide your info. Bring your passport.
Moderate to Difficult: All companies require personal information. Using a foreign passport is possible. Activating in person recommended.
Providers and Networks:
Tigo, Viva, Entel
All providers GSM 850/900/1800/1900/2100
World Phone Compatible
Bolivia feels a world away from the southern part of South America. If you enter from Peru it may not represent a striking difference, but coming in form Brazil, Chile or Argentina it certainly does. That’s not in any way a negative. Bolivia has it’s own charm. The most common image of Bolivia is likely the Andean Altiplano. The area high in the Andes where the capital city of LaPaz, and the Uyuni Salt Flats are located. The Altiplano covers much of eastern Bolivia and is unique for its desert landscape and the shear height above sea level. The largest airport in the country, located at 4000 metres adjacent to the city of LaPaz that descends into the valley below. It makes for striking scenery, and a high incidence of altitude sickness among visitors.
Carriers, Coverage and Getting Setup:
For cellphones the three carriers that operate in Bolivia are Tigo, Viva, and Entel (at least by the branding used for cellular service). Bolivia uses GSM 850/1900 “world phone compatible” frequencies. SIM cards can be purchased at convenience stores but the best method I found for getting everything activated was to go in person to a cellphone store. Even at the head offices of Entel and Tigo in downtown LaPaz I did not run into anyone that spoke Spanish. Though, English is not widely spoken outside of specific tourist related occupations, regardless.
By the time I travelled to Bolivia, I spoke what could be described as limited Spanish. Maybe an elementary reading level, similar listening, with elementary being a compliment for my speaking skills. You could get by doing this with less. Activating over the phone may be possible for some of the companies, if you sufficient handle of the Spanish language to get to, and explain to, a company employee that you need to activate a SIM card using a foreign passport number. However, based on my best understanding and attempt at asking this question at the Entel store, it was not possible with that company specifically.
My best luck, and our recommendation for the simplest option is to go to a Tigo store. My experience with Tigo (and Entel) was in the head office in downtown LaPaz. Having to find the company’s head office may sound like a lot of work, and granted, for most countries this would warrant a difficult rating. However, in Bolivia, there is a very good chance you’ll start off in LaPaz. And, the Tigo office is one of the tallest towers in downtown LaPaz. And the LaPaz core is quite close to the hostel/hotel and street market areas and is a worthwhile trip regardless.
Just look for the tower that says “Tigo” on the top, head into the main floor and ask “Yo Quiero activar me celular con pasaporte extranjero” (I want to activate my cellular with a foreign passport). I did note after asking this that the signage of where to go was reasonably obvious without the directions, but hey it’s good to practice. Grab a number, wait for it to be called and come up on screen and have a chat with some local Bolivians. Once my number was called I handed them my passport and phone (I had already bought a SIM, but you can buy one here too, and really you might as well). When he handed it back it was able to connect to a 3G network.
I also went in to the Entel store in downtown LaPaz, which was a similar, though not nearly as busy experience. However, when I got everything setup I was disheartened to be directed to call Entel to activate usage “for megabytes”.
For coverage, the extra step may be worthwhile, depending on your destination, and your handle on the Spanish language. Entel appeared to be the only company that had service on Isla del Sol, on Lake Titicaca. Now given that this island doesn’t have electricity or running water it might be sort of missing the point to worry about cellular and internet service there, but, hey, this blog is about staying connected. I also can’t speak to the quality of the network, but I suspect, that, if internet access is possible at all, it will be very, very slow. I suspect the network is only there for necessary communication with the mainland.
In Uyuni and area, Santa Cruz area and the LaPaz area service appeared to be available (or not available) for both Tigo and Entel (and I expect Vivo as well).
Purchasing Minutes, Messaging and Data
Credit for minutes, messaging and data can be purchased at convenience stores and internet cafes. Generally they will show the companies logo somewhere if they do, but not always. Credit comes in the form of a paper slip with a scratch off number on it. At the time you had to enter then number the phone, but it was an automatic service. Dial the number noted, select the option noted, enter the number on the card, and you will receive confirmation via text message that your credit is active.
You then need to send via SMS the name of the “paquet” you wish to purchase. Current Tigo paquets (packages) are shown here. I generally just used one of the “PAQUETIGOS DE INTERNET” that gave me 55mb to 500mb for the day, depending what we needed it for. From what I understand the “INTERNET TOTAL” option will continuously charge you 2Bs (About 30 cents USD) per day for up to 55mb per day. This may be the best options for set it and forget it general usage. I can also report success with wifi tethering and using a PC without frustration over this connection.