Simplest option? Find a gas station, convenience store, news stand/kiosk, or cellphone store, buy a TIM SIM card. Call to activate (and hope you can be routed to an English speaking employee, unless, of course, you speak Português)
Moderate: All companies require personal information. Some allow a Foreign Passport number. Online/SMS activation is not possible.
Providers and Networks:
Vivo, Oi, Claro, TIM
All providers GSM 850/900/1800/1900/2100
World Phone Compatible
Ah, Brazil (or Brasil) you fickle b…alright, fine, um, land of contrast? Brazil varies from feeling decidedly developed, to, frankly pretty terrible. While this is the case in many developing countries, in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, where you’ll undoubtedly end up at some point in your travels (and should), it’s very apparent. Slums or favelas cover the hills, at the foot of which are 5 star hotels, shopping malls and the beaches, the amazing beaches. Brazil also seems to manage to have obvious and widespread poverty, while still being surprisingly expensive for foreign travellers, even for food and alcohol. But, you’ll still want to go. I’ve been twice. I’ll go back.
Rio de Janeiro, despite it’s issues is an amazingly beautiful city. It is lies along 10’s of kilometres of light sand beaches, kept amazingly clean and public. They are used by city dwellers of all income levels, and foreigners from the entire world. There is always someone around to sell you a cold beer, or even a Caipirinha, both on the beach, or anywhere else in the city there are people who may want a drink. Being there, for Carnival felt like someone was just following me around with a tub of ice cold beer, just in case I might want one (I often did).
Of course, Brazil doesn’t end at Rio. It is a truly massive place with a population hovering around 200 million. You can head south to Sao Paulo, a mega-metropolis, or into the interior to the Pantanel and Iguazu falls, or the capital of Brasilia. Or head north to countless beautiful cities and beaches and into the Amazon Rainforest.
You may want to stay connected for all these travels, so onto cellphones. There are four major companies operating in Brazil, Vivo, Oi, Claro, and TIM. Unfortunately, Brazil does require some personal information, generally your CPF number if you are a Brazilian resident. I have a confession to make right here. When I travelled there, we stayed, at the beginning of our trip with a native Brazilian who spoke fluent Portuguese and was nice enough to lend me his CPF number. Legality of this notwithstanding, it makes it very simple to get a SIM activated. Especially when he phoned and activated it in Portuguese.
Brazil is large and somewhat inward looking (think the USA). Surprisingly little English is spoken even in the places frequented by international tourists. Outside of those areas, you might be reduced to pointing (or actually learning some Portuguese) even at a hotel front desk. This all makes it somewhat difficult to complete such tasks as activating a SIM card over the phone, especially when you have just arrived.
However it can be done. SIM cards can be bought in many places in Brazil including convenience stores, gas stations and the cellphone stores themselves. Stores will generally have a sign in the window with specific cellphone brands and advertisements for their latest packages. Credit for Minutes, Messaging and Data can generally be purchased at these same stores, and a small amount of credit will generally be included with the initial SIM card purchase.
Companies and Coverage:
Our recommendation is to find a TIM SIM card. I tried both a TIM and Vivo SIM card, and I did not note a difference in coverage. TIM had the advantage that the initial registration could be done through an internet browser form, directly on the phone, and it even connected to the internet briefly before registering. This is more of an advantage if you actually have a Brazilian CPF number to fill out this form with, but TIM is also the only company that claims to have English speaking operators available.
I did not test this but according the The Brazil Business, with TIM, you can dial #144 and ask for an English operator in order to activate your phone using a passport. Considering my experience with English in Brazil, I would be tempted to stop by a cellphone shop regardless and see if I could talk to someone in person. According to the same source, Vivo claims that someone will be available in store to answer your questions in English, but the other companies do not explicitly offer English service. At the risk of being branded a cynic, I do not trust either of these claims based on my experience with the English language in Brazil. It’s worth a try, but it may take a couple of calls, or a couple of store visits to find someone who does actually speak English. If you know any Spanish you may be able to muddle your way through using that instead. Of course, if you speak Portuguese, none of this will be an issue. If you have first hand experience with any of these companies please post in the comments or contact us.
TIM offers very reasonable plans for data and texting (or torpedos), including up to 30mb per day for $1 Real (Approximately $0.40 USD at time of writing). A summary can be found here. TIM also has an International Visitors page written in English. On this page they provide some more information and also offer an international plan and SIM card. I would recommend avoiding this SIM/plan, just due to the price, unless you really need to make international calls or send international texts and do not want to rely on a over-the-internet service.
Definitely take a look at this very well written article by The Brazil Business for further information about cellphones in Brazil. And please post in the comments or contact us if you have additional information, first hand experience, or any questions.